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Can the new Zeitz museum escape the political and racial questions haunting Cape Town?

VISUAL ART

The art of reinvention

The Zeitz museum aims to be the Tate Modern of South Africa. But, as Geoffrey York reports from Cape Town, it may not be able to escape the political and racial questions that have haunted the country for decades

The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town, the first of its kind on the continent, was created out of old corn silos on the city’s waterfront.

British designer Thomas Heatherwick had a problem. His task was to transform a crumbling collection of waterfront grain silos into the world's biggest museum of contemporary African art – and his budget was barely one-10th that of similar projects in New York and London.

The ambitious $38-million (U.S) initiative had no financial support from the government and the site was perched on the very edge of the African continent, in Cape Town, far away from the global philanthropists and art patrons who might normally sponsor such a daunting venture.

His solution? Inside the abandoned century-old structures, he found remnants of corn, a legacy of the days when the silos stored maize from across South Africa and Zimbabwe. He digitally scanned one of the kernels and blew it up to almost 10 storeys in size.

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Designer Thomas Heatherwick carved out of the concrete a spectacular cathedral-like atrium of vaulted, glass-topped space. IWAN BAAN

Then he used this asymmetrical image as the design for the heart of the historic building, which, during its industrial lifespan, contained 116 concrete tubes stretching from ceiling to floor. Heatherwick carved out of the concrete a spectacular cathedral-like atrium of vaulted, glass-topped space, allowing elements of the original structure to remain, giving the space a honeycombed appearance. By doing this, rather than adding expensive new structures, he saved money and still produced a radical new vision for the global arts scene.

The design challenge was "weird and compelling," Heatherwick says. But it was just one of the significant challenges that the museum faced. In a country that remains highly unequal, could it shake off the legacy of apartheid? In a city of tourists and affluent elites, could it reflect a broader pan-African vision? And could it overcome the barriers of poverty and the lingering racial divisions?

The engineering obstacles, despite some anxieties, proved to be surmountable. In just three years, the privately financed museum was completed. The first glimpses of the spectacular building have provoked rave reviews from international art and architecture critics. But the other questions remain to be answered.

The nine-storey, 80-gallery museum opened its doors to the public on Friday, showcasing some of the world's greatest modern African art in its 9,500 square metres of display space, educational rooms, conservation areas, reading rooms, a bookshop, a restaurant and a rooftop sculpture garden. The 24,000 entry tickets for its opening weekend were snapped up in minutes.

The museum's impressive collection of 21st-century African art has been provided under long-term loan by German businessman Jochen Zeitz, who made his fortune by orchestrating a radical turnaround of the nearly bankrupt Puma sportswear company in the 1990s, transforming it into a $4-billion-a-year global success.

This exhibit by Kendell Geers is one of many works by African artists on display at the new Zeitz museum in Cape Town.

Zeitz, a reticent man who refused to speak at the museum's press launch, is a bearded environmentalist who owns a 20,000-hectare wildlife conservancy in Kenya and once wrote a book with a Benedictine monk on the spiritual side of business.

The building with his name on it is believed to be the biggest museum to open in Africa in a century. The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa is also the first true "destination" museum in one of the world's most beautiful cities, and it's certain to transform Cape Town's reputation, thrusting it onto the global cultural map for the first time.

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"In the last 20 years, there's been a massive adoption of contemporary art as a mode of urban development," said Heatherwick, whose London-based studio is perhaps best known for designing the British pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, an innovative structure known as the Seed Cathedral.

"The success of Bilbao Guggenheim and the Tate Modern in London has meant that cities are falling over themselves to have contemporary art museums," he told journalists at a media preview.

The Zeitz museum features a rooftop sculpture garden.

"It's almost like you're not a proper city unless you've got a contemporary art museum. But in a continent as big as the whole of Europe and North America combined, there was no major institution for artists of that continent to show their work. It was like a missing piece in the jigsaw: incredible artists and phenomenal work, some private galleries, but no public institution bringing that together."

