Zeitz Mocaa

The light house project

Photos: Karl Rogers

Amidsts the vicinity of the V&A Waterfront, the port and restored docklands surrounding the two historic basins of the Cape Town harbour, lies the Zeitz MOCAA Museum which opened in 2017. It is the first museum on the whole continent which focuses exclusively on contemporary African Art and the first which had spectacular architecture created for the presentation of its art.

A total of 42 decommissioned grain silos, each 5.5 meters in diameter and 33 metres high, were converted into a museum. During the process, the architectural offices of Thomas Heatherwick developed a design vocabulary which brings across the industrial character of the building while simultaneously creating an almost sacral atmosphere.

Insgesamt 42 stillgelegte Getreidesilos, jeweils 5,5 Meter Durchmesser und 33 Meter hoch wurden zu einem Museum umfunktioniert. Das Architekturbüro Thomas Heatherwick hat dabei eine Formensprache entwickelt, die den industriellen Charakter des Gebäudes transportiert und gleichzeitig eine geradezu sakrale Atmosphäre schafft.

Picture left: Wianelle Briers / Courtesy Zeitz MOCAA

The mammoth project is the result of a vision. A vision evoked by the belief in the power of art, coupled with a passion for this continent, which drove Jochen Zeitz, the former CEO of Puma AG, to develop and implement this project.

Jochen Zeitz (Photo: Mia Collis)

We talk about the background.

I would first like to know what took you to Africa and what got you so excited there?

Zeitz: It was my desire to travel that took me there and my essential interest in wildlife and nature. Africa fascinated me to such an extent that I ultimately wanted to call it my home.

Which is what you have meanwhile put into practice with your farm in Kenya. What brought about the idea wanting to establish an art museum?

Zeitz: I have been interested in art from an early age. During school, it was ancient art, and once I started working in New York it was mainly contemporary art. During my travels around Africa I therefore kept looking for the relevant museums. They did not exist. Thus the idea developed to establish such a museum. From the start it was vitally important to me that the museum would spark an interest.

Did you want it to meet international standards?

Zeitz: I have always felt that art has a strong influence and can therefore change culture. I therefore wanted to use this museum to draw more attention in Africa to Africa’s own contemporary art. My aim was, at the same time, that African artists have just as much success on the continent as in Europe or the United States. And, of course, the museum also had to meet international standards, in order to be able to provide an understanding of the local contemporary art.

 How to you approach the planning of such a project?

Zeitz: For a museum of the magnitude I envisaged, a representative art collection was needed first of all. I therefore started to put together a collection for which I, together with my curator, had set certain criteria. At the same time I kept keeping a look-out for a suitable venue. Ultimately it took 14 years, until I discovered this place and was able to develop the museum in co-operation with the V&A Waterfront Company.

To what extent did personal preferences play a part in the acquisition of the collection?

Zeitz: The personal preferences obviously had to take a backseat. They were not crucial. This does not mean, however, that I was able to be completely free from an emotionality which also plays a part when buying art.

The works of your collection are spread over three floors of the museum. On another floor we can view the current temporary exhibition Five Bhobh: Painting at the End of an Era. Do you influence ithe decisions of the curator in any way?

Zeitz: No. I am an active member of the board of directors, but there too it is the museum management which makes the decision in terms of clear strategic parameters. I was really mainly interested in getting the whole project off the ground.


The curators Gcotyelwa Mashiqa aund Tandazani Dhlakama, who have joined the conversation, answer my questions regarding decisions to be made by the curators. But first we start on a tour of the museum. Gcotyelwa Mashiqa takes me through the temporary exhibition.

top left with Gcotyelwa Mashiqa, bottom right with Claudia Neubronner

Gcotyelwa Mashiqa is my guide through the exhibition Five Bhobh: Painting at the End of an Era 

At the end of the tour I turn to Mrs Dhlakama, mentioning that Jochen Zeitz had spoken of criteria which had to be taken into account at the acquisition of his collection. According to which criteria do you choose the artists for your exhibitions?

Dhlakama: For a start it is important to know that we do not only restrict ourselves exclusively to artists from the geopolitical area of Africa, but that to us the focus must be on an artistic reflection of the continent. We are interested in works which deal with relevant topics of the present. Often, these refelct influences from the past, which is very exciting. However, sometimes criteria may be influenced from the overall concept of an exhibition. Regarding the current temporary exhibition, for instance, we exhibited artists who talk about the most recent events in Zimbabwe. And there are also artists who transcend the traditional borders of the medium of painting.

Do you co-operate much with other museums, instititopms or galleries?

Dhlakama: That depends on each of the individual exhibitions. For the present exhibition, co-operation with organisations in Zimbabwe was esential. We worked closely with the National Gallery of Simbabwe and the Gallery Delta Foundation. Both institutions supported us with logistics and resarch. To prepare for this show, however, we also had contact with commercial galleries and artistically designed venues within and outside of Zimbabwe.

One last question: Are first results of the set targets becoming apparent, and if so, to what extent?

Dhlakama: The museum is only one year old. We will only be able to evaluate the objectives which develop from our set targets in a few years’ time. I am happy that we as one of the many new art venues in Cape Town, make an immportant contribution towards the overall developnet of the local art scene. It is also exciting to see that there are more and more new interventions, museum and alternative venues everywhere on the contient and to know that we are part of a broad movement. A movement that demands to tell its own story from its own point of view.


Indeed: A museum which sparks an interest . . .

More Information

… about Zeitz MOCAA: https://zeitzmocaa.museum