Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA), Cape Town / Interview with Mark Coetzee

The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA) in Cape Town, South Africa, is the first major museum in Africa dedicated to contemporary art. The Zeitz MOCAA collects and exhibits twenty-first century art from Africa and its Diaspora. The museum has its home in a repurposed historic Grain Silo complex at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town. Designed by Heatherwick Studio, it features over one hundred galleries.

In the run-up to the opening of the Zeitz MOCAA in September 2017, VernissageTV had the chance to have a look at the new museum and speak with the Executive Director and Chief Curator of the museum, Mark Coetzee, and the museum’s Curator at Large for Photography, Azu Nwagbogu. We also interviewed the artist Nandipha Mntambo, whose early career retrospective is one of the opening exhibitions of the museum, and David Green, the CEO at V&A Waterfront.

In this video, we speak with Mark Coetzee, who talks about the importance of the new museum, the goals and the basic concept of the Zeitz MOCAA, and the exhibition program.

…our mission really in a nutshell is to collect, preserve, research and exhibit cutting-edge artifacts from the 21st century from Africa and its diaspora…

Mark Coetzee, Executive Director and Chief Curator, Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa

Interview with Mark Coetzee, (Executive Director and Chief Curator, Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa). Cape Town, South Africa, July 5, 2017.

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We are standing in a building that was built at the turn of the 20th century. Originally this building was a grain silo and it was from this grain silo that the exportation of grain went out to the rest of the world. About a hundred years later the building is decommissioned. It’s now a National Monument, which means it can’t be bashed down, it can’t be changed, the facade can’t be changed, and so there was an idea to turn this building into a Museum of Contemporary Art.

So we are standing in the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa and our mission really in a nutshell is to collect, preserve, research and exhibit cutting-edge artifacts from the 21st century from Africa and its diaspora, so that means artists in any of the 54 states in Africa, artists who might live elsewhere, who see an African heritage, like African American artists through the history of slavery, potentially Afro-British artists Afro-Caribbean artists, Afro-Brazilian artists, so it’s really the discussion and dialogue about art in and from Africa and its influences in the world.

It opens in September 2017. We have nine floors, the museum is quite large, of which seven are open to the public, two floors are dedicated to the permanent collection, two floors are dedicated to temporary exhibitions, which means we can host exhibitions from anywhere in the world not necessarily artists from Africa, so our creatives can also be exposed to what’s happening elsewhere, and then we’ve come up with a model that we think works for us, instead of having departments in the museum we have institutions or centers so each of these places have their own staff, their own space, their own budget, and this is to make sure that there’s a diversity of voices, a diversity of visions and that there’s not one kind of monolithic curator or person that defines the whole mission of the museum.

So we carefully looked at the traditions within Africa. Photography was very important to dedicate a center to because of its role in the liberation struggles from the 1960s to the present in Africa. We felt that there were some mediums like performative practice and moving image which were new exciting things we believed our public would enjoy, costume because so much of body decoration, body modification, body painting etcetera began on this continent. So we wanted to really try to recognize the creative components that began or were influenced by this place and then many, many, many galleries. We have over a hundred galleries in the museum to exhibit art from around the world.

We’re the first major Museum of Contemporary Art in Africa and I think for a very long time one of the problems especially in our country, in South Africa, because of apartheid, was that cultural access was a complex thing. Many people were denied representation, many people were not encouraged to access cultural centers, and I think for us was very important to make sure that that pie that everybody fought for actually was bigger so that there was an opportunity for each individual to say this is how I want to represent myself to the world.

One of our very important missions is about Africa from Africa by Africa, and this idea of making a platform, and that’s part of what my responsibilities in this project has been is to create a platform along with the architect and the founders and the trustees for various people to come forward and to say this is how we want to represent ourselves to the world, this is how we want the world to see us, and a very strong kind of force that kept coming through was that people from the continent want to not control how they were spoken about, but at least participate in how they story was told, how they narrative is recorded for the world, and so scale was very important to do that because if it was small it would mean that it would have to be limited amounts of people, limited amounts of representation, and here we have an opportunity to really celebrate a much broader spectrum of cultural traditions, of artistic traditions and of personal visions of artists and curators.

I think it was very important for myself, the curators and the trustees of the museum, the founders of the museum, to really give the creators from Africa an equal playing ground, you know, you have the Whitney Museum of American Art, you have the Tate Britain of British art, you know these are institutions which take as their motivation to collect and record and position artists from their Nations and we felt it was very important for us to be able to create that same platform on a high level, so that our artists can compete in some way and also have the resources, financial, space, logistics, climate control, to be able to give them the freedom to imagine the dreams and visions that they want to execute and they want to make reality.

