If you've walked into the Turbine Hall of London's Tate Modern or descended into MONA's Dante-esque levels beneath Hobart, you'll know the power of entering a radical art space. Well, it's time to be blown away by the Zeitz MOCAA in Cape Town – a contemporary art gallery that's unlike anything you've seen.
Since 1924, the Cape Town waterfront has been home to a huge grain silo. Decommissioned in the 1990s, the concrete silo was considered ugly on the outside, (its colour described as 'magnolia-grunge') and complex on the inside (how exactly do you make something out of 42 concrete tubes that are 33 metres tall and only five metres in diameter?). Moreover, with the on-going redevelopment of the glitzy Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, it was eminently suited to demolition.
Then in 2011, two visionaries came together. Jochen Zeitz, multi-millionaire and ex-CEO of Puma, wanted a public home for his collection of pan-African art. And British designer Thomas Heatherwick decided the world didn't need 'another shiny building' and embraced the challenge of reinventing the concrete industrial relic.
The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa opened in 2017 at a cost of 500 million Rand. Oddly, Cape Town doesn't make a big deal of hosting the continent's first gallery dedicated to African art, but there's no missing the structure on the city skyline. The silo is six storeys tall – and on top of that are a further six storeys of multi-faceted glass, a crown of light as remarkable by day as it is by night.
But the real surprise is within. Enter the gallery's atrium and you find yourself looking up into a cavernous space that at once suggests larval chambers or a human heart. If you had to take a guess, you'd say the builders had used a giant angle grinder to cut a vast egg-shaped void from the guts of the silo. Overhead, light floods through five metre-wide apertures, illuminating the weird organics of the surgically exposed tube walls.
Two glass lifts shuttle visitors up one side of the atrium delivering them into the gallery proper – a total of 9500 square meters including 80 (more usual-shaped) galleries.
So what of the gallery collection?
With so much traditional art filling the retail spaces of African towns and cities (think beadwork and wood carvings) it's refreshing to see what preoccupies the minds of contemporary African artists. Unsurprisingly, issues of colonialism, corrupt dictators and inequality figure largely, though sentiments are less angry than you might expect. Or perhaps more cautiously expressed.
The nature of the old silo offers artists some unusual spaces in which to work. Cape Town artist Nobukho Nqaba's installation 'We Make Plans' is a furnished room in which every square centimetre is shrink-wrapped with the chequered plastic fabric that makes up hold-all bags – an invocation of informal townships in South Africa, and how peoples' hopes, dreams and plans for a better life arrive in these bags. The installation ends in one of the silo's old concrete stairwells, a gloomy plunging space where the artist hangs wheelbarrows and dusty blue overalls (which look like bodies). It's symbolic of where these plans end up.
Once you've finished in the galleries, you'll either end up in the shop or the restaurant. The shop on the ground floor has gifts with a difference, ranging from very cool MOCAA-branded stationery to cutting edge jewellery with four figures attached. The sixth floor is home to a super-smooth restaurant called Food: it enjoys priceless views through those crowning multi-faceted windows, so you can enjoy the like of Spiced Seafood Hot Pot (mussels, prawns, soft shell crab and saffron rouille) with views over the waterfront and Table Mountain.
It's a privileged outlook indeed – and how you feel about it will depend on how deeply the works in Zeitz MOCAA have spoken to you. Grains of truth in the old silo?
Max Anderson was a guest of Scenic
Entrance to the gallery costs 200 Rand ($20).
Cape Town is part of an 11-day Scenic five-star tour of South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana. Guests stay three nights in Cape Town at Table Bay Hotel in the Waterfront Precinct – 800 metres from the Zietz MOCAA gallery. Visit scenic.com.au/tours