The new home of African art: Zeitz MOCAA

South Africa’s largest art museum – carved out of a historic grain silo – opens in Cape Town

“How do you turn 42 vertical concrete tubes into a place to experience contemporary culture?”

This was the question posed by Heatherwick Studio when tasked with designing the biggest and most significant museum built in Africa for over a century. Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA) is the result of an ambitious four-year project to redevelop the historic grain silo in Cape Town’s popular V&A Waterfront. A joint venture between the V&A Waterfront and German businessman Jochen Zeitz – owner of the bulk of the inaugural collection – the museum has generated a huge buzz all over the world, and with good reason. Zeitz MOCAA, which opens to the public on 22 September, is the largest museum of its kind on the continent and the first major institution dedicated solely to contemporary African art.

Zeitz MOCAA has been dubbed Africa’s answer to Tate Modern, not only for its significance in the global contemporary art scene but also for its architectural prestige. In a similar story to the former Bankside Power Station-turned-contemporary-art-institution, Zeitz MOCAA repurposes one of Cape Town’s most distinctive, and long dormant, architectural icons.

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Back when it was built in the early 1920s, the grain silo was the tallest structure in sub-Saharan Africa. The huge elevator portion of the building was recently transformed into a seriously stylish five-star hotel – also the handiwork of Heatherwick Studio. The British designer maintained a stripped down industrial aesthetic throughout and added statement ‘pillowed’ windows designed to create a lantern effect. These windows have been fitted across the top floor of the museum, but it was the building’s unusual interior, essentially a cluster of 42 concrete tubes, which proved the biggest challenge.

‘Our thoughts wrestled with the extraordinary physical facts of the building,’ says Thomas Heatherwick, founder of Heatherwick Studio. ‘There is no large open space within the densely packed tubes and it is not possible to experience these volumes from inside. Rather than strip out the evidence of the building’s industrial heritage, we wanted to find a way to enjoy and celebrate it. We could either fight a building made of concrete tubes or enjoy its tube-iness.’


Choosing to work within the building’s convoluted framework, Heatherwick Studio set about carving a magnificent, 27-metre high cathedral-esque atrium, which leads to a complex network of 100 gallery spaces across nine floors. The museum is also home to high-end restaurants, cafes, shops, an education centre and rooftop sculpture garden, along with various dedicated institutions including the Centres for Costume Institute, the Curatorial Lab, and The Roger Ballen Foundation Centre for Photography. Brushing off early criticism that the museum would be elitist, Zeitz MOCAA will run an ‘Access for All’ initiative, which guarantees year-round free entrance for people under the age of 18 and for locals every Wednesday morning.

Zeitz MOCAA’s primary focus is on art that’s ‘of its time’, both figuratively and literally, with every piece within the collection made after the year 2000. Highlights from the inaugural collection include ‘All Things Being Equal’, a sprawling survey of contemporary artists working across Africa, and ‘Material Value’, a solo exhibition of Swaziland-born artist Nandipha Mntambo. Also of note are the provocative work of Zimbabwean artist and activist Kudzanai Chiurai and the kitsch, dream-like work of local multi-media artist Athi-Patra Ruga.

‘By repurposing our architectural heritage through an evocative juxtaposition of industrial design and contemporary art, we are creating a culturally significant institution of a scale that truly recognizes the creative talents of Africa,’ says Mark Coetzee, executive director and curator of Zeitz MOCAA. ‘We have worked tirelessly with Heatherwick Studio to imagine a showcase for all the components of a functioning contemporary art museum, designed to allow the public direct access to, and engagement with, the most cutting-edge artistic practice.’

Zeitz MOCAA officially opens on Friday 22 September;

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