Zeitz MOCAA: in the midst of the chaos there is opportunity

Zihan Herr

Last month marked one year since the opening of the world’s largest museum of African art. We visited the Zeitz MOCAA’s permanent gallery. Here are our impressions on the art selection, from a Kenyan perspective.

Cyrus Kabiru, Macho Nne, Vatican Mask 2015.

In spite of all of the mixed emotions and turbulence surrounding the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (MOCAA), South African artist Nicholas Hlobo’s Lightening Bird: Iimpundulu zonke ziyandilandela (2011), with its impressive scale and presence, casts its spell over visitors, summoning them to enter the world within.

Hovering below the glass ceiling, Hlobo’s fantastical creature, created for the 54th Venice Biennale, was inspired by a Xhosa myth. And just as legend has it appear a winged beast one moment and a handsome man the next, the Zeitz MOCAA too creates a different impression when viewed from different angles. From an architectural perspective, the conversion of the industrial Grain Silo Complex into a museum is awe-inspiring, but what of the artwork that hangs upon it’s walls?

Indeed it is a cathartic experience for art lovers to observe an El Anatsui in the flesh. An exemplary bottle-top tapestry, his Dissolving continents (2017) glistens across a large wall. It evokes a series of emotions from pride and pleasure, to admiration for its beauty and an appreciation of its meaning. It solicits questions regarding the significance or insignificance of borders. Similarly, William Kentridge’s video installation, More sweetly play the dance (2015), with its danceable music and eccentric imagery, makes for an exhilarating investigation of processional history. It effectively moves you to consider the human instinct to band together. The artwork in the Zeitz MOCAA makes you feel and think, and then think again.

After the initial euphoria and privilege of seeing an original Njideka Akunyili Crosby, and revelling in her vibrant collage Sunday morning (Predecessors #3) 2014, you begin to wonder why the museum selected this specific work. If you are a fan of Akunyili Crosby, you have been captivated by the intimate cross-cultural contact she conveys. Likely, you have been seduced by her collages of a black woman kissing her white lover’s back; the two nude figures depict the artist and her husband during a peaceful moment in the privacy of their home. A Nigerian born artist living in the USA, Njideka Akunyili Crosby delves deep into her own personal experience to understand the nuances of the diasporan identity. Her collages are not only alluring, they are persuasive.

In Sunday morning at the Permanent Gallery, you are transported into a family home. The portrait on the wall reveals the artist’s late mother, a prominent political figure in Nigeria, her sister, and Njideka Akunyili Crosby herself. The viewer’s eye bounces between the portrait in the picture (top right) and the pots and traditional Nigerian accouterments at her grandmother’s kitchen table (bottom left). Part of her Predecessor Series, which celebrates heritage and family history, Sunday morning hones in on the generations that came before the artist. It speaks to Akunyili Crosby’s parents and how they straddled city and village life in Nigeria, much in the same way that she too occupies two worlds now.

Sunday Morning is not only sentimental; it is without a doubt significant in the larger context of Akunyili Crosby’s work. It is also another striking collage, created using her rare combination of photo transfer, charcoal, colour pencil and paint. However, Akunyili Crosby followers at the Zeitz MOCAA may leave feeling undernourished. The potential exists to crave something saltier; a provocative image that functions as a bold example of the cultural parameters and brave subject matter that she explores. Now, deeper questions begin to surface. Is this collage a good representation of the concepts Akunyili Crosby explores? Does it need to be? What was the discussion had by the acquisition team? Is one painting by Njideka Akunyili Crosby enough? Suddenly you become conscious of the responsibilities and considerations of an art museum in choosing the works it displays.

The Crosby example is but one of many unsettling feelings that come up while visiting the Zeitz MOCAA’s Permanent Gallery. Many visitors will experience a rush of questions that they are too self-conscious to ask.  Their doubts are often expressed with the self depreciating: “I might not know much about contemporary African art but…” One intuitively recognizes that something is off balance. The extremely long list of American artists is but one example, taking a moment to process and contextualize.  You begin to wonder whether the selections were made in the interest of creating a museum responsible for canonizing and reflecting conversations around contemporary African art, or if the Permanent Gallery at the Zeitz MOCAA is merely an exquisite personal collection being presented under the wrong alias.

