Housed inside a historic 1920s granary – one of the tallest buildings on the South African capital’s skyline, which sat empty until the project was announced in 2013 – the reimagining into a museum comes straight from the blueprints of British starchitect Thomas Hardwick, known for several restorations around London. Towering silo facades, fortified by 33-metre-high cylinders of pure exposed concrete, have been repurposed to cradle a cathedral‐like a central atrium with a glass roof, in what can only be described as an architectural triumph.

When Zeitz MOCAA opens in late September, it will be so much more than an aesthetic spectacle. Its purpose is to serve as an unprecedented wealth of artistic knowledge that’s being made available to African citizens. It’s the first major contemporary art museum dedicated to contemporary art from Africa and its diaspora on the continent’s soil, and the first institution of its kind to also comprise diverse spaces from education centres to conservation areas, a restaurant, bookstores, rooftop sculpture garden, and more. But MOCAA isn’t as much about breaking records, as it is about breaking boundaries.

Despite the new ultra-luxury hotel sharing the building, with rooms starting at 12,000 rand (31,000 baht) a night, Zeitz MOCAA is a nonprofit project that organisers want to belong to African countrymen. Its ‘Access for All’ programme allows free entry to all visitors under the age of 18, every Wednesday morning for all Africans, and half-price admission for everyone on Friday nights.

If there’s anything that South Africans hold dear, it’s accessibility for all. South Africa has emerged a melting pot of indigenous tribes, Afrikaans, former slaves brought over from places such as Indonesia and India centuries ago, and a growing number of expats from Africa and around the world. Art has become a symbol for tolerance and equality, and that’s reflected in Cape Town’s gallery scene, where more than 50 spaces are free of charge for all to visit.

“I have witnessed the incredible impact art can have on a community by seeing how our street art contributed to the regeneration of Woodstock,” said street artist Juma Mkwela, referring to a rough but quickly gentrifying area in Cape Town that is now home to bountiful galleries, and vintage and design boutiques. “Painting murals became an activity that brought the community together, as well as many artists from all over the country and the world. Every piece of artwork has a message that comes from a diversity of experiences. Beautiful artwork is created, and communities are strengthened.”

Woodstock is the perfect example, a neighbourhood considered a “grey area” during apartheid where white and black people both could live, eventually making way for today’s urban renewal. Its biggest gem is the Old Biscuit Mill, a formerly derelict factory complex restored in 2006, now filled to the rafters on Fridays and Saturdays with milling tourists and dozens of food stands selling multi-ethnic cuisine, artisan goods, fashion, and more.

The market is an offshoot of WHATIFTHEWORLD, a design and art collective founded in 2005. It was at the forefront of Woodstock’s gentrifying movement, together with SMAC Gallery, a contemporary space blending South African, African, and international works, which opened its second exhibition space there in 2011, after catching onto the hype of cheap character buildings and a flourishing creative community.

Director Baylon Sandri of the SMAC Gallery agrees with Mkwela that art has not only beautified a beat-down area like Woodstock, but also cultivated a hotspot pumping with artistic vision and appreciation. “The proximity to other galleries has benefited us,” said Sandri. “We find that visitors, collectors and curators enjoy coming to a precinct, visiting galleries collectively and seeing more than one show.”

His words ring true for a burgeoning company called Art Route, which offers curated gallery visits to tourists and collectors. Founder Talita Swarts said art junkies new to Cape Town’s scene are often taken aback by what’s on offer. “We have a very sophisticated art market with highly trained, professional, contemporary artists who can be compared with the best in the USA and Europe,” she said. “Artists in South Africa tend to do everything by hand, things that can be laser-cut… stitching done by hand, weaving by hand. For me, this handmade texture reflected in our art is really a reflection of our culture.”

Swarts started offering the customised tours in 2014, after working as an artist and getting a whiff of such a large collector appetite. Tours can be tailor-made to the guests’ particular interests and tastes, from a meander through trendy, off-the-beaten track locations around Woodstock – including WHATIFTHEWORLD and SMAC Gallery – to a visit to the Cape Winelands, a vineyard region known for its plentiful pint-sized spaces.

South Africa is as charged by social, political and economic issues as it ever was. The country has recently experienced waves of largescale protests sweeping the country, calling for President Jacob Zuma to step down on charges of misgovernance and corruption. Art has an important role to play here too, allowing South Africans vehicles for expression and empowerment.

“In the next five or ten years, I think we will have a lot more young artists using street art as a way of getting in touch with the youth in the community,” said street art tour guide Mkwela. “I think art gives people direction, and I think this is very important for those who need to find a place to focus their energy.”

Text by Barbara Woolsey
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