The jigsaw piece was missing because the art had been shipped away. Since the days of colonialism and the subsequent era of private collectors, African art has been systematically exported from the continent, "never to be seen again," says Mark Coetzee, a Capetonian who serves as executive director and chief curator at the Zeitz museum.

"Part of our mission is returning or securing seminal objects from the African continent and making sure they remain on the African continent," he says.

One example is the enormous and extraordinary work that hangs in the vast central atrium for the museum's opening: a mythical dragon-like bird by South African artist Nicholas Hlobo, who based the creature on the Xhosa myth of the Lightning Bird, the witch's servant.

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A piece by Kudzanai Chiurai is featured at the Zeitz museum.

The dark ominous creature, with an animal skull and multicoloured ribbons, was a huge success at the Venice Biennale in 2011, and Zeitz was worried that it might leave the continent forever. So he bought it and made it a central icon of the museum's opening.

"That's one of the opportunities for this museum: to show work on much more of an ambitious scale, simply because of the huge spaces," says Owen Martin, a Canadian who is the Zeitz museum's registrar, working closely with its artists.

Coetzee says he wants the museum to help a new generation of young Africans to see their community's cultural production and "develop a sense of pride" in the artists who represent them.

That feeling of pride will be deepened by the magnificence of the building that houses the art. The historic grain silos in Cape Town's harbour were the tallest man-made structure in sub-Saharan Africa from the 1920s until the 1960s. When Heatherwick first caught sight of the silos in 2005 during a design conference, they were derelict, disused for more than a decade, and covered in cobwebs and pigeon droppings, but he was intrigued by their possibilities.

Cape Town’s waterfront and downtown neighbourhoods are an affluent bubble, popular among European tourists and the South African economic elite.

Five years later, V&A Waterfront – the private company that owns 123 valuable hectares of Cape Town's central waterfront – decided to keep the silos and transform them into an art museum. At the same time, Zeitz was looking for a home for his vast collection of contemporary African art. The two quests came together in the new museum, and Mr. Heatherwick landed the commission to design it.

Unlike the vast turbine halls and railway stations that inspired museum-conversion projects in Europe, the grain silos weren't so easy to open up. They were a warren of storage rooms, cylindrical spaces, tunnels, conveyer belts and even a vacuum-like "dust house" for filtering the air to prevent an explosive build-up of grain dust.

From this chaotic maze, a dramatic central atrium had to be hewn, along with 80 white-walled galleries, two tubular elevator shafts and a spiral staircase dropped in from the top like a corkscrew. The dust house was kept as a rough-hewn "found space" for exhibitions. The rooftop garden and an adjoining luxury hotel are sheathed in 96 huge convex windows, costing about $50,000 each, framing the stunning views of Table Mountain and the Atlantic Ocean.

The private owners of the waterfront precinct could have simply bulldozed the grain silos and replaced them with a standard office tower, or a glitzy museum in fashionable postmodern spaceship-style design. But they opted to preserve the historic structure.

In the silos, a dramatic central atrium had to be hewn, along with 80 white-walled galleries, two tubular elevator shafts and a spiral staircase dropped in from the top like a corkscrew.

"This building has real gravitas – they don't build buildings like this any more," said David Green, chief executive officer of V&A Waterfront and co-chair of the museum's board. "We had this mind-shift where we decided to celebrate it and restore it."

His corporation, owned by a South African government pension fund and a leading real estate company called Growthpoint Properties, decided to finance the entire amount of the museum's $38-million construction cost.

He won't disclose its operating budget, but he aims to draw 200,000 paying visitors to the museum every year. The waterfront already draws 24 million visitors annually. The museum will have a "profound effect" on tourism and the local economy, according to Tim Harris, chief executive officer of Wesgro, the investment promotion agency for Cape Town and the Western Cape.

But while the museum's economic and cultural impact could be remarkable, it still cannot escape the political and racial questions that have haunted this post-apartheid country for decades.