So I think that was very important, I think from a knowledge point of view, you know, many people are saying to me how exciting is it that the world is discovering Africa and I don’t think that the world is discovering Africa. I think what the world is doing is they’re discovering their ignorance about Africa, you know, it’s them that are being educated it’s not… you know, there’s been extraordinary artistic production on this continent. If you look at the Biennale and so many of the extraordinary artists that have been represented on the Biennales over the last decades, which have come from this continent and I think that now what’s happening is that the kind of international art world more and more starting to recognize that perhaps they missed out, perhaps that they overlooked things so it wasn’t that they discovering us but they discovering a little bit of inadequacy in their view of artistic production which was a very Eurocentric or northern hemisphere centric tradition and I think it’s exciting that the art world is recalibrating itself that it’s re-looking at things and saying actually, you know what, perhaps there’s a broader conversation perhaps that there’s much more global and regional kind of conversation that’s happening and we can’t just focus on specific areas in these art centers in the northern hemisphere.

When we built the collection for the museum and also the exhibition strategy we had a very I would say political position that we took. For a very long time many cultural artifacts were taken from Africa, the Benin bronzes for instance in the British Museum, many many German museums, is a good example where it was a punitive mission where these objects were taken to punish the Benin people and there’s many, many examples of this. There’s of course great conversations whether these objects should be returned or not, but that’s historical museums that’s historical practice. What we find in contemporary practice now is that a lot of the objects are still leaving the continent because the world has woken up to the extraordinary creativity and especially contemporary creativity on the continent and museums have not been keeping up collections, have not been keeping up, so there is a real emphasis or an impetus to collect work from this region from this moment in time, but with the strength of the Euro and the Dollar and whatever and the Pound and the devalued currencies in Africa what happens is, the market now advantages these objects to leave. So one of our motivations was to make sure that seminal artifacts from the continent would remain on the continent or return to the continent.

So from a collecting and exhibition point of view we’ve tried to identify very important moments such as when Edson Chagas won the Golden Lion in Venice four years ago, the first time an African pavilion won the Golden Lion, we bought the entire pavilion and it will be recreated here. When Kudzanai Chuirai was on not this year’s Documenta but five years ago, we bought the entire installation, when Nicholas Hlobo presented his rubber dragon in the Arsenale which was really kind of one of the high points of the Biennale that year we bought that, so part of that the strategy of the collection was to buy these objects in and to make sure that they are here and accessible and I think that there’s a big difference in seeing an object, you know, to see Andy Warhol in New York as opposed to in Cologne, you know the cologne museum has a great collection of American Pop, I think they might have even collected it before the Americans, very forward-thinking, but it makes a difference in some way to see the artifact in the place it was made, there’s a texturality about it, it’s just different. So from the permanent collections point of view what you’ll see when you visit is these really seminal objects either that you’ve seen elsewhere in the world and Biennales and Documentas, on major exhibitions, or that you might have read about, that you haven’t seen yet. So it’s really a depository of these really important moments.

Mixed in with that, we’ve made a decision that will take enormous risks and collect very young cutting-edge artists. So we don’t have this hierarchy with the market itself or collectors desires define the success or the position of an artist and more it’s the quality, the evocativeness, the the regional context, many different things that can make something relevant for what we do. I think that there’s many many other important aspects to the way that what you’ll see when you get here. What we decided to do was that in building the collection we wouldn’t do encyclopedic collections so one or two of each thing or chronological, but what we would do is we would try to identify artists from regions across Africa and the diaspora for which we felt represented a certain kind of interesting conversation or language or challenge or whatever and collect those people in great depth. So for example one of our opening exhibitions is by Nandipha Mntambo from Swaziland and I think we own 60 or 70 of her pieces, Kudzanai Chuirai who has another opening exhibition, from Zimbabwe, again 65 pieces.

I think it’s important because we are in a place in the world where as I said before these museums were not accessible for the general public, they were very exclusive, slightly intimidating spaces and our museum has a great job to do to break down the barriers so that the public understand, this is theirs, this is their cultural heritage, this is their place and they need to own it. So I think that in that process we’ve had to say it’s not going to be possible for somebody to come in and see one piece and understand the artists concerns. We need to buy or collect large bodies of work. It has also given our curators very exciting opportunities because it means that they can do entire exhibitions, entire retrospectives from the museum’s collection, or Mr. Zeitz’s collection, which I think gives a lot of freedom to curators as opposed to having three or four pieces which you have to contextualize in a kind of almost outside of a general kind of view. I think it helps the public to understand the artists view, their oeuvre, their production, the conceptual progress of an artist’s career, the insight into how the artist thinks, what their concerns are, so I think that’s going to be something that the public are going to enjoy a lot. You know, each artist for the opening has an entire gallery dedicated to them and some of the galleries are enormous, so you will see major bodies of work of one particular artist grouped together to get an in-depth understanding of that artist.

