The hulking structure consisting of dozens of concrete grain silos has loomed over Cape Town, South Africa’s waterfront since 1921. The  industrial space fell into disuse in 1990, but in September, it began a new life as the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, dedicated to the 21st-century works by artists from Africa or of African origin.

African art collector Jochen Zeitz

Jochen Zeitz

The nonprofit, public museum houses The Zeitz Collection, founded in 2002 by entrepreneur Jochen Zeitz, the former CEO of athletic apparel and accessory company Puma and founder of the Zeitz Foundation for Intercultural Ecosphere Safety.

Zeitz and curator Mark Coetzee had been exploring locations on the continent for the expansive collection. Zeitz MOCAA is the result of their collaboration with the city’s V&A Waterfront, where the silo complex is located. 

“I built my collection with a museum in Africa always in mind,” said Zeitz. “The fact that these works will now be accessible to all is a very emotional thing for me personally and, ultimately, gives the art true purpose”.

The collection largely is considered to be one of the most representative of contemporary art from Africa and its diaspora, and includes a broad range of pieces by dozens of artists, including Turner Prize winner Chris Ofili, Egyptian artist Ghada Amer, whose creations often deal with issues of feminism and sexuality, and South African photographer Zanele Muholi.

“The mark of any advanced civilization is the collective achievements of that civilization,” said Coetzee, Zeitz MOCAA’s executive director and chief curator.

African art sculpture by Chiurai Kudzanai.

Sculpture by Chiurai Kudzanai

“If we understand each other better, which is really what art does, we create a world we all want to live in. I think that is what is so extraordinary about this moment, this museum, and the collective vision and labor of those that brought it to fruition.

“This museum is a symbol and an icon of the confidence we feel about being Africans; the confidence we feel about our place in the world.”

Alongside the large permanent collection, the museum features temporary exhibitions, performance art spaces and education centers.

The $41 million conversion is the work of London-based Heatherwick Studio, which infused the expansive L-shaped structure with abundant natural light.

“The idea of turning a giant, disused concrete grain silo made from 116 vertical tubes into a new kind of public space was weird and compelling from the beginning,” said the firm’s founder, Thomas Heatherwick.

Art installation at Zeitz MOCAA

Installation at Zeitz MOCAA

“We were excited by the opportunity to unlock this formerly dead structure, and transform it into somewhere for people to see and enjoy the most incredible artworks from the continent of Africa.

“The technical challenge was to find a way to carve out spaces and galleries from the 10-story-high tubular honeycomb without completely destroying the authenticity of the original building.

“The result was a design and construction process that was as much about inventing new forms of surveying, structural support and sculpting, as it was about normal construction techniques.”

More than 64,000 square feet of exhibition space defined by 100 galleries have been created throughout the museum’s nine levels.

The institution features a rooftop sculpture garden, state-of-the-art storage and conservation areas, a gift shop, a restaurant and bar, and various reading rooms.

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