Report from… Cape Town
From the outside, Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA) looks like what it was: a concrete grain silo built in 1924. You have to get inside that impassive exterior to see the magic achieved by the British architect Thomas Heatherwick, who carved through 42 vertical cylinders which made up the giant block to create a soaring, cathedral-like interior – rather like, he has said, taking a scoop of ice cream out of a carton.
Standing on the Cape Town docks overlooking Robben Island, where heroes of the struggle against apartheid were once incarcerated, this is where maize was collected for export around the world. Now it is the collection point for art from all over Africa and its diaspora: The building has been privately funded by the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, while the art is drawn mainly from the collection of the German businessman and philanthropist Jochen Zeitz, on long loan to the museum. Zeitz MOCAA’s stated aim is to collect, research and exhibit 21st century African art; it is the biggest museum of its kind, and the first on the continent.
The architecture is overpowering, but the art stands up to it. It seemed – at first, to me – to speak almost with one voice, or like a choir of voices that echo and blend with each other. A fanciful thought in a temple-like structure – where Nicholas Hlobo’s mixed media African Dragon slithers into the atrium like a falling crucifix. Although the artists are foreign to each other, come from different countries and have very different relationships with Africa, and express themselves through different media, almost all are concerned with the same basic themes: post-colonialism, self-identity, slavery.
Haunted by untold, perhaps untellable history, and the desire to make sense of it, there is a common pulse. The history is dark and the pain presents itself in many forms. But the work is far from gloomy. If African art has its own character it’s about the stylishness, cool wit and enjoyment of any medium, plus extraordinary, uninhibited talent – exhibited, for instance, by the young Zimbabwean artist Kudzanai Chiurai, who gets by far the most space, as far as I could see. With scores of artists and over 100 galleries spread over seven floors, I may have missed a few. Through painting, large-scale multimedia compositions, and photographic stills from his films, Chiurai creates a lush pageantry that satirises colonialism, and African leaders, reveals the violence in Johannesburg where he now lives, and puts women on top. Empowering women seems also to be his way of critiquing homophobia, like his take on the Last Supper as a flashily dressed, all-women drinking party.
Mohau Modisakeng’s art comes out of extreme poverty and violence witnessed while growing up in Soweto, near Johannesburg. Pain and dignity are expressed in his large black and white photographs of a man I assume was himself. Crouching like a bird, or strapped like an animal, the postures suggest humiliation and slavery, but the figure is formally attired, with a hat. I thought of the characters in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, and their heroic attempts at human dignity against all odds.
But Where Have You Been?, a series of small-format photographs taken in 1900 at a ball held by French colonials, is what I would want to take home. A group of colonized Malagasy who have been elaborately dressed by the French according to their notions of civilisation, men and women in suits and ballgowns, are posed under chandeliers in a ballroom. Their feelings of discomfit and bewilderment are clear. These old photographs were discovered in FTM (Foiben-Taosarintanin’i Madagasikara) archives by Madagascar artist Joel Andrianomearisoa, and are the starting point of his weaving and sculpture installations dealing with memory, identity and pain.
The life-size figures of South African Mary Sibande are made of fibre-glass and fabric, and based on her own body. In her iconic early work she depicted herself in the tight-waisted, flowing dress of a Southern slave, with a skirt that took up nearly a whole gallery. In her new installation In the Midst of Chaos, There is Opportunity, she shows herself battling but triumphant on a rearing horse, surrounded by snarling dogs, wild birds, and prowling soldiers. Nandipha Mntambo from Swaziland brings animals into her work too, with figurative sculptures made out of moulded cowhide, and she films herself in the role of a matador, exploring the boundaries between humans and animals, men and women.
Among the international artists are William Kentridge, Yinka Shonibare and Chris Ofili, each with their own connection to Africa, and the painting and needlework art of Egyptian Ghada Amer is also considered African. Lesser known Frohawk Two Feathers and Glenn Ligon are both black Americans whose art comes out of imaginings about African history and slave heritage. Liza Lou, famous beadworker, and photographer Roger Ballen are white Americans who have adopted South Africa as artists. The term ‘Art Africa’ is a big and flexible umbrella.
If I have a criticism, there is too much posed photography and too many tableaux vivant, which tend to merge together; and an overabundance of galleries, some of them with disturbingly low, neon-lit ceilings. But this is hugely surpassed by my respect and admiration for Mr Zeitz, who has collected work from around the world, including large amounts from the Venice Biennale, to return to Africa. It is like the paintings of Benin artist Julien Sinzogan, who believes in the afterlife of African souls, and that the souls of all those stolen as slaves will make a triumphant return to Africa.