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Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA), Cape Town / Interview with Mark Coetzee

Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA), Cape Town / Interview with Mark Coetzee

We are standing in a building that
was built at the turn of the 20th century. Originally this building was a
grain silo and it was from this grain silo that the exportation of grain went out
to the rest of the world. About a hundred years later the building is
decommissioned. It’s now a National Monument, which means it can’t be bashed
down, it can’t be changed, the facade can’t be changed, and so there was an
idea to turn this building into a Museum of Contemporary
Art. So we are standing in the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa and
our mission really in a nutshell is to collect, preserve, research and exhibit
cutting-edge artifacts from the 21st century from Africa and its diaspora,
so that means artists in any of the 54 states in Africa, artists who
might live elsewhere, who see an african heritage, like african
american artists through the history of slavery, potentially afro-british artists
afro-caribbean artists, afro-brazilian artists, so it’s really the discussion
and dialogue about art in and from africa and its influences in the world.
It opens in September 2017. We have nine floors, the museum is quite large, of
which seven are open to the public, two floors are dedicated to the permanent
collection, two floors are dedicated to temporary exhibitions, which means we can
host exhibitions from anywhere in the world not necessarily
artists from Africa, so our creatives can also be exposed to
what’s happening elsewhere, and then we’ve come up with a model that we think
works for us, instead of having departments in the museum we have
institutions or centers so each of these places have their own staff, their own
space, their own budget, and this is to make sure that there’s a diversity of
voices, a diversity of visions and that there’s not one kind of monolithic
curator or person that defines the whole mission of the museum. So we carefully
looked at the traditions within Africa. Photography was very important to
dedicate a center to because of its role in the liberation struggles from the
1960s to the present in Africa. We felt that there were some mediums like
performative practice and moving image which were new exciting things we
believed our public would enjoy, costume because so much of body decoration, body
modification, body painting etcetera began on this continent. So we wanted to
really try to recognize the creative components that began or were influenced
by this place and then many many many galleries. We have over a hundred
galleries in the museum to exhibit art from around the world. we’re the first major Museum of Contemporary
Art in Africa and I think for a very long time one of the problems
especially in our country, in South Africa, because of apartheid, was that
cultural access was a complex thing. Many people were denied representation, many
people were not encouraged to access cultural centers, and I think for us was
very important to make sure that that pie that everybody fought for actually was
bigger so that there was an opportunity for each individual to say this is how I
want to represent myself to the world. One of our very important missions
is about Africa from Africa by Africa, and this idea of making a platform, and
that’s part of what my responsibilities in this project has been is to create a
platform along with the architect and the founders and the trustees for
various people to come forward and to say this is how we want to represent
ourselves to the world, this is how we want the world to see us, and a
very strong kind of force that kept coming through was that people from the
continent want to not control how they were spoken about, but at least
participate in how they story was told, how they narrative is recorded for the
world, and so scale was very important to do that because if it was small it would
mean that it would have to be limited amounts of people, limit limited amounts
of representation, and here we have an opportunity to really celebrate a much
broader spectrum of cultural traditions, of artistic traditions and of personal
visions of artists and curators. I think it was very important for myself,
the curators and the trustees of the museum, the founders of the museum, to
really give the creators from Africa an equal playing ground, you know, you have
the Whitney Museum of American Art you have the Tate Britain of British art, you
know these are institutions which take as their motivation to collect and
record and position artists from their Nations and we felt it was
very important for us to be able to create that same platform
on a high level, so that our artists can compete in some way and also have the
resources, financial, space, logistics, climate control, to be able to give
them the freedom to imagine the dreams and visions that they want to
execute and they want to make reality. So I think that was very important, I think
from a knowledge point of view, you know, many people are saying to me how
exciting is it that the world is discovering Africa and I don’t think
that the world is discovering Africa. I think what the world is doing is they’re
discovering their ignorance about Africa, you know, it’s them that are being
educated it’s not… you know, there’s been extraordinary artistic
production on this continent. If you look at the Biennale and so many of the
extraordinary artists that have been represented on the Biennales over the
last decades, which have come from this continent and I think that now what’s
happening is that the kind of international art world more and more
starting to recognize that perhaps they missed out, perhaps that they overlooked
