In what used to be a derelict industrial zone in Cape Town, exciting things are happening for African architecture & African contemporary art. The Silo Precinct at the V&A Waterfront now boasts the brand new Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art (Zeitz MOCAA).
I decide to visit to see what the hype is about. So, on a Wednesday, when entrance is free for African citizens (more on that later), I decide to visit. From the exterior, you can appreciate this building’s minimalistic industrial character – bare concrete walls complemented with sleek black metal. I absolutely love this – it appeals to both the modernist and minimalist in me.
You can see from its tubular-shaped exterior that it used to be a very different kind of building in the past. In fact, its long vertical tubes (the silos) were filled to the brim with maize for export. This building is a reminder of a bygone era, disrupted by the advent of containerised shipping. In Mauritius, we have a cognate building called the Granary that used to store imported grain. Perhaps the maize stored here once made its way from Cape Town to Mauritius? I’ll have to dig deeper and find out…
The real character of the Zeitz MOCAA, though, lies within. The moment is finally here – I’m eager to get in!
It takes some time to convince the bemused staff of the Zeitz MOCAA that Mauritius is an African country. Or more precisely that I am Mauritian, even though I could be mistaken for an extra from a Bollywood movie. You see, the Zeitz team on Instagram confirmed to me that Mauritians – Mauritius being part of the African countries – are also eligible to obtain free entrance on Wednesdays. So, I persisted until they let me in for free. Finally, I get past the ticketing counters and into the atrium. Immediately, I feel like an ant in this cavernous atrium. The ceiling towers many stories above and seems to be made out of glass. Light is streaming in from the summer day outside. It takes me a few seconds to realise this space has been hewn from the silos. In fact, it has been painstakingly hand sawed in the shape of a kernel of maize. I am impressed by how it all seems to defy gravity, there are even bits of heavy, concrete, silo embedded in the glass ceiling above. It’s quite something to behold.
Turning my attention away from the architecture, I find a rather disturbing dragon-like thing hanging from the ceiling. It’s twisted, jet-black with a skull, blood-like threads dripping from it. What I’m looking at is Nicholas Hlobo’s* Iimpundulu Zonke Ziyandilandela. Artfully made out of tyre inner tubes, wood, and an animal skull, it’s one of the most imposing pieces of art in the museum. It terrifies me – I see in it a nightmarish creature made real. It’s a reminder that contemporary art these days sometimes is designed to shock and unsettle. To make you squirm. This isn’t my first time in a contemporary art museum, yet I always seem to be disturbed by something new every time.
* At the time of writing this article, Nicholas Hlobo is on exhibition in Mauritius at the ICAIO until 28 February 2018.
I first head down to the basement through a spiral staircase that seems to wind forever until the top of the building. It’s like a huge screw that’s been placed in one of the silos. When I reach the basement, it feels like I’m in a nuclear bunker. There are narrow, claustrophobic tunnels both left and right, with visible steel piping on the walls and half-faded industrial signage painted on the walls. I follow the tunnel until I end up in the atrium again, one floor down. Towering above, the creature from before. The scene is different now, there are kids sitting down on the floor, listening intently to a guide. They don’t seem terrified by the creature – not now that it’s been explained and made mundane.
I continue past, back into a tunnel and notice that people are helping themselves to poster-sized prints laid out on a shipping pallet. Curious, I take a look at it. It’s a picture of a bottle of alcohol, against a dilapidated brown wall. As I continue walking, I notice more pallets, each with a different picture. All of them depicting urban scenes, presumably in a developing country (I later find out it’s Luanda). The prints have this two-dimensional quality, depicting urban objects, which most people would call ‘thrash’, against decaying, somehow beautiful walls. I’m thrilled by this “takeaway” art. So I walk through all the tunnels, trying to pick a poster I really like, to take home. Unlike any art I had been used to before, I was actually interacting with it, feeling it under my hands, choosing what I liked, and bringing it from the museum to my home. It’s inviting art into our daily lives, to be part of our daily lives, while making it accessible for all.
Energised by the discovery, I take the lift to the first floor and set about exploring the main exhibits. I particularly like Athi Patra‘s glamourised, surreal work and Penny Siopsis’ huge, abstract, pastel-hued paintings that take up a huge wall.
There is a lot of great artwork in the galleries, though by the second floor, I’ve reached my limit, so I go up to the roof to cap off this visit. As I step out onto the roof, I see Table Mountain through the pillowed glass windows the Silo Hotel is famous for. In fact, the Silo Hotel is just next door, through a connecting bridge. I am walking on the very glass panes I had seen from the atrium. On the glass are inscribed thousands of foreign looking symbols, they look like a cross between hiragana Japanese and chinese characters. It’s the work of the late El Loko, who wanted to create a cosmic alphabet – that’s probably why it’s on the roof – to transcend racial and cultural barriers.
I take the lift back down and end my visit feeling uplifted and energised. The museum is a true gem, unparalleled in Africa. It houses some of the best curated, thought-provoking, unsettling, beautiful, awe-inspiring art. Art that is contemporary, yet true to its African roots. If you’re visiting Cape Town and love art or architecture, I couldn’t recommend this more highly.
- Try taking the lift up to the rooftop and then make your way down to the gallery floors through the spiral staircase – it can be a long wait for the lifts.
- There’s a restaurant on the top floor if you’re feeling hungry after a day of enjoying all this amazing art.
- If you just want to grab a light bite or coffee before or after going to the Zeitz, check out Woolworths Now Now nearby. It’s delicious, healthy, and good quality.
Find out more
The museum website: https://zeitzmocaa.museum/
More on the architecture of the Zeitz MOCAA:
Museum opening hours
Wednesday to Monday (including public holidays):
10 am – 6 pm. Last entry: 5:30 pm.
First Friday of the month:
10 am – 9 pm. Last entry: 8:30 pm.
Discounted or free entry
Free entrance for African citizens, including Mauritian citizens:
Wednesday from 10am to 1pm.
Please bring your passport with you to prove your citizenship.
First Fridays (half price entry):
First Friday of the month from 4pm to 8.30pm.
Please note it could be crowded!