During this travel adventure I’ve explored many great museums and galleries in Europe, but South Africa’s Zeitz Museum always remained near the top of my list. I missed it during past visits and made a point of popping in last week. Exhibits and artists displayed are continually changing, and the first and third floors are being renovated to reopen in August. Even with two floors closed, I still saw incredible art and discovered new African artists!
Completed in 2017, Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (MOCAA) is a masterful creation by Thomas Heatherwick, a British architect. Heatherwick converted a “century-old grain silo and historical landmark at Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront into a world-class art gallery”! The privately-funded Zeitz is the largest art museum in Africa and has the largest exhibition in the world “showcasing the art of Africa and its diaspora”.
“British architect Thomas Heatherwick was inspired to create an art institution on a continent as big as the whole of Europe and North America combined.”
The goal was creating a space for bringing together works by African artists and “invigorating interest in African contemporary art”. MOCAA does the opposite of the old grain silo.
“When the V&A Waterfront was wondering how to develop its iconic grain silo, African contemporary art collector and German businessman, Jochen Zeitz, was looking for a museum to house his extensive collection.”
Purpose and Design
The Zeitz Museum is dedicated to “researching, collecting, and exhibiting art from the African continent and beyond”. The exhibition space covers almost 65,000 sq. ft. on nine floors, with 100 gallery spaces.
During the old days, “grain was exported outwards from the silo. The MOCAA creates a place where African art can return and from where it will not leak away.”
The interior is carved out in the shape of an enlarged grain of corn, resulting in a “series of curved concrete lines with light pouring through the cylindrical silos”! The design provides a striking, dramatic “cross-section view of the inner workings of the old industrial structure”.
Executive Director and Chief Curator, Koyo Kouoh, has 20 years of international experience. She’s a native of Dakar Senegal. During her impressive career, Kouoh developed art programs and curated contemporary African art in London and New York.
I’m in awe of the many extraordinarily talented, award-winning artists featured at the MOCAA. It’s slightly intimidating, and I’m still educating myself about African artists like Kendell Geers, Frances Goodman, William Kentridge, and Nicholas Hlobo. The works of a few favorites are detailed in this post:
- El Anatsui – Ghana
- Sory Sanlé – Burkina Faso
- Sue Williamson – UK and South Africa
- Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum – Botswana
- Mary Sibande – South Africa
- Joana Choumali – Abidjan Côte d’Ivoire
- Neo Matloga – South Africa
El Anatsui was born in Ghana and later lived in Nigeria. His career spans forty years as both sculptor and Professor of Sculpture at the University of Nigeria.
El Anatsui creates art weaves from an accumulation of discarded production, trade, and consumption materials associated with colonial expansion in Africa. He repurposes alcohol bottle caps into large hanging installations.
El Anatsui “breaks from the traditional cast of sculptural practice invoking a multi-layered, sensory re-imagining of our material world”. He’s “accomplished one of the few genuine breakthroughs in contemporary art anywhere in the world today.”
El Anatsui transforms discarded materials like aluminum bottle-tops into sumptuous surfaces and fabrics with color, form, and texture. The “banal and everyday materials of consumerism and consumption, so readily discarded and forgotten, are re-imagined as extraordinarily beautiful sensate objects”.
His sculptures appear in the British Museum London, Centre Pompidou Paris, de Young San Francisco, Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of Modern Art New York, Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, Osaka Foundation of Culture, and Tate Modern London.
El Anatsui has many solo exhibitions and received awards and recognition all over the world. Some of his best-known works include:
- Fresh Fading Memories – Venice
- When I Last Wrote to You about Africa – Cape Town
- Testimonial – London
- Broken Bridge – Paris
- TSIATSIA – London
- Kindred Viewpoints – Marrakesh
Sanlé’s career began in 1960, the same year Burkina Faso won its independence from France. He’s known for documenting Bobo-Dioulasso “fast evolution” and capturing the “frontal collision between modern life and centuries-old traditions from Burkina Faso’s culturally rich rural regions”.
