Arts & Entertainment

The Zeitz Museum’s quest to define contemporary African art

By Nerea Gonzalez

Cape Town, South Africa, Mar 26 (efe-epa).- How can contemporary African art be defined? The Zeitz MOCAA in Cape Town seeks to answer that question through the largest collection of African art that exists.

Housed in an incredible former historic Grain Silo built in the 1920s, the 57 meters high concrete and glass building sits on the on the banks of Table Bay with breathtaking views of the Atlantic Ocean.

Since it launched in 2017, it has firmly established itself as a landmark and receives thousands of international visitors a month,

Born with a clear mission to become “the first major museum in Africa dedicated to contemporary African art,” and boasting an enviable location heavily frequented by tourists, the institution has soon became an iconic gem of Cape Town’s Waterfront.

But the pioneering initiative not only faced the challenge of bringing together an unparalleled collection, it also had the self-imposed responsibility of informing what shapes and defines contemporary African art, something nobody had dared to do on such a large scale.

“I think an important aspect of the museum’s mission is to also contribute to the discourse of contemporary African art, to understand it as a kind of developing practise that is ongoingly changing, it’s not fixed, and that is very important for us,” Senior curator, Storm Janse van Rensburg, tells Efe.

The Zeitz does not seek to resemble any other museum in the world and the team behind the project is conscious it is touring unexplored territory, the expert said.

The curatorial team have found identifying trends in African art complex, and purely geographical labels vacuous.

“I think there’s definitely an assumption that African art is about masks and rituals so for example that’s a very important aspect of classical African art but of course contemporary African artists work in so many different ways and disrupt those kinds of assumptions. So we also need to be careful how we navigate that,” Van Rensburg added.

The Zeitz currently houses works by artists like Malian Abdoulaye Konaté, known for his monumental textile installations, Beninese photographer Leonce Raphael Agbodjelou and South African visual activist Zanele Muholi.

William Kentridge, one of the most recognised contemporary South African artists, recently enjoyed a retrospective at the venue titled Why Should I Hesitate: Putting Drawings to Work.

The artists on show at the Zeitz are internationally renowned and many have exhibited in London, Berlin, New York.

But in European or American shows they inevitably fall under the label of African art, and this is often the main or only defining factor under which they are framed.

What is very jarring is that no international curator would even consider using the label of European art to describe a group of practitioners, Van Rensburg muses.

“I think that it is important to locate where that debate must be. In that

yes, I take this identity on, but I also want the freedom to move

around it and not to be defined only by that,” Van Rensburg says.

“We also need to create a space for African artists to be able to have a platform just to engage with aesthetics for example. Like to talk about formalism, for example, and those spaces may have not been so available.”

For Van Rensburg, there is no single definition of what contemporary African art is.

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