“People should be able to see themselves on the walls and in the work,” explained Coetzee of this relatively simple guiding curatorial strategy. “Museums have not been user-friendly environments, they have not represented our entire communities, and not seen themselves in service of the entire society. Of late, [museums] have really become conscious of this stuff, but there’s no audience—so we have to build one.”
In South Africa, black people were barred from entering museums until 1994, when Apartheid officially ended. Given this history, Coetzee says, the museum has decided to privilege the black figure as a way of welcoming a skeptical audience. “A lot of the work is trying to reconnect the city, the country, and the continent,” he said.
The heavy focus on literal depictions of the black body in almost every room of the museum also runs the risk of essentializing it, I suggested to Coetzee. “That’s a higher-level art problem,” he said. “We get one shot to present ourselves to the public.”
So it is that the art on the walls often uses the black body to contest history, as a kind of protest instrument. It’s a play right out of the market-driven, Western production of black art. But is that how Africans want to see themselves?
Walking through the Zeitz MOCAA’s galleries, what becomes resoundingly clear is that a contemporary art museum is a uniquely Western idea. The challenge for the institution is to make it a truly African one.