The answers may very well have rested with the selection team had we been privy to the reasons behind their choices. Acquisition committees usually consist of multiple curators, collection managers, critics, art historians and other academics, all of whom contribute to the decision making process and growth of the institution. In the case of the Zeitz MOCAA however, you hit a brick wall when you discover that former Chief Curator and Executive Director Mark Coetzee, who resigned earlier this year, after disruptive allegations about his professional conduct, was almost solely responsible for the selection of artwork.

With only Coetzee waving the wand, there are sobering repercussions of a one-man-wonder approach. The artwork and artists selected for the establishment were neither rigorously reviewed nor critiqued by an expert committee who would have prioritized plurality. This is especially profound in a country already marked by segregation and exclusion. Having a single boatman steer a big ship goes against standard museum practice. It is not practical for any one person to determine the classification of ‘contemporary African art’. The individual undertaking such a feat will hit the nail on the head one time and miss the next. The result is a disservice to the audience. Take for instance the representation of Kenyan art. On the one hand it is clear why Wangechi Mutu’s video installation The end of carrying all (2015) was chosen, but the reason for Cyrus Kabiru’s Macho Nne series (1-25) is less evident. One is a psychological analysis interrogating the effects of capitalism, the other a  captivating visual spectacle.

Wangechi Mutu was born in Nairobi, Kenya but has been living and working in New York, USA, generating a large body of artwork these last twenty years. An acclaimed international artist, she is engaged in discussions around the female body, gender constructs, colonialism and identity. Her paintings, collages, sculptures, performances and videos are exhibited at prominent institutions worldwide including the Brooklyn Museum, the Deutsche Guggenheim Museum in Berlin and at the 56th International Exhibition of Contemporary Art at the Venice Biennale. A recipient of some the highest awards in international art, Mutu is a respected artist, exploring relevant concepts and producing influential artwork. It is simply common sense that her work is at home at almost any museum of contemporary African art.

Mutu’s compelling ten minute video installation at the Zeitz MOCAA, The end of carrying all (2015) is set across three large screens. The significance of her work is quickly apparent, inspiring conversations around the plight of women, the resilience of the individual, the corollaries of capitalism and the dehumanizing effects of globalization. A scenic mountainside with a salient pink sky, tall grass and palm trees render her backdrop of Africa. A women carries a basket on her head holding her only possessions; hardly any. As she walks uphill, the items in her basket grow heavier and become more visible. Amongst them are a bicycle wheel, a satellite, and even an apartment building. She begins to fold under the weight, bending lower and straining herself but still persevering; battling plagues of birds, locusts and flamingos. As the items in her basket swell, they become too cumbersome. Night falls, and she struggles to maintain a balance of the items; to keep everything together when suddenly, she is transformed by her pain. The woman unexpectedly morphs into a shapeless wriggling mass that is ultimately swallowed by the earth in a sensational conclusion.

Mutu’s composition is dramatic and beautiful. It is an emotional journey that reveals what we become after all the trials, the anguish, the rejection and the forced relocation that many of us experience in this lifetime. We empathize with carrying the world on our shoulders and even, at times, breaking under its weight. A heart-rending and relatable encounter, the film is powerful enough that you don’t need to question why it is there. Instead, you are moved to consider the possibility that our asset-based culture is nearing its apocalyptic end.

On the opposite side of the darkroom, Mutu’s installation Poems by my great grandmother (Root skull) 2017 rotates slowly under a spotlight. With a voodoo-esque quality, it is a theatrical piece that recalls a cow skull made from a root and horns. Together with the aluminium pot that all Kenyans will recognize, it summons the wisdoms of yesterday. Both of Mutu’s works at the Permanent Gallery are on loan from the artist and Victoria Miro Gallery.

Then there is Cyrus Kabiru, who participated in the Zeitz MOCAA Artist in Residency Programme in May 2018. In the list of artists at the entrance of the Permanent Gallery, his name is the only one where the country (Kenya) has not been inserted. Despite this oversight, Kabiru has an entire room dedicated to his artwork. There are large photographs of him parading his popular sunglasses. The imagery makes for a hip display that flaunts his active imagination and unique gift for combining found objects to produce a dramatic effect.

