How Cape Town Is Proving That Art Can Bring a Continent Together

Courtesy Zeitz Collection

Jochen Zeitz takes his stellar African art collection to South Africa.

It requires unusual vision and determination to conjure up a major new art institution dedicated to an entire continent, and then name it after yourself. But Jochen Zeitz, the driving force behind the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (MOCAA), which opened on Cape Town’s waterfront in late September, has never lacked creative ambitions—or the perseverance required to realize them.

Over the course of two decades, the German businessman turned philanthropist transformed the footwear firm Puma into a global brand, helped by surprisingly eclectic sponsorship deals, including with the national soccer team of Cameroon. By 2005, when Zeitz purchased a 50,000-acre cattle ranch in western Kenya, his professional philosophy had passed beyond profit margins—and his interest in Africa had grown considerably. That tract of land became an ultra-luxurious, sustainable safari camp, christened Segera, with some of the most stunning game drives in East Africa as well as a world-class sculpture collection. It allowed Zeitz to indulge his passions for wildlife conservation and contemporary African art. In addition, Segera began serving as the acting headquarters for a regional development program that, among other things, constructs schools with built-in rainwater catchment systems, so village kids can get safe drinking water along with their education.

“I like to think global but act local,” explains Zeitz over lunch at a pub near his home in a quiet, leafy corner of London. The Cape Town museum embodies that mantra by drawing in well-heeled international travelers while also throwing open its doors to schoolchildren from nearby townships, with complimentary transport and lunch included in their admission. Zeitz, who built  MOCAA’s permanent collection from his private trove, insists that access to the art is nonnegotiable. “Anybody who wants to see this museum can, whether you can afford a ticket or not,” he says.

MOCAA inhabits an almost century-old industrial silo complex, which was converted by British designer Thomas Heatherwick into a vast glass aerie. (Heatherwick also designed the adjacent Silo Hotel.) Zeitz’s longtime collaborator Mark Coetzee—he is the museum’s director and chief curator—has recruited several art scouts to ensure that the collection represents the best of the continent’s thriving contemporary scene. Zeitz says this should offer African artists “an opportunity—and a platform—to present their art in an international context.” He hopes that MOCAA will fill a long-standing void in Africa’s cultural landscape and that before long it will be contemporary art, rather than grain, that travels across the ocean from the silo.

When the museum opened, the globally acclaimed installation artist Isaac Julien and the Turner Prize–winning British Nigerian Chris Ofili shared exhibition space with rising African stars, including South African Athi-Patra Ruga and Peterson Kamwathi, a Kenyan artist who two years ago participated in the museum’s freshly minted residency program at Segera, which Zeitz hails as “a testing ground for artists.”

Zeitz isn’t transforming the art scene just for modern museumgoers and Africa-linked artists, either. With 24 trainee curators drawn largely from the continent and its diaspora working on-site, he also hopes to create a future generation of museum directors who will one day fan out to promote and interpret African art at renowned institutions everywhere. zeitzmocaa.museum