Grain silos in Cape Town converted to feed the soul as museum

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 July, 2014, 12:31pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 July, 2014, 12:31pm

On Cape Town's waterfront at the southern tip of Africa, the world's biggest museum of contemporary art from across the continent is being carved from a conglomeration of concrete tubes nine storeys high.

The US$50 million project to transform the grim functionality of 42 disused colonial grain silos into an ultra-modern tribute to African creativity is driven by an international team of art experts and architects.

For Mark Coetzee, executive director and chief curator of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, the project is the fulfilment of a pledge he made to himself a quarter of a century ago. "It has been my life dream to build a contemporary art museum in Africa," says the South African-born former director of the Rubell Family Collection in Miami.

"When I left Cape Town 25 years ago I vowed to return only when I had the skills and the relationships to make this happen."

For British architect Thomas Heatherwick, whose acclaimed projects worldwide include the Olympic Cauldron for the London Games in 2012, it was a stimulating challenge. "How do you turn 42 vertical concrete tubes into a place to experience contemporary culture?" he asks. "We could either fight a building made of concrete tubes or enjoy its tube-iness."

An elliptical section will be hollowed out from the centre of the nine-storey building to create a grand atrium that will be filled with light from a glass roof, the designers say. Some silo chambers will be carved open at ground level to accommodate exhibition galleries, while others will house elevators.

This vision is difficult to comprehend on a visit to the site on the Victoria and Albert Waterfront where workers, reduced to ant size by the scale of the industrial silos, are in the early stages of a project due for completion in late 2016. But architects' drawings illustrate a transformation worthy of showcasing the art of a continent riding a wave of international enthusiasm.

"There is a growing interest in the visual arts in and from Africa," Coetzee says. "The market is booming, artists from Africa are included on all the major biennales, while major gallerists and collectors include artists from Africa in their focus." The museum is named for German entrepreneur and former Puma chairman Jochen Zeitz, whose extensive African art collection will provide the museum's permanent exhibition.

The Zeitz Collection was founded in 2002 and is "one of the most representative collections of contemporary art from Africa and its diaspora", Coetzee says. It is now held and exhibited in Switzerland, Spain, South Africa, the United States and Kenya.

Apart from the permanent collection, the museum's 80 galleries will house temporary and travelling exhibitions. The museum will focus on the 21st century with a collection policy of work from 2000 onwards.

"When it is complete it will be the biggest museum in Africa and the world focusing on contemporary art practice in and from Africa," Coetzee says.

There will be an education centre for schoolchildren, another for young curators, and the usual museum facilities of restaurants and bookstores. An amphitheatre on the plaza outside the museum will stage outdoor events and performances, while an outdoor roof garden will offer views over the city to Table Mountain.

The V&A Waterfront is a rehabilitated docklands full of trendy restaurants and shops, as well as the site of a ferry terminal for Robben Island where liberation icon Nelson Mandela was imprisoned.

In a country where anything African was considered second-rate the museum will plant another flag of change. It will "constitute the re-imagining of a museum within an African context, celebrate Africa preserving its cultural legacy, writing its own history and defining itself on its own terms", says Coetzee.

Agence France-Presse