When the German entrepreneur Jochen Zeitz fell in love with Africa, he took the passion seriously. He bought a 50,000-acre ranch in Kenya, and then acquired the 1929 Gipsy Moth biplane used in Out of Africa to fly around it. When he decided to focus on sustainability, and make business leaders pay attention, he set up an organisation – The B Team – with Sir Richard Branson and rounded up 13 founder members including Irish politician Mary Robinson and CEO of luxury global group Kering, François-Henri Pinault.
The impressive Thomas Heatherwick-designed building housing Zeitz MOCAA in Cape Town
Last month, a spectacular museum opened in Cape Town with his name on it. Zeitz MOCAA (Museum of Contemporary African Art) has been designed by Thomas Heatherwick. He’s a «passionate innovator», says Zeitz of the architect who might have failed to get the Garden Bridge built but did design the new Routemaster bus and the vast Google building at King’s Cross. Zeitz MOCAA occupies 9,500 sq m in what was once a gigantic 19th-century grain silo.
‘I wanted to get people through the door. I hope once they’re in, their curiosity will keep taking them further’
South Africa’s harvest was exported directly back to Britain from this very building until 2000. Now it’s a first-of-its-kind institution that, according to Zeitz, will put South Africa firmly on the cultural map. In its 80 galleries, some of his massive holding of contemporary African art will be on display.
In person, the 54-year-old Zeitz is not as overwhelming as he sounds on paper. Fit (guess what – he’s a marathon runner) and approachable, with messy blond hair, he’s an unlikely Mr Big. «I thought I’d be meeting a smooth business success story,» says Heatherwick. «But he’s down to earth and good at listening. I take direct flights everywhere, but I found out that Jochen will change planes a few times if it works out cheaper.»
Jochen Zeitz CREDIT: TINA HILLIER
Zeitz tells me he travels with a Puma holdall, an iPhone and his acoustic guitar. «I don’t have an office,» he says, «there’s not much point when I’m always on the move.» He does, however, have homes in Kenya, Ibiza, Santa Fe and now west London.
Puma, perhaps more famous for its sneakers than holdalls, is where it all started going right for the young Zeitz, who’d been studying medicine in his native Germany before transferring to business school in Paris. He joined the ailing German sportswear company’s marketing team in 1990, and by ’93 had become CEO. Why did the owners, a Swedish investment firm, take such a gamble? «They’d been through three conventional CEOs in a year,» says Zeitz. «I gave them a more radical vision of how to turn the brand around.»
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He dramatically reduced staff numbers, took production to Asia, made English the corporate language, and started sponsoring African football teams. The last decision was in part economic (Cameroon, as you can imagine, is rather cheaper and more grateful than, say, Italy), but also, says Zeitz, they «suggested the adventurous nature of the brand».
Zeitz had begun to acquire art in the 1990s – Warhol included – and Puma sponsored art events too, including a show in 2008 at the Rubell Family Collection in Miami called 30 Americans. Curated by the foundation’s then director, the South African Mark Coetzee, it brought together work by exclusively African-American artists. «I wanted to know more,» says Zeitz. «So Mark and I went to a pizza place in Miami for a quiet conversation, and ended up talking about why Africa didn’t have a major contemporary art museum. Mark told me his vision was to go back home and start one.»
When Zeitz left Puma in 2011 for Kering (which owns Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney and Gucci among other luxe labels) to become a director of the company and chairman of its sustainability committee, Coetzee left the Rubell Foundation to start working with Zeitz on an African museum.
Egungun Masquerade VII by Leonce Raphael Agbodjelou
In 2008, Zeitz had already turned his art collecting away from the more predictable choices he’d been making to art made in Africa or by Africans from 2000 onwards. «We bought at scale,» says Zeitz, ‘It’s not a private individual collection, and not always my personal taste. I want it to create a dialogue.» He has little in his homes. «Kate is more interested in film,» he says of his 39-year-old fiancée Kate Garwood, a Los Angeles-based producer, who recently delivered the Jesse Owens biopic, Race.
Zeitz has important work by names such as William Kentridge in South Africa and Isaac Julien in London. Other pieces are by young African practitioners who Zeitz and Coetzee believe are making the art of the future. The exhibitions installed for the museum’s opening suggest a broad variety.
Though it’s hard to fault the intention, there are inevitably questions hovering over the fact that this new narrative (which will define the story of contemporary African art) is being created by a white South African curator and a German entrepreneur in a building by an international architect – that is a product of Cape Town’s colonial past.
The gallery cuts into 42, 28m-high concrete tubes
Heatherwick was, in fact, attached to the project before Zeitz came on board, having been first invited to work on feasibility studies by the developers of the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, where the museum sits, six years ago. Another collector had flirted with the idea of taking on the space, and when he dropped out, Zeitz and Coetzee appeared.
Heatherwick’s transformation of the building provides real drama: he has cut into the 42, 28m-high concrete tubes at its centre to create a huge honeycomb and a foyer that’s as awe-inspiring as a cathedral. A huge dragon sculpture by respected South African artist Nicholas Hlobo, is suspended as though trapped in terrifying flight. «There’s not much tradition of museum-going in Cape Town, especially among a large sector of the population,» says Heatherwick. «I wanted to get people through the door. I hope once they’re in, their curiosity will keep taking them further.»
Macho Nne 01-25 by Cyrus Kabiru
For the better heeled, the sixth-floor restaurant, with peerless views to Robben Island, where Mandela was detained, looks set to be the hottest spot in town. And a deluxe hotel, created as part of the project, and where views from suites make Table Mountain look almost touchable, is packing in guests.
At the opening on 22 September, Zeitz, accompanied by Coetzee and flanked by local dignitaries, announced three new board members: Robert Redford, Morgan Freeman and Kofi Annan. They are all, of course, friends. The sort of friends you have when you’re Jochen Zeitz.