Art & DesignA Tour of the Arts: Zeitz MOCCA (Part 1)

Ida MwangiFebruary 4, 202390716 min

It’s been a while since most of us ventured into lands unknown. Well, apart from the looming economic slowdown that has emptied most pockets without a refill, the fear of possible infection alongside imposed lockdowns have all contributed to reduced adventure. With the rise of virtual experiences, both professional and recreational, I thought we could start our own project – a virtual experience of the African arts with a  tour of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA). It might just spark an interest for a real visit in the future.

You Just Heard About It

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Zeitz MOCAA (pronounced “zights mocka”) is a public, not-for-profit institution that exhibits, collects and preserves and researches contemporary art from Africa and its diaspora; conceives and hosts international exhibitions; develops supporting educational, discursive and enrichment programmes; encourages intercultural understanding; and strives for access for all. The museum, located in Cape Town, South Africa, has galleries that feature rotating, temporary exhibitions with a dedicated space for the permanent collection. The institution also includes the Centre for Art Education, the Centre for the Moving Image, and a project space for emerging artists.

As with any remarkable place, the museum is headed by two key people: Koyo Kouoh (Executive Director and Chief Curator) and Fawaz Mustapha (Chief Operations Officer). You may be wondering who a curator is in the first place. According to the Cambridge dictionary, a curator is a person in charge of a department of a museum or other place where objects of art, science, or from the past are collected, or a person who organizes and arranges a showing of art or other objects of interest. To put it more into context, their work involves buying exhibits, organising exhibitions, arranging restoration of artefacts, identifying and recording items, organising loans and dealing with enquiries, among other tons of responsibilities.

The Story of How it All Began


Most people don’t stop to think how a museum came to be or who even came up with the said idea, yet there’s always a story behind the establishment of anything. Zeitz MOCAA’s was as a result of a convergence of factors.

The V&A Waterfront recognised the significance of its Grain Silo complex as a historic landmark and for years debated possible uses. The Grain Silo was built in the 1920’s for export storage and at the time was the tallest building in Sub-Saharan Africa. It had stored and graded corn from all over South Africa. After its decommissioning in the 1990s, its owners, the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, approached the Heatherwick Studio to develop ideas for adapting the silo and its site. An art museum was eventually decided upon, but a collection was needed. The desire was to house something of public civic significance, and something open to the public. It was through Ravi Naidoo that Thomas Heatherwick was introduced to the Grain Silo complex in 2006, and again in 2011. At the same time, Jochen Zeitz was working to build a world class collection of contemporary art from Africa and its diaspora with the vision to create the first major museum dedicated to this on the Africa continent. The meeting of these two visions became the final piece of the puzzle, and a museum was created.


Now, how do you turn 42 vertical concrete tubes into a place to experience contemporary culture?

WATCH: V&A Waterfront changes to position SA as a 'symbol of Africa' |  Traveller24

Though the concrete building looks like a single structure, it is composed of two parts: a grading tower and 42 tall, cellular silos.

The main challenge was to convert these tightly packed concrete tubes into spaces suitable for displaying art, while retaining the building’s industrial heritage. They developed a concept to carve out an atrium, like a vaulted cathedral, to form the museum’s heart. Scooped from the building’s centre, it provides access to the gallery doors that are organised around the central atrium.

They realised the concept of carved tubes was technically challenging. Modelled on a single grain of corn, the rounded shape was scaled up to fill the 27-metre-high volume and then translated into thousands of coordinates, each defining a point within the silo’s tubes. Mapped out physically with nails, the brittle concrete tubes – only 170 mm thick – were then lined with partial inner sleeves of reinforced concrete.

The new concrete sleeves created a stable composite structure 420 mm thick and provided a cutting guide for removing portions of the old silos. The existing tubes were pared back to reveal the curved geometries of the 4,600-cubic-metre atrium. The cut edges were polished to give a mirrored finish that contrasts with the building’s rough concrete aggregate.

Each of the carved tubes was capped with a 6-metre-diameter panel of laminated glass that brings daylight into the atrium. The glass carries a frit specially commissioned to the late African artist, El Loko, based on his Cosmic Alphabet works. As well as mitigating heat from daylight, the frits create a safe, walkable surface for the sculpture garden.

The remaining internal tubes were removed to make space for 80 gallery spaces providing 6,000 sqm of exhibition space. Underground tunnels have also been adapted for artists to create site-specific works.

The proportions of the tower portion of the silo complex made it unsuitable for use as an exhibition space. The design team reconceived this structure as an illuminated beacon. Inspired by the bulging glazed texture of a Venetian lamp, we developed a method for the new glazing that would give a similar convex effect.

The solution was to use facets of glass, organised to create a subtle convex shape. Built with structural glass, the composition strengthens the frames of 60 mm x 15 mm steel bars to make a transparent shell.

Forming a kaleidoscope of changing textures and colours, the glazing creates irregular, sparkling patterns and provides far-reaching views. By night, the building acts as a lantern for the harbour and the city beyond.



For a long time, the grain silos at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town had been standing abandoned, home only to rats, pigeons and seagulls. That was until a R500 million ($38.7 million) redevelopment project transformed the dishevelled building into a modern art museum, the Zeitz MOCAA. Heatherwick and his team of more than 20 London and SA-based designers and architects worked on the project for 6 years, and in the end achieved their goal of a compelling interior as opposed to an iconic exterior (that would be desired for most buildings). I wonder how he really come up with the idea. Was it in a spur of a moment? Did he have 1,000 unsuccessful attempts, just like Edison, before he landed on the final idea? In time we’ll discover the answers to all these questions. For now, let’s just be awed by the artistic work we’ve already witnessed: the transformation of ancient grain silos into a world-class museum. All it took was an idea and an investment.

Ida Mwangi

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