Picture: THINKSTOCK
Picture: THINKSTOCK

ON CAPE Town’s waterfront at the southern tip of Africa, the world’s biggest museum of contemporary art from across the continent is being carved from a conglomeration of concrete tubes nine-storeys high.

The $50m project to transform the grim functionality of 42 disused colonial grain silos into an ultramodern tribute to African creativity is driven by an international team of art experts and architects.

For Mark Coetzee, executive director and chief curator of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, the project is the fulfillment of a pledge he made to himself a quarter of a century ago.

"It has been my life dream to build a contemporary art museum in Africa," the South African-born former director of the Rubell Family Collection in Miami said.

"When I left Cape Town 25 years ago I vowed to return only when I had the skills and the relationships to make this happen."

For British architect Thomas Heatherwick, whose acclaimed worldwide projects include the Olympic Cauldron for the London Games in 2012, it was a stimulating challenge. "How do you turn 42 vertical concrete tubes into a place to experience contemporary culture?" Mr Heatherwick said.

"We could either fight a building made of concrete tubes or enjoy it’s tube-iness."

An elliptical section will be hollowed out from the centre of the nine-storey building to create a grand atrium that will be filled with light from a glass roof overhead, the designers said. Some silo chambers will be carved open at ground level to accommodate exhibition galleries, while others will house elevators.

This vision is difficult to comprehend on a visit to the construction site on the Victoria and Albert Waterfront where workers, reduced to ant size by the scale of the bleak industrial silos, are in the early stages of the project, due for completion in late 2016.

But architects' drawings — which can be seen at www.heatherwick.com — illustrate an intriguing transformation worthy of showcasing the art of a continent riding a wave of international enthusiasm.

"There is a growing interest in the visual arts in and from Africa," Mr Coetzee said.

"The market is booming, artists from Africa are included on all the major biennales, major gallerists and collectors include artists from Africa in their focus."

The museum is named for German entrepreneur and former Puma chairman Jochen Zeitz, whose extensive African art collection will provide the museum’s permanent exhibition.

He has committed the collection to the museum in perpetuity and will underwrite the running costs of the institution while providing a budget for new acquisitions.

The Zeitz Collection was founded in 2002 and was "one of the most representative collections of contemporary art from Africa and its diaspora", Mr Coetzee said.

It is currently held and exhibited in Switzerland, Spain, SA, the US and Kenya.

Apart from the permanent collection, the museum’s 80 galleries will house temporary and travelling exhibitions. The museum will focus on the 21st Century with a collection policy of work from 2000 onwards.

"I think you can say that when it is complete it will be the biggest museum in Africa and the world focusing on contemporary art practice in and from Africa," Mr Coetzee said.

There will also be an education centre for schoolchildren, another for young curators, along with the usual museum facilities of restaurants and bookstores.

An amphitheatre on the plaza outside the museum will stage outdoor events and performances, while an outdoor roof garden will offer unparalleled views over the city to Cape Town’s iconic Table Mountain.

The V&A Waterfront is a rehabilitated docklands full of trendy restaurants and shops, as well as the site of a ferry terminal for Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned.

Cape Town itself is a relaxed, cosmopolitan outpost of the African continent where the multiracial mix on the streets symbolises the change in SA since the oppressive years of apartheid. And in a country where anything authentically African was automatically considered second-rate — including the people — the museum will plant another flag of change.

It will "constitute the re-imagining of a museum within an African context, celebrate Africa preserving its own cultural legacy, writing its own history and defining itself on its own terms", said Mr Coetzee.

Sapa-AFP