Insight: Zeitz MOCAA
Since it was first announced in late 2013, Cape Town’s much-anticipated Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA) has drawn significant attention for what it represents: the first large-scale museum on the continent dedicated to contemporary art from Africa and its diaspora. It goes without saying that a complex cultural institution on this scale requires a dedicated and focused team of collaborators operating behind the scenes to ensure that the museum spaces are running smoothly, filled with cutting-edge, relevant and engaging content. MOMO The Magazine introduces four of them.
Gcotyelwa Mashiqa – AKO Foundation assistant curator: Roger Ballen Foundation Centre for Photography
‘We’re the core of the museum,’ says Gcotyelwa Mashiqa. ‘Without us as curators and content makers, there wouldn’t be a museum.’
It’s always been Mashiqa’s dream to work as a curator in a cultural institution, and her journey to her current position came about through the museum’s curatorial training programme a year ago. ‘I came from a theoretical background and the programme was surprisingly practical-based,’ she says. ‘I quickly found that theoretical knowledge alone wasn’t enough to solve the problems.’
Mashiqa believes that museums are a reflection of the culture of a particular nation and its people. ‘I’ve always been fascinated by them, even though the ones that were usually available to me were old natural-sciences museums filled with dead things. I’ve always wondered who makes those decisions about what goes on display.’
Her desire for museums to be living spaces of inclusion was ignited when she came across an artefact called the Ghost Dance Shirt in the Kelvingrove Art Gallery in Glasgow. ‘The museum didn’t know the provenance of the object, but someone saw this piece of shirt and recognised its original owners. I liked the process of bringing the custodians of that culture into the museum. What was so interesting was that people were consulted from that culture, and were then part of the exhibit, to such an extent that whenever they would have rituals, they borrowed the shirt. I love the fact that the community was brought into the space through that object.’
With Zeitz MOCAA, she says, there’s a similar mission of making the space accessible to the broader community. And, as assistant curator of photography, it falls to her to develop exhibitions at the Roger Ballen Foundation Centre for Photography that achieve this goal.
Ellen Kondowe – assistant registrar
‘My role at the museum is to grease the wheels,’ quips Ellen Kondowe. Serving ‘behind the scenes of the behind-the-scenes’, Kondowe and the Collections Management Department ensure that everything is in place for the museum to operate efficiently. She liaises between the museum’s six separate institutions: the Roger Ballen Foundation Centre for Photography, the Centres for Art Education, Curatorial Excellence, Performative Practice and the Moving Image, and the Costume Institute.
Kondowe joined Zeitz MOCAA as assistant curator of costume, before shifting trajectories. ‘My primary passion has always been to work as a conduit or mediator within art, culture and costume,’ she says, ‘and in the assistant-registrar position I get to work across the disciplines of all six institutions housed within the museum. I get to engage with the artists, curators, donors and stakeholders, all within this one role.’
Her responsibilities are about making sure that the resources and materials are there to make their job easier, she elaborates. ‘I support the curators: if they have an exhibition in mind, I organise the logistics of it. I draft the forms for loans and acquisitions. If there’s shipping of an exhibition from another international institution, I organise the logistics there too. I provide reports about the condition of artworks, about climate control, and about the museum’s storage and conservation capabilities.’
As a result of the supporting nature of her position, Kondowe finds herself doing vastly different things from day to day. At this particular moment, her focus is on installations. ‘I’m running around coordinating installers, gallerists and artists, overseeing installations, making sure that the works actually arrive at the museum, and that they’re hung according to the wishes of the collectors, artists, galleries and curators.’
Working with all the museum’s divisions ensures that Kondowe is consistently on her toes. ‘Each institution requires specialised approaches for its idiosyncratic archival challenges. Works on paper require particular strategies for long-term conservation. For something in costume, you have to take into consideration the textiles and the composition, what it can be exposed to, how you store it.
We’re the core of the museum.
Something like digital media or a video installation will need to be backed up on three servers and off site.’
The position has required Kondowe to become intimately familiar with each work in the museum’s various collections. ‘There’s provenance to every single work. You have to be able to trace the story of the artwork before entering the museum. You need to know about the artist, its origins in a gallery, which exhibitions it’s been included in, right up to the work’s journey through different collectors, institutions, and the primary and secondary markets. That falls to me to research.’
