What Africa's first contemporary art museum means for the continent

Alla Tkachuk

The opening of the first major museum in Africa dedicated to contemporary African art, the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz Mocaa), named after its founder, German Kenya-based entrepreneur Jochen Zeitz, has been an exciting and long-awaited event.

Opened at the waterfront in Cape Town in a grain silo building transformed by architect Thomas Heatherwick, the institution is set to become the world’s most important space for African art. I asked Hannah O’Leary, the Sotheby’s modern and contemporary African art director and a patron of MASK, what she thinks about the museum.

“At Sotheby’s, we pride ourselves in offering for sale the very best art from all over the world,” Hannah said. “However, I am aware that it is extremely difficult for any young artist, however talented, to gain international recognition.

“There are many factors that form the structure of the art world that are so often lacking in many areas of Africa. For example, in London, where I live, we take for granted that children study art from preschool, that we have some of the finest art schools in the world, access to some of the best museums and art galleries (often for free), extensive arts coverage in the media, and a very active art market between the commercial galleries, art fairs and auction houses.

“In many African countries, there is no art education, no art schools, no art museums. I understand only 12 African countries, out of 54, have a contemporary art museum. Considering this, I am constantly amazed and encouraged by the depth and breadth of artistic talent we see from Africa in the international market. Museums play a vital role in inspiring, educating and engaging their public audiences, and in Africa, where public arts funding is often severely limited, private initiatives such as Zeitz Mocaa are hugely important.

“Considering this, the very existence of Zeitz Mocaa is something to be celebrated. By focusing on the art of the 21st century, Zeitz Mocaa showcases some of the best of African talent today and draws its attention to a huge regional and international audience. While South Africa fares better than most African countries with regards to its public and private arts funding, by opening the museum in one of the most visited cities in Africa, Zeitz Mocaa has cleverly positioned itself as a museum for the whole continent. Jochen Zeitz and the museum’s director and chief curator Mark Coetzee have achieved something remarkable and, in spite of the naysayers, created something that is likely to have a major impact not only on Cape Town but on African art and on all those involved. Major projects of this nature are notoriously difficult to get off the ground, and the museum is a credit to their inherent determination and creativity, without which this clearly would not have happened.

“For me, it is hugely exciting to see a world-class institution exhibiting the artists that I am excited about. Names such as Nandipha Mntambo, Kudzanai Chiurai, William Kentridge, El Anatsui, Edson Chagas, Athi-Patra Ruga, Kendell Geers, Mary Sibande, Mohau Modisakeng and Wangechi Mutu. While Zeitz himself may not be African, his belief in and dedication to contemporary African art cannot be disputed. There are some wonderful works on display, and I’m excited about future programmes too, and to their educational programme for local children in particular.

“Like the opening of the Tate Modern in London and the new Whitney in New York, Zeitz Mocaa will play a major role in generating awareness of Africa’s art to the hundreds of thousands of tourists who will visit. Hopefully visitors will also be inspired to visit the other art collections available in Cape Town, such as the Iziko South African National Gallery and the newly opened A4 Arts Foundation. The benefits to artists in Africa are boundless. Zeitz Mocaa is a visual encouragement to a future of artists and collectors engaging with the African Continent.

“I look forward to seeing how Zeitz Mocaa develops, and hope we will see more initiatives of this sort throughout the continent in the coming years.”

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This article was originally published by The Star, Kenya

Alla Tkachuk is a founder of MASK which promotes arts and creativity for young Africans, www.mobileartschoolinkenya.org. Contact Alla to partner with MASK.

Photo Credits: Esther Westerveld ; Mobile Arts School Kenya (MASK)

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