While in Cape Town, I had the good fortune of attending the currently featured exhibit at the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Africa Art, and was blown away. It was something the Cape Town wind had almost accomplished on its own, but the museum finished the job.
The current exhibit, entitled When We See Us: A Century of Black Figuration in Painting, opened last November and will run till Sept. 3. If you have a chance to be in Cape Town between now and then, I highly recommend fitting it into your schedule. It provides one highly compressed African experience that can greatly expand one’s horizons about African culture, and can give you much food for thought to digest for a long time after you leave the museum. It’s a riveting, dazzling sensory experience, not only a visual feast, but also a philosophical journey.
The Origin of Zeitz
The Zeitz MOCAA itself is a phenomenon worth making the time to take in, no matter what temporary exhibits are showing when you are in Cape Town. The permanent exhibit is well worth visiting at any time. That alone offers more than you can possibly take in during a single visit.
The structure that houses the museum is an amazing piece of architecture and engineering in itself. It was constructed from a complex of old, abandoned grain silos down by the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront. The silos were no longer being used and had become dead space on the waterfront, which is Cape Town’s most popular tourist draw.
The grain silo site had consisted of 42 giant cylinders, each one standing some 108 feet tall, with a diameter of 18 feet. It had once been the tallest structure on the Cape Town skyline.
The silos were seen as significant historical artifacts, so there was resistance to the idea of demolishing them. So, for years debate raged about what to do with them. It was eventually decided to make them into an art museum that would be the home for a collection of art from Africa and its diaspora that had been curated by a collector named Jochen Zeitz.
The project took a wasted space, what had been a blight on prime real estate, and with an enormous amount of architectural and engineering ingenuity transformed the old silos into a vibrant new part of the community.
The designer, Thomas Heatherwick, worked with a team of architects to convert the space into something radically different from what had been its original purpose.
The mission of the museum was defined as the following:
- To advance, promote, and preserve arts and culture from Africa and its diaspora
- To provide access to a core collection of art to the public
- To initiate and develop school programs that enrich, inspire and bring art and culture to the youth
The current exhibit, When We See Us: A Century of Black Figuration in Painting, shows more than 200 works of 156 artists. The pieces have been contributed by various lenders from 26 countries. Zeitz’s promotional material explains that the purpose of the exhibit is “to show how artists from Africa and its diaspora have imagined, positioned, memorialized, and asserted African and African-descent experiences.” It hopes to contribute to “critical discourse on African and Black liberation, intellectual, and philosophical movements.” It well lives up to its mission.
The experience of walking through the exhibit, taking in as much as you can, knowing it’s impossible to give each piece the attention it deserves, leaves the mind reeling. It’s one of those kinds of museum experiences. There is so much wild color, so much drama, dozens of intriguing stories indicated by a single image.
The paintings are grouped into six categories representing various themes:
- The Everyday shows the beauty found in everyday lives of Black people, “the way we play, in the manner we knuckle down to work, and in moments of respite.” It includes paintings by Antoine Obin, Kingsley Sambo, and John Biggers.
- Joy and Revelry portrays enjoyment and celebration. “We know how to hold a celebration—see how we bask in the rays of our gaiety.” This section includes works by Esiri Erheriene-Essi, Philomé Obin, Chéri Samba, Romare Bearden, and George Pemba.
- Repose explores the experience of resting, unwinding, contemplating. Among the featured artists in this category are Marcus Brutus, Gideon Appah, and Kudzanal Violet-Hwami.
- Sensuality focuses of love, intimacy, and affection. “Welcome to Black love,” it says, “to bodies inviting and expressing intimacy and affection. Our tenderness is multidimensional and has no limits.” Featured artists here include Mickalene Thomas, Daniela Yohannes, Dominic Chamber, and Zachariah Mbutha.
- Spirituality, it says, “cannot be separated from everyday life. It is multifaceted and complex, but it is our understanding of the universe in a way that aims at improving our existence.” It includes pieces by Sthembiso Sibisi, Deouard Dubal-Carrié, and Olivier Souffrant.
- Triumph and Emancipation focuses on “joy, relief and pride. Here we are strength personified. Through our triumph, we are indestructible and victorious.” It features portraits of revolutionary leaders, political and cultural, as in the spirit of Maya Angelou’s poem Still I Rise. Among the featured artists are Helen Sebidi and Chéri Chéren.
For those who will not be making it to Cape Town before the show closes in September, and for those who have seen the show, but want to dig in deeper, Zeitz MOCAA is also running a seminar series to go along with the “When We See Us” show. The series runs on Tuesdays and is free to attend. The introduction to the series presents an eloquent statement about what the show is about:
For more than a century, Black artists, whether residing in Africa or within the vast African diaspora, have invested and pursued a spectrum of visual vocabularies that encompass the experiences of Blackness—of being Black, of living within Black cultures and navigating the complexities of representation and visibility. In doing so, Black artists have intentionally, continuously and effectively rejected oppressive tropes of representation that have been cast on African and Afro-diasporic lives by the Euro-American enterprise of dehumanization and segregation.
It’s impossible to describe the visual effects of this collection of more than 200 works, but this statement gives an indication of the degree to which it is clear that this show is not just a collection of pretty pictures. There is certainly plenty of beauty of many kinds to be seen there, but beyond that this collection of artworks is also an assault on the mind, an irresistible challenge to many preconceptions. Like all of the finest visual art, these pieces have the power to change the way you see the world.
For more information on “When We See Us,” see The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Africa Art.
David Cogswell is a freelance writer working remotely, from wherever he is at the moment. Born at the dead center of the United States during the last century, he has been incessantly moving and exploring for decades. His articles have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, Fortune, Fox News, Luxury Travel Magazine, Travel Weekly, Travel Market Report, Travel Agent Magazine, TravelPulse.com, Quirkycruise.com, and other publications. He is the author of four books and a contributor to several others. He was last seen somewhere in the Northeast US.