Sanlé portrays Bobo-Dioulasso’s people with “wit, energy, and passion”. His background paintings – a modern city, beach boardwalk, airplane, or antique column – are outstanding.
“Sory Sanlé’s subjects illustrate the remoteness and melancholy of African cities landlocked deep in the heart of the continent and the natural fusion operating between tradition and modernity.”
Born in England, Sue Williamson’s family immigrated to South Africa when she was seven. She studied art in New York, and in 1983, was awarded a Diploma in Fine Art from the Michaelis School of Fine Art, University of Cape Town.
Williamson is both a journalist and printmaker who works “predominantly in installation, photographic images, and video”. Her work addresses social issues “pertaining to citizenry, civil activism, senses of community, or aspects of contemporary history as told from the perspective of individuals”.
“I think early work in newspapers was formative in my art because of that sort of interest in people’s exact words and precise narratives.” Sue Williamson
In the 1980s, she created a series of “photo-etchings and screen print portraits that foreground the importance of women in South Africa’s political struggle”. In her work, she emphasizes the “importance of revisiting history as a way of understanding a nation’s present”.
“A Few South Africans (1983-85) is a visual narrative attempt to fill the representational absence of people and events during Apartheid. It gives a tangible, iconic visibility to female leaders and women of courage who were active in the fight against Apartheid – Elizabeth Paul, Maggie Magaba, Winnie Mandela, Lilian Ngoyi, Annie Silinga, Helen Joseph, Nokukhanya Luthuli, Albertina Sisulu, Amina Cachalia, Caroline Motsoaledi, Virginia Mngoma, Charlotte Maxeke, and others.”
“We’re in the process of coming to terms with the past. I think that, before we can move on, we have to reach a point where we can find our way to a solution and say: OK, we’ve confronted our past as intensively as possible.” Sue Williamson
Some of Sue Williamson’s most powerful and best-known works include:
- A Few South Africans 1983-85
- For Thirty Years Next to His Heart 1990
- Her Better Lives Series 2003
- There’s Something I Must Tell You 2013
Internationally recognized, Williamson has active exhibitions in South Africa and around the world. She served as Chairperson of the Visual Arts Group, founding member of the arts organization Public Eye, and founding editor of Artthrob, a website on contemporary art in South Africa.
Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum
Born in Botswana, Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum grew up in Canada, Sudan, Sri Lanka, Malawi, and South Africa. She attended the Baltimore Institute College of Art and University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Her solo exhibitions have appeared in the US, South Africa, and UK.
Sunstrum’s work “features black and brown people posed against contrived, hand-painted landscape backdrops”. Her landscapes “expand on themes of timelessness” where she “reconstructs real and imagined sites to reveal the small scale of individuals within the vast universe”. Her beautiful, complex work is fascinating!
Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum’s exhibitions include:
- All My Seven Faces
- There are Mechanisms in Place
- Before Being Asked by the Machine
- Space Station All-Stars
Themes in Sunstrum’s exhibitions explore “mythologies and theories of the creation of the universe” and the “co-reliant relationship between science and mythology”.
Mary Sibande, sculptor, photographer, and visual artist, is based in Johannesburg. She received a Bachelor of Technology from the University of Johannesburg and was educated in Fine Arts at Witwatersrand Technikon. “Fascinated with fashion and fabric” she focuses on “questions of the body and how to reclaim the black female body in post-colonial, post-apartheid South Africa”.
Sibande “is inspired by her experiences growing up in South Africa”. Her “focus on the maid is homage to her family, of which four generations of women served as domestic workers”.
Sibande works through Sophie, an “alter-ego and sculptural figure who traverses the uncanny valleys of liminal space”. Sophie is a symbolic figure speaking for “femininity, blackness, labour, post-coloniality, and communities on the margin as a whole”.
