Chéri Cherin Obama Revolution 2009 Acrylic and oil on canvas 200 x 300 x 3cm

Under the directorship of Koyo Kouoh, and her fellow visionaries, Tandazani Dhlakhama and Storm Janse van Rensburg, Zeitz MOCAA – the Museum of Contemporary African Art – has steadily and surely pronounced and performed its core vision – the creation of an accessible African and Afro-diasporic art world. This is no mean feat, at the Southern tip of Africa, in a city historically disconnected from the remainder of the African continent, intrinsically isolationist, its sensibilities peculiarly Western. This, of course, is a truth and a cliché, for no city, despite the global cult of silos, can ever wholly remove itself from the complex ground of its making. In the case of Cape Town, it is a port city, thus intrinsically hybrid, in which sovereign distinctions are a default operation. Multiculturalism, today, is a so-called bad word, given the growing fixation with essences and absolutes, but then, despite the fantasy of Pan-Africanism, the belief in a continental ‘oneness’ – which excluded the North African Arab world, and the cultures which travelled along the Indian and Atlantic oceans – Cape Town has never ceased to remind us of its anomalous state, dissociative, multiplex, creole. It is in such a city, one of the most diverse on the continent, that the story of Africa, and its global interface, has been most effectively staged. Its theatre? Zeitz MOCAA.

The major current exhibition is When We See Us: A Century of Black Figuration in Painting. As the title of the show attests, this is a monumental showing which deserves numerous visits, doable given that the show runs until September 3rd 2023. The added bonus, is that for any visitor with an African identity card, viewing is free from 10am to 1pm on Wednesdays. But why is the exhibition worth a visit? Because, after over a year of concerted effort to secure cherished works from museums and institutions worldwide, we, in Cape Town, are the recipients of a century-long configuration and re-configuration of Black Personhood. Again, why, you might ask? Because at this historical moment, globally – including art markets in the East – the Black African body-psyche-narrative-being has proved central to the deconstruction and revisioning of world art history, in particular the history of Western art, in which the black body – and I apply this diminishing descriptor deliberately – has, for hundreds of years, been largely objectified, denied agency, purpose, life, love, every ingredient necessary in order to embody Personhood. The cost of the punitive damage produced by the colonial divestiture of the black being’s soul, purpose, worth, agency cannot be underestimated. That enslavement continues, despite claims to the contrary, should prove a grossly indigestible tonic.

Koyo Kouoh’s prevailing anthem, from the moment she assumed the post of Director of Zeitz, has been to inculcate a counter-intuitive culture of grace and joy. A Cameroonian, educated in Switzerland, with a keen sense of a complex global cultural interface – a world between worlds – Kouoh is acutely attuned to the dangers of provincialism, and the intolerant fascism that lurks within a narrow silo-stricken mentality and culture. This is why, at the outset, her collective vision is focused on ‘Black self-representation and celebrates global Black subjectivities and Black consciousness from Pan-African and pan-diasporic perspectives’. The key instrumental dialogue which the show sets up is between leading Black thinkers, writers, poets, and, primarily, artists. If dialogue is critical, it is because it is under threat. What Zeitz MOCAA advocates, both broadly and intimately, is nurturing and generative conversation. A museum, after all, is a metropolitan church, a place of sanctity, grace, wisdom, knowledge. This, I think, is Zeitz MOCAA’s great achievement. Of course, there will be nay-sayers who decry the inconsistency which a monumental collection of Black art from across the world, and across a century, might produce. This might be true. We all have our likes and dislikes. However, in the spirit of inclusivity, one cannot deny the majesty of the achievement.