A piece on display in the Zeitz museum by artist Nandipha Mntambo.

At its media preview last Friday, two of the first questions from South African journalists raised awkward points about Cape Town's reputation as an unequal and inaccessible playground for the wealthy. The city is arguably one of the least African cities on the continent. And its apartheid geography has persisted, with blacks and whites still largely in their separate and unequal enclaves.

Cape Town's waterfront and downtown neighbourhoods are an affluent bubble, popular among European tourists and the South African economic elite. For tourists, the city is best known for its luxurious wine estates, its fine French cuisine and its gorgeous beaches. Even the Zeitz museum itself is topped with a luxury boutique hotel, The Silo, whose rooms cost from $900 to $10,000 a night.

Meanwhile, the black and mixed-race majority is largely hidden away on the fringes. Most of the city's inhabitants live in impoverished townships and shack communities on the outskirts, where the murder rate is as high as the unemployment rate.

Even in South Africa's emerging black middle class, many black professionals have fled from Cape Town, convinced that its insular white-dominated business community is unwelcoming and perhaps even racist.

Ten Thousand Waves by Isaac Julien at the Zeitz museum.

That perception of Cape Town could be reinforced by a museum whose founders and directors are white, and whose standard ticket price (about $14) will be unaffordable for most black South Africans.

The museum will try to diversify its audience by giving free admission on Wednesday mornings to all African citizens, and free admission daily to children under the age of 18. While its top managers are white, the curators and artists at the heart of its collection are largely black. But will the museum truly be accessible to the country's majority who live far away from the glitzy waterfront shops and expensive restaurants?

"Cape Town has always been a problematic city," says Thania Petersen, a Cape Town artist of Cape Malay heritage, whose theatrical self-portrait photographs are displayed in one of the museum's opening exhibits.

"Everyone says it's a place for Europeans, and the people who actually live here don't get a chance to live it the way foreign people do," she told The Globe and Mail in an interview.

A piece by artist Cyrus Kabiru at the Zeitz museum.

"When it comes to your colour, it is so segregated – everybody is stuck wherever they were put during apartheid, and economically, nobody can get out of that. We're not blinded by the idea of liberation and freedom, when we're still trapped in the places where we've always been."

Cape Town's art world, in particular, has been difficult for black artists to penetrate. But Petersen argues that the Zeitz museum will help artists to break those barriers, become visible and gain a voice.

"I think we have arrived," she told the press launch, sparking a wave of loud applause from the other artists.

"What is important is that we are here now, and we are changing it," she said. "The only way we can change it is actually by being present in these spaces. If everything is kept outside, how will we ever be able to change it?"

The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa is also the first true 'destination”'museum in one of the world’s most beautiful cities. IWAN BAAN

Green, the museum's co-chair, argues that the waterfront is more integrated than people realize, with locals representing more than half of its visitors. "Cape Town is not real Africa; I know that, we know that," he acknowledged. "But it is the gateway into Africa."

Coetzee, the chief curator, says the museum aims to expand the definition of African art to include any artist from Africa or the African diaspora whose production is linked to the continent in some way.

"We're taking a very loose openness about how we define Africanness and African artists," he said.

The museum's artistic themes, too, are unconventional. Photography is one of its key focuses, because it evokes the urgency and radicalism of the anti-apartheid movement, when photographers grabbed quick images of the clashes in which police tried to crush protesters, Coetzee said.

Proposed Model for Tseko Simon Nkoli Memorial by Athi-Patra Ruga.

"Photography was very important in the liberation struggles from the 1960s to the present, across Africa," he said. "It's really linked to our sense of identity, and the way we've communicated the social movements in our continent."

Fashion is another of the museum's artistic themes. It plays into the museum's sense of African roots.

"We felt that fashion originated in Africa," Coetzee said. "It all began here: scarification, makeup, mud, hair, skins. Fashion didn't begin in Milan or Paris – it began right here."

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