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Africa’s first contemporary art museum just opened its doors in Cape Town, South Africa, featuring art from across the continent and the African diaspora. The grand new space has a grand ambition: to tell the stories of a diverse continent and reclaim how it and its people are perceived. Jeffrey Brown reports.
The first contemporary art museum in all of Africa opened recently in Cape Town, South Africa. It features artists from across the continent, exhibiting modern expressions from a diverse range of voices.
Jeffrey Brown has the story.
It's a contemporary face of Africa captured in art created since the millennium, the first of its kind on the continent.
The new Zeitz Museum overlooks the Atlantic Ocean on the waterfront of Cape Town, South Africa, a spectacular setting in an old and long-abandoned grain silo converted by British architect Thomas Heatherwick, who maintained the industrial feel and shapes of its past.
Inside, a giant atrium features a large sculpture of a mythical dragon-like bird by South African artist Nicholas Hlobo,a grand new space, with grand ambition.
Mark Coetzee, a South African who's worked in Europe and the U.S., is the museum's founding director.
Part of the mission of the museum is really to reclaim the storytelling of our continent, of our countries, of our cities and of our personal lived experience, where we can also contribute to the way that we want to be seen by the world, the way that we want to be recorded.
Spread across seven floors and more than 80 galleries, paintings, photography, video and more by artists from throughout the continent and the African diaspora, including several African-American artists.
One large exhibition features sculptures of human forms made of cowhide by 34-year-old Nandipha Mntambo, who was born in Swaziland and raised in South Africa.
The unusual choice of material, she says, was a reaction to more traditional approaches she first encountered in school.
Because of our history of apartheid, there was a push to make me work in woodcarving or in clay because I suppose that's what the lecturers at the time understood other black people to have worked in before.
Today, her work is sold to collectors abroad and, increasingly, she told me in her Johannesburg studio, to a new generation of Africans interested in and able to buy art.
Still, she says-
I have had quite a complex relationship with the word African art, because…
And what it is, huh?
The reality is that globalization, travel, how we have basically, even through television, been overly exposed to America and Europe over the years, I think, has created a situation where I don't know that there is a collective understanding of what is African art or what being African actually is.
These complex identities are on display throughout the new museum, including the collage-like photography of Thania Petersen.
People look at me and they don't perceive me as being African. And then I always feel like I need to explain, actually, I am, because Africa and South Africa is a very diverse, multicultural and modern society.
Petersen is a Cape Town-based artist, a product of South Africa's melting pot.
I'm looking around the room, and you're in most of these. There is an element of kind of, look at me.
Absolutely, because it's about creating visibility, you know, visibility for people who are unseen, and people who are tired of being exoticized, who are tired of being photographed for, you know, I don't know, archives.
The new museum has garnered enormous excitement and attention, but it's also raised important questions about what it means to have an institution like this one in this particular city at the very tip of Africa.
Apartheid era separations are still present- more affluent, whiter enclaves downtown and along the oceanfront surrounded a short drive away by impoverished townships and shack communities.
It's a reality Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille, herself a veteran of the liberation struggle, contends with daily.
Patricia de Lille:
Certainly, it's not just Cape Town who is struggling with the legacy of apartheid, where all the good things were on the white side, and the black and colored people were excluded. We are building that inclusive city, and the museum will help with that.
How does it help?
It will help because no longer will art be the exclusive domain of only rich people that can afford to exhibit the art, but also can afford to enter an art museum.
That goes to another question being asked of the Zeitz- Who exactly is it for?
The museum was privately funded, at some $38 million, by the company that owns the V&A Waterfront, an expanding tourism and shopping development where the museum now sits. A small luxury hotel is housed in the same building.
There's free admission for those under 18, and school groups are coming by the busload. Wednesdays are free to citizens of all African countries.
But regular admission, 180 rand, more than $13, is beyond the means of much of the population, and everyone is acutely aware of the access issue, including the man whose collection of African art provided the basis for the museum, German businessman and philanthropist Jochen Zeitz.
The key is that we are accessible for everyone. The key is that we have education programs that actually reach out into the townships, into the communities, that we're deeply embedded into the community.
It's going to become a place that is socially accepted by everyone.
You know the history of outsiders coming in. And you're an outsider. You're a European coming in.
Well, I'm not the one who's speaking. I'm creating a platform I'm supporting.
It remains to be seen how much a museum can bridge historic divisions.
But for South African artist Athi-Patra Ruga, utopian visions is what art is for. His work has reached audiences in Europe and the U.S. and now has a permanent place in his own country.
I have 33 years of not having a museum in the townships. I grew up in the townships in the Eastland. And there was very little art to look at. You had to travel quite a bit to go look at art or actually go to a library that's decent.
So, has much changed? I think that I deal with that in my art when I actually work with the idea of re-imagining a new world. For me, access is the most important currency, you know? And I think that education opens up access. I think that imagination can act like — give you access to wider ways of looking at things.
Access and ownership of identity.
Museum director Mark Coetzee puts it this way-
Africans want to define themselves according to their terms. They want to say, it's much more complex than you imagine.
That's what I'm going to mark this institution on. Who defines the language? Who's the author of the voice? Who's the participant and the consumer of the voice?
It's a lot to ask of a museum, with much riding on the outcome.
For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Jeffrey Brown in Cape Town, South Africa.
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In his more than 30-year career with the NewsHour, Brown has served as co-anchor, studio moderator, and field reporter on a wide range of national and international issues, with work taking him around the country and to many parts of the globe. As arts correspondent he has profiled many of the world's leading writers, musicians, actors and other artists. Among his signature works at the NewsHour: a multi-year series, “Culture at Risk,” about threatened cultural heritage in the United States and abroad; the creation of the NewsHour’s online “Art Beat”; and hosting the monthly book club, “Now Read This,” a collaboration with The New York Times.
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