Gontse Mathabathe – AfriSam curator of digital platforms
Art historian, critic and writer, Gontse Mathabathe’s position requires her to develop and curate all the museum’s digital platforms, from social media (Twitter, Instagram and Facebook) to the museum’s website. ‘It’s about ensuring that all the museum’s various platforms are accessible, and reflect the African diasporic art production that’s happening in the best way possible,’ she explains. ‘That’s what this museum is about.’
Mathabathe developed an interest in curating and the writing aspect of art during her third year of tertiary study. ‘Since then, I’ve always wanted to be part of some institution that builds an art industry, especially in Africa. I don’t think it’s worth going elsewhere.’
Currently, her primary focus is on developing the three different audioguides on handheld devices that will be freely available to the museum’s visitors: an art tour, an architecture tour and an educational tour. ‘Each device can be used by up to two people, and there’ll be about 20 stops for each tour, ranging from the atrium to a specific artwork, to upstairs in the sculpture garden, and any other interesting aspects in between.’
The educational tour is targeted at school groups, she says. ‘We’re going to have a dedicated art-education centre where we’ll have programming and activities for schoolchildren, and the audio tour will help children to navigate through the space.’
The art tour is mostly for adults, but there’s nothing stopping an adult and a child doing it together, she says. ‘It will focus on the artworks on display, the stories behind the artworks, and the curatorial intentions that come with them.’
The architecture tour will be for visitors who’re interested in the silo building itself, in terms of both its current redesign by Heatherwick Studios and its historic role at the heart of the city’s waterfront.
The audio tours will allow audiences to meaningfully curate their own guided tour of the museum.‘This will be a virtual aspect that will allow visitors to be independent and to explore spaces on their own, but in a guided way,’ Mathabathe explains.
While the audio tours were initially conceptualised as an app, the team decided to move away from that idea on the grounds that it would ostracise visitors without smartphones, and also violate the museum’s policy of access for all. ‘The audio will be available online on our website, so if you do have a smartphone or want to access that information offsite in your own time, that will be available for you as well,’ says Mathabathe.
Sakhisizwe Gcina – AKO Foundation assistant curator of special projects, Curatorial Lab, Centre for Curatorial Excellence
‘What is a lab?’ muses Sakhisizwe Gcina. ‘It’s a site for experimentation. You mix things together, it’s trial and error, you write reports, you develop a methodology for how an idea could work.’
The curatorial lab at Zeitz MOCAA is envisioned as a highly experimental gallery housing dynamic and multidisciplinary work. ‘The intention of this space is to be more research-based, to develop ideas, but also to have temporary exhibitions that come from workshops, panel discussions and interaction with the public about social issues that might seem a bit taboo for some people,’ Gcina explains.
‘I see the creative industry as an ecosystem with different components that are separate but interconnected,’ he continues, observing that the collaborative nature of his work at Zeitz MOCAA was a natural progression of his fondness for interconnectivity. ‘We work very much as a team. The curatorial team will meet every day to discuss issues between the different departments, but also to speak holistically about exhibitions. No one is excluded; we discuss all issues together.’
When conceptualising an exhib tion, Gcina considers it crucial that the curators consult voices that offer a perspective on the exhibition content coming from lived experience. ‘The curators – even those from the other departments – need to participate in workshops with civil-society organisations. For example, if we do an exhibition about gender and sexuality, it would have to be an organisation such as [sex-worker advocacy taskforce] SWEAT or Sonke Gender Justice because they interact with people on the ground. We need their information and knowledge in order to write and speak about the exhibitions from an informed position.’
This same approach is extended by the museum’s Centre for Curatorial Excellence, the broader institution under which the Curatorial Lab falls. ‘It’s very important for us to have stories by Africans, for Africans, exhibited in Africa, because we’re trying to address narratives that have been told by outsiders and exhibited in foreign countries without consideration of the lived experience of groups and individuals living on the continent. Obviously, with contemporary contexts, it’s important to show the evolution of African artwork from the “tribalistic” – and that’s a hugely problematic term for me – to something that’s aligned with current affairs on a global scale.’