things so it wasn’t that they discovering us but they discovering a
little bit of inadequacy in their view of artistic production which was a very
Eurocentric or northern hemisphere centric tradition and I think
it’s exciting that the art world is recalibrating itself that it’s re-looking
at things and saying actually, you know what, perhaps there’s a broader
conversation perhaps that there’s much more global and regional kind of
conversation that’s happening and we can’t just focus on specific areas
in these art centers in the northern hemisphere. When we built the collection for the
museum and also the exhibition strategy we had a very I would say political
position that we took. For a very long time many cultural artifacts were taken
from Africa, the Benin bronzes for instance in the British Museum, many many
German museums, is a good example where it was a punitive mission where these
objects were taken to punish the Benin people and there’s many, many examples of
this. There’s of course great conversations whether these objects should be returned
or not, but that’s historical museums that’s historical practice. What we find
in contemporary practice now is that a lot of the objects are still leaving the
continent because the world has woken up to the extraordinary creativity and
especially contemporary creativity on the continent and museums have not been
keeping up collections, have not been keeping up, so there is a real emphasis
or an impetus to collect work from this region from this moment in time, but with
the strength of the euro and the dollar and whatever and the pound and the
devalued currencies in Africa what happens is, the market now advantages
these objects to leave. So one of our motivations was to make sure that
seminal artifacts from the continent would remain on the continent or return
to the continent. So from a collecting and exhibition point of view we’ve tried
to identify very important moments such as when Edson Chagas won the golden
lion in Venice four years ago, the first time an African pavilion won the golden
lion, we bought the entire pavilion and it will be recreated here. When Kudzanai
Chuirai was on not this year’s document but five years ago, we bought
the entire installation, when Nicholas Hlobo presented his rubber dragon in
the Arsenale which was really kind of one of the high points of the Biennale that
year we bought that, so part of that the strategy of the collection was
to buy these objects in and to make sure that they are here and accessible and I
think that there’s a big difference in seeing an object, you know, to see Andy
Warhol in New York as opposed to in Cologne, you know the cologne museum has
a great collection of American pop, I think they might have even collected it before
the Americans, very forward-thinking, but it makes a difference in some way to see
the artifact in the place it was made, there’s a texturality about it,
it’s just different. So from the permanent collections point of view what
you’ll see when you visit is these really seminal objects either that
you’ve seen elsewhere in the world and Biennales and Documentas, on
major exhibitions, or that you might have read about, that you haven’t seen
yet So it’s really a depository of these really important moments. Mixed in with
that, we’ve made a decision that will take enormous risks and collect very
young cutting-edge artists. So we don’t have this hierarchy with the market itself
or collectors desires define the success or the position of an artist and more
it’s the quality, the evocativeness, the the regional context, many different
things that can make something relevant for what we do. I think that there’s
many many other important aspects to the way that what you’ll see when you get
here. What we decided to do was that in building the collection we wouldn’t do
encyclopedic collections so one or two of each thing or chronological, but what
we would do is we would try to identify artists from regions across Africa and
the diaspora for which we felt represented a certain kind of interesting conversation
or language or challenge or whatever and collect those people in great depth. So
for example one of our opening exhibitions is by Nandipha Mntambo from
Swaziland and I think we own 60 or 70 of her pieces, Kudzanai Chuirai
who has another opening exhibition, from Zimbabwe, again 65 pieces. I think
it’s important because we are in a place in the world where as
I said before these museums were not accessible for the general public, they
were very exclusive, slightly intimidating spaces and our museum has a
great job to do to break down the barriers so that the public understand,
this is theirs, this is their cultural heritage, this is their place and they need
to own it. So I think that in that process we’ve had to say it’s not going
to be possible for somebody to come in and see one piece and understand the
artists concerns. We need to buy or collect large bodies of
work. It has also given our curators very exciting opportunities because it means
that they can do entire exhibitions, entire retrospectives from the museum’s
collection, or Mr. Zeitz’s collection, which I think gives a lot of
freedom to curators as opposed to having three or four pieces which you
have to contextualize in a kind of almost outside of a general kind of view.
I think it helps the public to understand the artists view, their oeuvre,
their production, the conceptual progress of an artist’s career, the insight into
how the artist thinks, what their concerns are, so I think that’s going to
be something that the public are going to enjoy a lot. You know, each artist for
the opening has an entire gallery dedicated to them and some of the
galleries are enormous, so you will see major bodies of work of one particular
artist grouped together to get an in-depth understanding of that artist.