“My work is not complaining Apartheid or an invitation to feel sorry for me because I’m black and my mother was a maid. It’s about celebrating what we are as women in South Africa today. For us to celebrate, we need to go back to see what we are celebrating. To celebrate, I needed to bring this maid.” Mary Sibande
Sibande’s works include:
- In the Midst of Chaos There is Opportunity
- Long Live the Dead Queen
- A Reversed Retrogress
- The Mechanism
- A Crescendo of Ecstasy
- The Purple shall Govern
Sibande has received awards and appeared at expositions and festivals throughout Africa and the world. She is a research fellow at numerous institutions, including Smithsonian Institution, University of Michigan, and Ampersand Foundation. Sibande is involved with ActionAid South Africa and the Young Urban Women Programme raising funds and introducing art to girls in low-income communities.
Sibande’s spectacular exhibit at the Zeitz MOCAA – In the Midst of Chaos There is Opportunity – depicts “women in combat, modelled on the artist’s mother, a domestic worker in South Africa, seen amongst blood-red canines and vultures”.
Based in Abidjan Côte d’Ivoire, freelance photographer Joana Choumali studied graphic arts in Casablanca and was an art director. Her creations exhibit subtle figures that “highlight the equal humanity of men and women”.
Choumali’s style includes documentary, conceptual portraiture, and mixed media. She “focuses on Africa, assumptions about the diversity of cultures, and her ever expanding conceptions of the world”.
“Joana Choumali uses photography to explore issues of identity and the diversity of African cultures.”
Joana Choumali’s best-known exhibitions include:
Resilients documents young, professional African women “struggling to connect with their family’s traditional past”. To emphasize the link between past and present, the women were photographed wearing traditional clothing worn by their grandmothers. Hââbré, The Last Generation is about the dying Ivory Coast and the process of facial scarification.
Neo Matloga was born in Limpopo South Africa in 1993 and studied at the University of Johannesburg. His work is exhibited locally and internationally and on display at the City of Ekurhuleni, the South African Embassy in Washington DC, and in private collections. Matloga lives in Amsterdam, where he’s an “artist at De Ateliers, a post-academic institution”.
“Influenced by his father’s quote, “art should heal psychologically,” and the energy projected by South African youth, Matloga rejects limiting himself to specific artistic mediums. Matloga’s drawings, paintings, and collages are versatile. They explore the Post-Mandela Era and “mythic power of Sophiatown, an area outside Johannesburg”.
By “collaging objects and materials that reference domestic households,” Matloga creates a nostalgic feeling. He produces “fragments of incredible happiness from his conversations, upbringing, and the poetic moments he remembers growing up in a Post-Mandela era”. The “main themes in his work center around his passion for black people feeling that there is an ability to belong and exist”.
“As the legacy of apartheid persists, with no doubt there were and still are social issues such as crime and moral degradation, but none of this determines the concept of life in its entirety.”
Neo Matloga’s black and white paintings reflect “domestic life in black South African households” – with a kick. Titles appear in Sepedi, his mother tongue, spoken in Gauteng, Mpumalanga, and Limpopo provinces. His “cast of characters play out every-day dramas, experiencing the struggles and consolations of desire and intimacy”.
“The people in Matloga’s paintings are ‘moral agents’ affected by the socio-economic and political conditions that shape life outside and inside the four walls of their homes.” His characters have “outsized eyes, mouths, and ears, skin tone with abrupt changes, hairstyles and hats sitting atop the wrong heads, and comically misplaced accessories”.
Matloga’s characters are described as “hybrids”. He forms their faces by “collaging photographic images of friends, family, and famous figures from politics and the arts”.
Matloga uses the process of “collaging facial anatomy and reconfiguring” for political purposes and to “identify with the racist gaze”. I had to do research on Matloga’s work to better understand it.
Neo Matloga’s solo shows and presentations include:
- 2019 Neo to Love – Fries Museum, Leeuwarden Netherlands
- 2018 Good Morning Midnight – De Ateliers, Amsterdam
- 2017 Molatelo – Moller Gallery, SCOPE Art Fair, New York
- 2016 Moo re Tswang Gona – Moller Gallery, FNB Joburg Art Fair