New vision style: Kenyan artist Cyrus Kabiru and his installation at the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art.   Picture: RUVAN BOSHOFF
New vision style: Kenyan artist Cyrus Kabiru and his installation at the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art. Picture: RUVAN BOSHOFF

The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa recently announced that it had more than 70,000 visitors during the first month after opening. Half of them had free admission through their Access for All scheme. The rest paid up to R180.

The building, brilliantly reinvented, is superstriking and an architectural intrigue. Given the project’s high-minded mission — summed up as "art after 2000 by African-connected artists" — the first exhibitions set the marker for the future, the Zeitz voice and its choices.

For its inauguration, the curators, under direction of museum CE Mark Coetzee, made sure that the spaces were filled. There are 12 exhibitions, comprising 60 artists in "over 100 galleries".

It’s a huge building and making it work as an art platform has not been easy. Spaces and dimensions are all over the place, which sometimes gives the impression that the art on view was positioned to fit.

But some of the odd and awkward rooms and environments work very well.

The gorgeous sub-street-level galleries are in the former transportation tunnels of the grain silo.

Angolan artist Edson Chagas’s installation, Luanda, Encyclopedic City, is a treat as an exploration of a romantic netherworld. Visitors are rewarded with a print of one of 23 photographs of his Found Not Taken series, which jabs the aesthetics of urban decay.

Photography gets serious attention at the Zeitz, and there might be a preponderance of it. By its nature, photography is a more difficult aesthetic negotiation and requires curatorial care. Not all the photographs at the Zeitz show well, or make clear arguments for their presence.

Rory Riordan’s Keiskamma Guernic at the Iziko National Gallery.Picture: RUVAN BOSHOFF
Rory Riordan’s Keiskamma Guernic at the Iziko National Gallery.Picture: RUVAN BOSHOFF

The installation at the Roger Ballen centre is too flippant an amusement.

The sensitive pictures of Tunisian photographer Mouna Harray in her conceptual series Off-the-Air, displayed as it is, make for tricky reading. But the smart installation of Malawian Samson Kambalu’s lovely poetic Wounded Negatives, each virtually in its own little theatre, eases itself into observation.

Zeitz Mocaa early on announced its support for artists Nandipha Mntambo and Kudzanai Chiurai, and acquired a substantial number of their artworks. The two comprehensive shows make sense and there is plenty to see. Both are bright, inventive and investigative artists.

But walking room after room leads to wondering about a tighter curatorial knit to the Zeitz exhibitions. Showing too much gets in the way of detailed and comprehensive engagement.

Overviews need management to make creative and informative biographical connections. Chiurai, in particular, has a great sense for the theatrical, but his spectacle can end up being trying. His hard-impact art needs stage management.

As perhaps could be expected, the opening group show, All Things Being Equal, rides on a good dose of flash. There are many big screens, plenty of large works and 41 artists.

They are not all African, there are one or two outliers that stretch the reach.

From the US, there is great stuff by artists like Frohawk Two Feathers, Kehinde Wiley and Glenn Ligon. From the UK, there are paintings by Chris Ofili and a video by Isaac Julien.

Perhaps the most impressive of in-your-face art in the debut show is William Kentridge’s multivideo More Sweetly Play The Dance, a real audience grabber. A brilliant conceptual installation by Liza Lou (US-SA) is another highlight.

A claustrophobic room, wallpapered with panels of glass beads and nylon thread made by KwaZulu-Natal women, sets up The Waves as a relentlessly powerful gender meditation.

This is gently echoed in Kenyan Wangechi Mutu’s video The End of Carrying All, which is pure poignancy.

African feminist issues are a robust presence in fine work by South Africans such as Sethembile Msezane, Mary Sibande, iQhiya’s Lungiswa Gqunta, Thania Petersen and, of course, Zanele Muholi. This is a plus for the museum and perhaps indicators to where it is heading.

The group show’s title and brief motivation (a kind of "no-name brand" theme) may be a humorous way of leaving the door open for the future, but also a temptation to "read" in it who and what the museum believes to be the good and the worthy. In other words, how it will play its powerful culture game.

Already there has been a spin-off for gallerists to brag about artists in their stable and the Zeitz Mocaa link. Naturally, this has had an effect on the artists’ price tags.

Listing smart local names currently missing from the walls is easy, but it does feel like a kind of benchmark. And it boils down to a simple question: "Is it worth a return visit?"

Great art museums define themselves on their holdings.

Their collections and displays are important measures of an artist’s originality, importance, craft, meaning and worth.

They define artists’ oeuvres and signal their social-cultural significance. For an institution that punts itself to be or become a global player in the museum world, on par with the finest cultural tourist destinations, Zeitz Mocaa has some way to go.

Despite the building, a lot of the art seems like the work seen at art fairs: quite slick, certainly eye-catching and bait for moneyed collectors who don’t need too much explanation beyond the surface. It’s "art that looks like art".

The presence of the Zeitz Mocaa has, inevitably, opened conversations about venues such as the Iziko SA National Gallery in Cape Town.

In her recent A History of the Iziko South African National Gallery: Reflections on Art and National Identity, the scholar Anna Tietze reflects on policies and collection strategies over the more than 150 years and future of the gallery.

She agrees with Zeitz Mocaa director Mark Coetzee that the new museum disrupts the status quo, and has implications for the national gallery.

But one of the salient points is that the Iziko national gallery has always had very strict collection and display policies. Art was only accepted into the permanent collection after substantial vetting by experts.

In current the Iziko gallery exhibitions, the result of this policy of looking out for the finest or best representative is playing out in at least four splendid shows, all strongly anchored in African origin. One excellent show, Alternative Press, shows off the wit and slash of the late groundbreaking political cartoonist Derek Bauer, and a 25-year retrospective of photographer Andrew Tshabangu.

The gallery is also hosting the powerful sculpture of this year’s Standard Bank Young Artist Beth Diane Armstrong — on par with anything at Zeitz Mocaa.

Assessing Abstraction is a clever overview of artworks in the permanent collection that links high-formal abstraction with African connections.

Curator Hayden Proud has had some superb paintings and sculptures to work with and some of these, out of sight for years, are delightfully fresh on the eye.

A work such as Louis Maqhubela’s painting Snake (2002) is a great reminder of abstract art’s vivid power, especially within the African legacy.

This show links up perfectly with the next room that displays African art from the Iziko permanent collection.

There are many rare and unusual pieces. It’s a show that gently punts, without the politics, the importance of the continent’s great aesthetic traditions. Especially striking in Hidden Treasures is the spotlight it shines on work by female artists working in various crafts, noting the precision with which they expounded visual markings, signs and patterns.

The connection at the gallery with those surfacing in the Zeitz Mocaa’s contemporary endeavours on show is pure fascination. This alone is well worth the trip to the stately old building in the Company Gardens.

Adults pay R30 at Iziko South African National Gallery, kids and pensioners R15. According to the recent Iziko annual report, just more than 45,000 people visited the gallery in 2016-17.

There is some way to go to match Zeitz Mocaa’s numbers, but they probably get a tad more art value.

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