‘With a focus on painting, the exhibition celebrates how artists from Africa and its diaspora have imagined, positioned, memorialised, and asserted African and African-descent experiences. It contributes to critical discourse on African and Black liberation, intellectual, and philosophical movements’. What’s not to love? Capacious, tender, spirited, The Zeitz show – When We See Us – has proven the museum’s manifest destiny. Against the historical exploitation and objectification of the Black body, what the show prefers to emphasise is the wonder within ‘The Everyday’, ‘Joy and Revelry’, ‘Repose’, ‘Sensuality’, ‘Spirituality’, ‘Triumph and Emancipation’. Each of these chapters segue into a greater – if, as yet, virtual – whole. To the curators’ great credit, however, my own circumspection is overridden by a greater optimism. One moves through a caravanserai of glittering joy, coaxed along by a warm musical accompaniment. There is nothing high-minded and stuffy about the show, and neither is it a kitsch rendition of some Black African joie de vivre. Instead, the passage from glittering room to glittering room, painted in earthily deep ochres and greens, or offset against vast panels of plywood, is easeful. At no point did I feel oversaturated and mentally and emotionally exhausted – museum’s lest we forget, are immensely tiring experiences, given the burden of sight and apprehension, the pressure of knowledge, the secret nous which one might miss. Instead, the experience proved triumphal, spiritual, sensual, easeful, fun, joyous. To experience all these emotions in a single visit is remarkable. Rarely, if ever, in any museum anywhere in the world, have I experienced such an assortment of pleasures. Thus, whatever one might think, regarding the continued exploitation of the Black body, or the commodification of Black art, what one cannot overrule is the concurrent lift-off of Black life and art in the global imagination. In recent memory – since the dawn of the Enlightenment and birth of democracy and individualism in the 18th century – never has there ever been such a moment. Thus, to understand the enormity of Zeitz MOCAA’s achievement, we much frame it within a relatively recent radically revisionist moment, which, over and above all prior liberatory drives, has, in a few years produced none other than a radical infrastructural and perceptual shift. The Zeitz MOCAA exhibition is not the inheritor of this seismic shift, but its progenitor. Indeed, it ranks above many comparable offerings, precisely because of the density and range of its selection. To bemoan the absence of one other artist in the pantheon is churlish.

Cassi Namoda (b.1988, Maputo, Mozambique) To Live Long Is To See Much (Ritual Bathers III) 2020 Oil on canvas 152.4 x 233.6cm

Dear reader, I strongly recommend that you see this great show in which Black life is not memorialised, but consecrated, in which conviviality proves the benign and graceful glue, warmth the profound register, humanity in all its rich diversity the greater goal. There is a very good reason that Steve Bantu Biko declared that Africa would give the world a ‘human face’. Precisely. This too, is Zeitz MOCAA’s point. As the world implodes, as barricades re-emerge, the entire earth balkanised, in a historical moment threatened by the spectre of hate and division – the resurgent horror of Fascism – the world, uncannily, at the very same time calls upon the Rights and Rites of Empathy, the ability to speak each to each, to imagine the wondrous goodness of others. As the transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau memorably asked, ‘Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?’ This is the miraculous intimacy which the Zeitz MOCAA exhibition achieves. When we see us is about the mirroring reality of Black Life, its commonality and communality. As such, the exhibition is never exclusive or exclusionary. I have always enjoyed studying people when in museums – trying to sense what attracts and moves them, where and why they congregate, what is being seen – in this case, what was most striking was the international nature of the audience, the many delightedly wagging tongues, but also the richly diverse texture of local life in attendance. If I have chosen not to focus on any specific artwork, it is because of the multitudinous range of the visions represented. Each one of us, rightfully, will be drawn to one painting more than another, and, as we weave from room to room, the bouquet of tastes we carry in our hearts and souls will alter, some flowers fall by the wayside, others root themselves more deeply, until, at the end of it all – which is also a beginning – we will each reconvene in our innermost being and know, as though for the first time, the wonder of our finest encounters. After all, what better way than through a marvellous show, to learn to see ourselves?

Antoine Obin Untitled n.d. Oil on canvas 50.8 x 60.9cm


Sungi Mlengeya Constant III 2019 Acrylic on canvas 140 x 140cm


Danielle McKinney OCD and O’Keeffe 2022 Acrylic on canvas 61 x 45.7cm


George Pemba (b.1912, Gqeberha, South Africa – d.2001) The Gardener 1991 Oil on board 75 x 90.5cm

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