African art finds a home

By Abhinanda Datta Time of article published Sep 24, 2017

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EVOCATIVE artwork, inspiring installations and magnificent digital displays, the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa seems to have it all.

The largest contemporary art museum in the southern hemisphere opened on Friday, with hundreds of people at the inauguration of a building that is not just an architectural achievement, but will also house some of the finest works of African art.

The first thing that commands attention are the uniquely structured windows.

According to David Green, chief executive at V&A Waterfront and co-chairperson of the museum’s board of trustees, English designer Thomas Heatherwick’s architecture will have wide appeal.

“The pillowed glass windows are the most unique way of looking at Table Mountain and its surroundings; it gives a unique panoramic view. We hope that the exciting architecture will entice people and draw them in, so they can appreciate the art,” said Green.

At the entrance to the museum, a lullaby is heard and visitors are greeted by a magnificent dragon-like figure dressed in colourful rags with a skeletal head, hanging from the atrium. It harks back to the South African legend of the mythological lightning bird that was only visible to virgins.

Originally exhibited in Venice, this is the work of local South African artist Nicholas Hlobo. Chief curator Mark Coetzee said that it is a seminal piece of work.

“In Venice, this was the object everyone spoke about. It recognised the value of what art from Africa was contributing to the global canon of art. For a very long time, the canon of art has excluded most of Africa, most of South America. So when I saw the object I knew we had to have it for our collection,” said Coetzee.

The rest of the ground floor is dedicated to Wounded Negatives, a solo presentation of works by Malawian-born artist Samson Kambalu. It reflects on the importance of film as a carrier of memories.

The theme that dominates the galleries on the first floor is “All Things Being Equal”, and each work of art represents people of different colour and origin. It features works by Jody Paulsen, Penny Siopis and William Kentridge, among others. However, what strikes a chord is Roger Ballen’s Room of the Ballenesque.

US-born artist Ballen captured human genetic disfigurement, reminiscent of the surrealist paintings of Salvador Dali. The rooms house exhibits - a one-eyed man, a mangled body and crude drawings of children with facial anomalies - that speak to the darkest recesses of the soul.

“I don’t know why but it brings up all the fears that one has. This is what art does. It takes everything that makes us human, whether it’s love, lust, power, vengeance, desires and kind of makes it real,” said Coetzee.

The next floor has a grand installation by Mary Sibande and a nine-screen digital display by Isaac Julien about Chinese immigrantswho drowned because they did not understand the signs that warned them about the tides coming in.

The third and fourth floors have temporary exhibits, which will change every two to three months.

At present, they feature South African artist Kendell Geers’s installation of bricks hanging from nylon ropes and Swaziland-born artist Nandipha Mntambo’s installation of eerie, headless visages made out of cowhide and polyester.

The basement features an education centre where children can hear the artists talking about their works with workshops and talks planned for each month.

Green said they had tried to give access to everyone. Entry is free for children under the age of 18 and every Wednesday any African can explore the museum free.

Tickets are R180, but the more affordable option is to purchase the yearly membership for R250 that allows unlimited visits during the year.

The museum has something to satisfy everyone’s artistic palate, whether it be a simple painting or a more abstract piece made out of threads and animal parts.

Despite the variety, there is a common thread that runs across the 12 exhibition spaces - they all glorify the grandiose and beauty of African heritage.

“I grew up with apartheid. There were a lot of prescriptions, we had no choice about who we were. We were told about who to love or what to watch,” Coetzee said.

“My great dream for this museum is that it is non-prescriptive. Artists need to define their own narrative and I hope the museum will develop a culture of non-prescription where artists will have the freedom to make art about the most horrific thing or maybe just a beautiful painting.

“If we can achieve that, then we have done our job,” Coetzee said.

For more information on the Zeitz, visit:

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