Obviously because we aspire to be as representative as possible for African and diaspora you will also see artists from all different regions. So the Center for photography will be opened by an artist from North Africa called Monica Rai, there’s three solo exhibitions I mentioned, Edson Chagas from Angola, Nandipha Mntambo from Swaziland, Kudzanai Chuirai from Zimbabwe and then of course our big opening exhibition which will take three floors of the museum is based on the title of a work by Hank Willis Thomas, the African-American artist, called “All things being equal” and it’s really just an extraordinary indulgence of the creativity and the prowess and the technical ability of artists who are somehow associated with Africa. So there’s not like a hard rigorous curatorial premise for the bigger show, it’s more just to show the strength and the diversity and the creativity that’s happening here right now.

I think this is a very… the opening we hope will be a very celebratory moment for the continent. So we want… look, nothing that you’ll see is going to be easy and we’ve chosen extremely difficult, challenging conceptual, political… lots of the work is very hard for social commentary, identity, politics, issues of violence against females, and prejudice against the LGBTI communities. So we haven’t, we haven’t been easy in the show, but I think that the quality of the work of the artists that are being made on the continent I think is extraordinary and that’s what we have a responsibility to show for our opening exhibitions, and then as we move on I think we’ll start seeing more and more particular exhibitions, where a curator has a very particular view and a conversation with an artist that they want to, but I think the first show really has to represent a broad spectrum of what Africa is, you know, I mean it’s a huge continent.

I’m really looking forward to this museum as that you know so many of us have had to make the pilgrimage to Basel and to Documenta and to Munster and to Venice and whatever other Biennales we all visit and for once the world is going to have to make the pilgrimage the opposite way and I think that’s a very important gesture to say that you know you have to… you now have to make an effort, you now have to displace yourself, you have to be kind of an immigrant for two days, a weekend immigrant, you know, just something to understand that there’s places and worlds and cultures and experiences which are not inferior or superior, they’re just different and by being exposed to them, I think when you walk around the museum, you see the art, by being exposed to them, how it enriches your view of the world and how you understand a different view of Africa.

You know, Africa for a very long time sold a negative kind of image of itself and I think part of this project is also to show that there are extraordinary positive stories coming out of Africa. To build an institution of this scale with over a hundred galleries, six independent institutions, you know, I mean 55 curators, it’s a major institution and I think just in itself the scale of that makes a statement not only about the positiveness that one can see here but also the confidence that I think many Africans feel or beginning to feel about their place in the world and where they are you know and that we don’t necessarily have to be subservient to the trends from elsewhere that our production is just as interesting.

We had so many conversations about is there an African model for a museum. You know, the last time we met was when I was working in Miami and everyone was speaking at that time in the early 2000s about the Miami model, you know, private collectors making public spaces or publicly accessible spaces and we’ve had a lot of conversations about is there such a thing as an African model. Then the one thing that we have concluded is that we don’t have to play by the rules of elsewhere. We can make our own rules, we can make our own criteria, you know, and in that process perhaps innovation can happen because if you’re comparing yourself constantly you know you, just the idea of world class or international class or international level, you know, we’ve started to speak about the fact, well, that doesn’t really matter, because we must make criteria for ourselves based on the values and cultures and the empiric conversations, the empirical conversations that are happening here and across the continent, you know, otherwise it just becomes like another Museum of Contemporary Art following the rules of every other museum of contemporary art.

So we have to kind of invent something, you know, and I think lots of the challenges that we are facing with engaging a new public and a new audience, an audience that has been completely excluded dealing with artwork that perhaps is not known by the rest of the world, these are not problems for us, these are great opportunities because it means that we can invent ways to engage with this as opposed to have predetermined solutions which is “best practice”, you know, from other places, you know.

When I was growing up in South Africa you know everything that we studied for four years in art history was Egypt, Roman, Greece, Renaissance, whatever. We spent like a day or two on the culture of our own country, own continent and what I think is extraordinary with this institution is it’s going to bring attention to production on our continent by our people, in our places and it’s not a nationalism but it is a certain kind of pride, it is a certain kind of saying what we do has a validity, it has a gravitas, it has a reason for being and I think for me personally that that means a lot because to come from a moment of apartheid where we were all told how to behave, who we could fall in love with, who we could sit on a bus with, who we were allowed to eat in a restaurant with, to a place where we have an institution that says let’s celebrate all these things that make us special and not separate ourselves from everyone.

You know I think for me that’s an extraordinary thing and I think also to create an institution where the people of the region can write their own history, on their terms. I think that the the weight of that opportunity is extraordinary, you know, and I think, we talk about liberation movements in Africa, I think this is part of that, this is part of Africa saying we also want to take back not only our land, not only our governance, not only our self-determination, but we want to take back our cultural representation as well and at least be part of the conversation of how we’re seen in the world and how we managed and how we projected. I don’t think any culture or any nation could absolutely control themselves because that’s just nationalism that’s not interesting, but at least be participating in your own representation I think the gesture of that for me is an extraordinary powerful thing.

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