Living in London means I am fully spoiled when it comes to the opportunity of seeing some fantastic and famous art. It’s not crossed my mind that most of it, if not all, has been produced by European or American artists. The first time I started to realise how skewed my exposure was, was seeing Basquiat’s piece ‘King Zulu’ at an exhibition dedicated to his work which elicited a physical emotional reaction out of me – the only time an artwork has managed to move me to tears.
Fast forward a couple of years to finding myself thinking about ‘my favourite building’ for a team meeting at work. I was about to head to Cape Town for a holiday and I wondered how I could perhaps showcase a building from my hometown. I then remembered the much talked about refurbishment of the silo building in the Waterfront area converting it into the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art (MOCAA), completed in 2017.
Researching the project made it clear that it would be impossible to accurately describe the building’s history, the complicated refurbishment and the significance of the completed gallery along with its vision in my allotted five minutes. I was suddenly very excited to add it to my list of sites to see while visiting.
Zeitz MOCAA is visible for miles. The grain silos themselves were once the tallest building in the country, which of course pale in comparison to the skyscrapers in town today, but remains quite imposing when you stand at the base of the concrete structure. The size is implied on images you can find online but it is nothing compared to having to crane your neck back further than is comfortable to try glimpse the top floors from the ground.
Taking some obligatory photos in front of Table Mountain, like any Insta-tourist would, we approached the entrance which was peppered with strange odd shaped chairs. These wide, circular, heavy concrete sort of stools were shaped a bit like spinning tops, with a base a bit like an axis. Sitting in them, one could lean or lounge backward, and they would spin around using your body weight which was hilarious and terrifying at the same time. It goes against one’s very nature to feel safe as a chair dips backwards. It feels like you’re going to take a spill and land on your head, even when you know its impossible to fall over. One full rotation was surprisingly fun, but all that was necessary; as a result my adrenaline was flowing as we made our way into the building itself.
This buzz was maintained as we entered the central atrium. The scale needs to be experienced in person, no photograph can truly do this impressive and unique space justice. Instead of demolishing and constructing an entirely new building, the existing grain silos were reinforced and then carved out creating an almost alien environment. The textures are varied and marvelous with the layers of old and new concrete clearly visible like strata, the implied roughness was polished and smooth to the touch.
The ceiling of this part of the building was constructed of what appeared to be reinforced glass, allowing daylight to flood the dramatic space. A spiral staircase winds up one of the silo tubes and an elevator glides up another. There is a sense of movement, or rather fluidity, in this atrium and I could have spent much of the day just watching people’s faces as they took in the space upon entering as well as in the elevator.
Deciding to start from the top of the building and work our way down through the six floors of gallery and workshop spaces, the glass elevator ride up made me feel like Charlie Bucket in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Watching people mill around on the lower levels turned my legs to jelly quite quickly though when I fully realised the height of the structure. In fact I had to hold onto the mid rail quite tightly and look out across the atrium as we reached the sixth floor.
The art exhibited is astounding in its own right. Permanent and temporary exhibitions of exclusively African contemporary art makes MOCAA the largest showcase of it’s kind in the world. This wealth of talent is vastly underrepresented and we are sorely missing out. Pieces in a variety of media including audio, video, sculpture, photography as well as etchings and paintings; most of which moved, challenged and delighted me.
The sheer volume of works lead to a bit of sensory overload, notwithstanding the journey through the building floors itself. The industrial environment contrasted beautifully with the fine art on show. Glass connecting corridors reminding you of just how high up you were, as well as giving one the opportunity to take in the stunning view surrounding this site.
The temptation to look down the centre of the spiral staircase as we descended was too great to resist, and while the fear was real and I could only look for a few seconds, the tummy clenching knots and buckling knees were worth the photos. I remembered seeing videos on the architect’s (Heatherwick Studio) website of the metal stairs being lowered down the silo tubes and being fixed into place.
The immensity of the building seemed to perfectly contain the emotion expressed in the works on show. While we weren’t able to see everything, it would take days to take in this volume of work, it feels like the space is evolving along with the the exhibits.
Attempting to describe this experience only proves to me how much language can fall short sometimes. Walking through the lower level area, ominously named ‘The Tunnels’, largely untouched you can explore parts of the original building left in tact with dark and eerie corners, along with the chutes where the corn would have been extracted. A little bit of history mixed with a foreboding sense of a horror film.
With so much to see and absorb, as well as rotating exhibits, I look forward to adding Zeitz MOCAA to my list of must see attractions for every visit.