Thomas Heatherwick’s Transformation of a Grain Silo into the Museum of Contemporary African Art

By Dasha Nekrasova

In September 2017, South Africa’s anticipated Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art opened its doors. A public, not-for-profit museum located on the scenic Victoria & Alfred (V&A) Waterfront in Cape Town, the Zeitz MOCAA collection is housed in a decommissioned grain silo, whose plain industrial exterior conceals the breathtaking modernist atrium inside. Designed by Thomas Heatherwick of London, the museum boasts 80 white-cube galleries that span its 9 floors, and a cathedral-esque entrance hall that The Guardian’s Oliver Wainwright described as “a thrilling space of concrete cylinders that plunge from the ceiling like carved stalactites, through which stairs spiral and glass elevators glide.”

Hailed as “Africa’s Tate Modern,” the museum houses the art collection of Jochen Zeitz, a German philanthropist and former CEO at Puma. The museum’s director, Mark Coetzee, was born in Johannesburg, and employed by Zeitz in 2008 to help amass his collection of contemporary African art. The pair met in Miami, when Puma SE partnered with Coetzee (who was in charge of the Rubell Family collection at the time) for his show “30 Americans,” a group show that showcased the work of African-American artists. The exhibit prompted Zeitz to wonder why there was so little representation of African artists, and so few institutions in place to support them. With his Capetonian curators counsel, he began to accumulate a “cutting-edge contemporary” collection, focused deliberately on investing in works made after 2000. The only rule, Coetzee explained on a hard-hat tour of the museum last Spring, “ buy bodies of work. With very few exceptions, we have 40, 50, 60 pieces of every artist whose work we acquired.” By prioritizing the acquisition of entire bodies of work, as opposed to specific pieces, Zeitz set an intention to display his collection publicly. He told the New York Times, “We always had the idea that there would be place in Africa where we would exhibit.”

That place would be the V&A Waterfront, a popular and pricey site for South African tourism, whose director David Green approached Zeitz and Coetzee with a proposal to renovate its massive grain silo. Mr. Heatherwick, the architect, had been in talks to develop the silo - once the tallest building in sub-Saharan Africa - for over a decade. Heatherwick, who is known for designing the British pavilion at the 2010 World Expo, as well as the remarkable copper cauldron at the 2012 London Olympics, was fascinated by the space. The architectural feat of transforming the site, originally built in 1921 and decommissioned in 2001, into one that would be hospitable for its new purposes (“tubes are quite rubbish places for showing art,” Heatherwick explained) would be an archeological one, relying on an excavational process to construct its breathtaking ovoid atrium. In a place where museum-going isn’t commonplace, the building would have to lure people in, rather than display its iconicity on the outside. “Our challenge was to make compelling innards,” Heatherwick says. “How could we compel people to come inside and allow curiosity to do the rest of the work?” The decision to retain the integrity of the original structure was vital to Heatherwick’s vision. Taking care to preserve the tubularity required the concrete to be recast inside each of the cylinders - the structure essentially had to be replicated before it could be deconstructed. The result is an astonishing modern interior, a visual homage to the grain the silo once contained - corn. Heatherwick explains: “There was this sort of funny synergy when we managed to get hold of some of the corn that had been stored in the building...We took one of these original grains, digitally scanned it to get the exact form and then enlarged it to be 10 stories high. It made this extraordinary geometry.”

The central atrium currently showcases an installation by South African artist Nicholas Hlobo, “Iimpundulu Zonke Ziyandilenda,” referencing beasts from Xhosa folklore. Zeitz MOCAA’s opening exhibition, “All Things Being Equal,” highlighted the tremendously talented artists in their permanent collection, among them Wangechi Mutu from Kenya, South Africa’s Zanele Muholi, Glenn Ligon of the United States and El Anutsui from Ghana. Like the Tate Modern, Zeitz MOCAA also boasts an iconic blue painting from UK based artist Chris Ofili. Isaac Julien’s nine-screen projection, A Thousand Waves, is an astonishing part of the permanent collection, as is Cosmic Alphabet, a massive installation of glass panels on the floor of the sculpture garden, more than 100 ft above the central court and designed by the recently deceased artist from Togo, El Loko. With a careful emphasis on hyper-contemporary work from Africa and its diaspora, Mark Coetzee explains the endeavor of the museum to serve as a platform with “emphasis on access for all, representation of all, and a platform for people from Africa to participate in writing their own cultural heritage.”

Like any institution that sets its sights on a project with such an ambitious scope, the museum has drawn criticism. The V&A Waterfront is home to some of the most expensive real-estate on the continent, with the newly converted silo expectedly serving as a value-adding cornerstone for luxury development in the area. While the museum draws over 3,000 visitors a day, most are tourists, prompting critics to question Zietz MOCAA’s engagement with the local community - a question made especially grave by South Africa’s painful history of colonialism (both Zietz and Coetzee are white). Underlining this tension - between the museum’s commitment to decolonizing the Western gaze, and the persisting inequalities still very real in the community - is the adjacent development of the opulent Silo Hotel. The hotel (not designed by Heatherwick) is located atop the museum itself, an addition some consider distasteful, and from which Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was kept prisoner, is visible. Coetzee and MOCAA have been hesitant to speak on the hotel and surrounding development in the Silo District, focusing instead on the efforts taken to ensure the museum remains accessible and engaged with local residents - free admission for locals on Wednesdays, daily for those under 18, as well as a dedicated arts education center, curatorial training program, and costume institute. “I think what is going to define all of this in the end is what is represented in the museum,” says Coetzee of the historical disparity of representation in African art, “It is going to win if the audience see themselves represented by their own artists.”

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