Fairs Museums Collectors South Africa

Rubell director returns to Africa

Curator Mark Coetzee is in charge of the continent’s first major contemporary art museum

The ­South African artist Nicholas Hlobo’s dragon in flight, made for the 2011 Venice Biennale, has been acquired by the Zeitz museum, which is run by Mark Coetzee. It is made from the rubber of tyre inner tubes and is festooned with ribbons. Photo: © Adrian Langtry, 2011

When Mark Coetzee left Cape Town on a scholarship to the Sorbonne University in Paris in 1988, he vowed to return one day to fulfil a lifelong ambition. “I’ve always had a desire to build a major contemporary art museum in Africa,” Coetzee says. “I knew that, to do this, I had to leave, to learn and to develop connections in the international art world.”

Now, 25 years later, Coetzee is finally fulfilling his dream. He has been appointed executive director and chief curator of Africa’s first major museum of contemporary art. The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, which is due to open in 2016, will show the collection assembled by Coetzee for the German collector Jochen Zeitz, the former chairman of the sportswear company Puma.

The museum, which will be housed in a former grain silo in Cape Town, is being created in partnership with the V&A Waterfront, which owns the building and is providing more than R500m (around $49m) for its conversion into a museum. It will comprise around 102,000 sq. ft over nine floors, of which 65,000 sq. ft will be dedicated to displays. The V&A Waterfront includes numerous venues and attracts more than 24 million visitors a year, making it the most visited site in Africa.

Lucky encounter

Coetzee first met Jochen Zeitz in Miami, where the curator spent a decade running the Rubell Family Collection for the eponymous collectors. There, he supervised the creation of a state-of-the-art gallery in a former Drug Enforcement Agency facility and organised shows including a survey of paintings by artists from Leipzig, an exhibition on the Miami artist Hernan Bas and “30 Americans”, a show of work by African-American artists. When Zeitz heard about “30 Americans”, he arranged to meet Coetzee and then got Puma to sponsor the exhibition.

It was a lucky encounter for the South African curator. “Jochen asked me what I wanted to do next and I explained my ambition to build a museum in Africa,” Coetzee says. Zeitz had already been engaged with the continent for a long time. “Under his direction, Puma was the first major sportswear brand to sponsor African soccer teams. When I told him about my museum ambitions, he said: ‘I want to do that too. Can you do in Africa what you’ve done at the Rubells?’”

Coetzee spent the next five years building a collection of contemporary art from Africa and the diaspora for Zeitz, “buying at an accelerated pace… sometimes 70 pieces a week”, he says. Key purchases include Ten Thousand Waves, 2010, a nine-screen video installation by Isaac Julien, who was born in London to Caribbean immigrant parents. An edition of the work is currently on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (until 17 February 2014).

“This institution creates the possibility for the seminal artefacts of our time to be secured for Africa,” says Coetzee, who adds that “it is imperative that the discourse around contemporary art practice in Africa is led by Africa”.

The Zeitz collection, which is now the most comprehensive collection of contemporary art from the continent, includes the Angola pavilion from this year’s Venice Biennale, which won the Golden Lion for best national presentation. The installation, by the artist Edson Chagas, consists of stacks of photographs taken in the Angolan capital, Luanda. Until the new museum opens, Coetzee will organise shows in a pavilion near the planned institution. The first show is devoted to the Swazi artist Nandipha Mntambo and runs until 16 February 2014.

Mark Coetzee, the executive director and chief curator of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa
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