Kabiru is a TED fellow for The Young, The Gifted, The Undiscovered in the USA. His fashionable artwork has been featured at renowned establishments from the SMAC Gallery in Johannesburg and Cape Town to The Studio Museum in Harlem and The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, (as part of a three-stop exhibition Making Africa – A Continent of Contemporary Design. Kabiru’s work certainly has a place on the contemporary African art scene but the change it impacts is debatable. That is not to say that all artwork must be political or revolutionary. His fashion subtext and creative upcycling are inspiring but the two Kenyan representatives are so polarized in their respective contexts, without anyone satisfying the void in between, of which there are many brilliant artists to choose from.

Shabu Mwangi from Kenya, for instance, uses his paintings to explore the idea of statelessness and how it feels to be in a place that does not recognize your humanity while Beatrice Wanjiku’s amorphous figures investigate mortality, loss and the predicament of the human condition. Michael Soi puts a mirror to Kenya’s social and political climate recently focusing on the Chinese involvement in Africa. The list of Kenyan artists producing persuasive artwork is too long to list, and so other than Wangechi Mutu, and for the sake of reflecting plurality, it was important to consider some of the other Kenyan artists engaged in critical discourses ingrained in Africa, and begging for attention.

Scanning the South African art, even a casual bystander can detect the pattern at Zeitz MOCAA’s Permanent Gallery. Whether this mould is indicative of the influences impacting South African art or the tastes of the former Chief Curator is unclear. Eccentric photographic images by South African artists Athi-Patra Ruga and Thania Petersen are defined by bursts of luminous colour and a peculiar combination of natural and unnatural elements. From the neon pink tights worn by the balloon riddled figure in Ruga’s The knight of the long knives series to the loud pink birds in Petersen’s Flamingo (2017), you wonder if the aggressive palettes, with rushes of pink and red, are intentional. Both artists juxtapose the natural, the ancient and the African, with the new, the inorganic and the Western. Whether it is Ruga’s cheerless zebra caught in a madcap world, or Peterson’s selfie-obsessed bellas, brazenly posing in trendy attire, the compositions are loud with their circus-effect. Distinctly imbued with multiple connotations, they are also appreciated by many an admirer.

With their intense colour and boastful figures, there is a fad that is apparent at the Permanent Gallery. The fashion influence forces you in to a cosmetic world. If you will consider Cape Town and the new consumerist wave, fraught with the glamour of big business and commodity-culture, perhaps this is the context for artwork by artists like Ruga and Petersen, who have adequately captured the feeling of being caught between the new and old. Their work interrogates one’s place in this daunting orb, and asks: Where do we belong now? Frances Goodman also addresses the world of pretence through Ophiophillia (2014), a captivating installation featuring a snake pit with coiled snakes made of acrylic nails. Goodman speaks to the cosmetic industry; the objectification of women and the impossible standards of beauty. Together, these artists emphasize superficial beauty and altered appearance, and while this might have spoken to the fashionista in Coetzee, it also reflects some very real and precarious transformations within metropolitan cities in South Africa.

For all the predispositions and partiality surrounding the artwork at the Permanent Gallery, the Zeitz MOCAA occupies an extraordinary structure transformed by the Heatherwick Studio. Inside its resilient, rippled walls, there is plenty of artwork to consider and reconsider. It is liberating that you can take photographs and, for African citizens, entrance is free every Wednesday. Visitors can expect a roller-coaster of emotions from excited to confused and inconsolable. For those who understand what they are stepping in to, it presents the opportunity to catch a Kehinde Wiley, a Chris Ofili, or a Cheri Samba in the flesh, and with the new curatorial team under consideration, the Zeitz MOCAA even stands the chance to live up to its name.

For all the uncertainty surrounding it, one thing is for sure. The Zeitz MOCAA has categorically refueled the conversation around the representation of contemporary African art, and the very best advice to visitors is to adhere to the very sensible title of Mary Sibande’s impressive life-size sculptural installation: In the midst of the chaos there is opportunity.

October 12, 2018