In September of last year, the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (MOCAA) – the largest museum of contemporary African art in the world – opened its doors on the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town, South Africa. Hailed as “a new beacon of art” and “Africa’s most important museum opening in a century,” MOCAA promised its visitors an accessible and engaging space in which to enjoy one hundred galleries of installations, photography, paintings, and video works on view. Although its collection represents an impressive breadth of global art, and the artists represented are queer, female, and international, MOCAA received criticism for its lack of diversity among its high-ranking staff (most of whom are white and male). Considering the Museum will be celebrating its one-year anniversary this month, how has it addressed this problem…if at all?
At MOCAA, boutique lighting, white walls, and spaced out exhibitions provide an aesthetic experience that facilitate art viewing, encouraging visitors to stay for hours and to become lost in the great art before them. From Yinka Shonibare’s film installations that reflect on colonial practices, to sculptures by Swazi artist Nandipha Mntambo that explore the notion of binaries, MOCAA poignantly displays art from critically acclaimed artists. The collection, in addition to being beautiful, is worldly, intellectual, and relevant to today’s ever-changing political climate.
As a result of this universal approach, the canon of African art history is slowly widening and shifting to a more inclusive perspective. Despite these positives, the “overarching amount of white male voices” among its staff and Board of Directors becomes problematic when we consider the fact that only twenty-six years ago black South Africans were not even allowed to enter museums. Apartheid, the discriminatory racial classification system that severely restricted black South Africans’ rights to own land, vote, or visit certain areas, existed throughout the country from 1948-1991. Although apartheid has been abolished, its effects of systemic racism divisions still linger.
In May, MOCAA faced even more criticism when Mark Coetzee, executive director and chief curator (and personal friend of museum founder Jochen Zeitz), resigned due to professional misconduct allegations. Azu Nwagbogu, MOCAA’s photography curator, replaced him as the new director and head curator. Nwagbogu is also the editor-in-chief of Art Base Africa, an online contemporary African art journal, and has been the director of the African Artists’ Foundation since 2007. With these outstanding qualifications, it makes me wonder why he wasn’t hired as chief curator in the first place. In this role, Nwagbogu will also oversee the Museum’s curating training program, which trains twenty aspiring curators from around the continent “to work specifically in the context of their communities.”
I think there is hope for change with its youth curating program. After all, the Museum is still in its infancy; at the time of this writing it has only been open to the public for one year. With the criticisms it has received regarding its “whiteness” in a country that has experienced ongoing intense racial divides, I hope that in the coming year, and under the new direction of Nwagbogu, MOCAA will mindfully make decisions to prioritize inclusion and diversity among its staff, Board, and program efforts.