Obviously because we aspire to be as representative as possible for African
and diaspora you will also see artists from all different regions. So the Center
for photography will be opened by an artist from North Africa called Mouna
Karray, there’s three solo exhibitions I mentioned, Edson Chagas from Angola,
Nandipha Mntambo from Swaziland, Kudzanai Chuirai from Zimbabwe and then
of course our big opening exhibition which will take three floors of the
museum is based on the title of a work by Hank Willis Thomas, the
african-american artist, called “All things being equal” and it’s really just
an extraordinary indulgence of the creativity and the prowess and the
technical ability of artists who are somehow associated with Africa. So
there’s not like a hard rigorous curatorial premise for the bigger show
it’s more just to show the strength and the diversity and the creativity
that’s happening here right now. I think this is a very… the opening we hope will
be a very celebratory moment for the continent. So we want… look, nothing that
you’ll see is going to be easy and we’ve chosen extremely difficult, challenging
conceptual, political… lots of the work is very hard for social commentary, identity,
politics, issues of violence against females, and prejudice against
the LGBTI communities. So we haven’t, we haven’t been easy in the show, but I
think that the quality of the work of the artists that are being made on the
continent I think is extraordinary and that’s what we have a responsibility to
show for our opening exhibitions, and then as we move on I think we’ll start
seeing more and more particular exhibitions, where a curator has a very
particular view and a conversation with an artist that they want to, but I think
the first show really has to represent a broad spectrum of what Africa is, you
know, I mean it’s a huge continent. I’m really looking forward to this
museum as that you know so many of us have had to make the pilgrimage to Basel
and to Documenta and to Munster and to Venice and whatever other Biennales
we all visit and for once the world is going to have to make the pilgrimage the
opposite way and I think that’s a very important gesture to say that you know
you have to… you now have to make an effort, you now have to displace yourself,
you have to be kind of an immigrant for two days, a weekend immigrant, you
know, just something to understand that there’s places and worlds and cultures and
experiences which are not inferior or superior, they’re just different and
by being exposed to them, I think when you walk around the museum, you see
the art, by being exposed to them, how it enriches your view of the world and how
you understand a different view of Africa. You know, Africa for a very long time
sold a negative kind of image of itself and I think part of this project is also
to show that they are extraordinary positive stories coming out of Africa.
To build an institution of this scale with over a hundred galleries,
six independent institutions, you know, I mean 35 curators, it’s a major
institution and I think just in itself the scale of that makes a statement not
only about the positiveness that one can see here but also the confidence that I
think many Africans feel or beginning to feel about their place in the world and
where they are you know and that we don’t necessarily have to be subservient
to the trends from elsewhere that our production is just as interesting. We had so many conversations about is there
an African model for a museum. You know, the last time we met was when I was
working in Miami and everyone was speaking at that time in the early 2000s
about the Miami model, you know, private collectors making public spaces or
publicly accessible spaces and we’ve had a lot of conversations about is there
such a thing as an African model. Then the one thing that we have concluded is
that we don’t have to play by the rules of elsewhere. We can make our own rules,
we can make our own criteria, you know, and in that process perhaps innovation
can happen because if you’re comparing yourself constantly you
know you, just the idea of world class or international class or international
level, you know, we’ve started to speak about the fact, well, that doesn’t really
matter, because we must make criteria for ourselves based on the values and
cultures and the empiric conversations, the empirical conversations
that are happening here and across the continent, you know, otherwise it just
becomes like another Museum of Contemporary Art following the rules of
every other museum of contemporary art. So we have to kind of invent something,
you know, and I think lots of the challenges that we are facing with
engaging a new public and a new audience, an audience that has been completely
excluded dealing with artwork that perhaps is not known by the rest of the
world, these are not problems for us, these are great opportunities because it means
that we can invent ways to engage with this as opposed to have predetermined
solutions which is “best practice”, you know, from other places, you know. When I was growing up in South Africa
you know everything that we studied for four years in art history was Egypt,
Roman, Greece, Renaissance, whatever. We spent like a day or two on the culture
of our own country, own continent and what I think is extraordinary with this
institution is it’s going to bring attention to production on our continent
by our people, in our places and it’s not a nationalism but it is a certain kind
of pride, it is a certain kind of saying what we do has a validity, it has a
gravitas, it has a reason for being and I think for me personally that
that means a lot because to come from a moment of apartheid where we were all
told how to behave, who we could fall in love with, who we could sit on a bus with,
who we were allowed to eat in a restaurant with, to a place where we have an
institution that says let’s celebrate all these things that make us special
and not separate ourselves from everyone you know I think for me that’s an
extraordinary thing and I think also to create an institution where the people
of the region can write their own history, on their terms. I think that the
the weight of that opportunity is extraordinary, you know, and I think, we
talk about liberation movements in Africa, I think this is part of that, this
is part of Africa saying we also want to take back not only our land, not only our
governance, not only our self-determination, but we want to take
back our cultural representation as well and at least be part of the conversation
of how we’re seen in the world and how we managed and how we projected. I don’t
think any culture or any nation could absolutely control themselves because
that’s just nationalism that’s not interesting, but at least be
participating in your own representation I think the gesture of that for me is
an extraordinary powerful thing.

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