The dragon – suspended from the soaring ceiling – looking like Smaug flying out of Erebor in Tolkien's Middle Earth is hypnotising. Like the Great Turbine Hall at London's Tate Modern, British designer Thomas Heatherwick has created a mesmerising statement piece for the entrance hall of Cape Town's newest, glossiest attraction, the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa.
The vast, winged dragon with its never-ending tail by South African artist Nicholas Hlobo, appears to drip rubber and gunge from its suspended perch as its cocoon – the truncated chambers of the former grain silos – sliced by Heatherwick's Studio at a 45 degree angle, and diamond polished – soar skywards.
The Zeitz MOCAA is a beautiful space, and Heatherwick Studio's remarkable transformation of an abandoned, unloved functional piece of industrial architecture into a temple dedicated to contemporary art is an inspiration. The thrill of a visit to the museum is as much in the building and its labyrinth of spaces as it is the works of art on show. If your pockets are deep, stay in the new Silo Hotel, all pillow-glassed and glamorous perched on top of the museum.
The Zeitz MOCAA - Stunning silo stats
The corn, wheat and sorghum silo was built in 1921, in operation from 1924, and closed in 2003. It exported grain to Liverpool and Manchester, especially during the Second World War, and it's claimed the 42 33-metre high interconnecting silos in the complex were hailed as the tallest building south of the Sahara. It remained dormant until 2011, was repurposed by Heatherwick Studio, and opened in September last year.
Free museum tours
As a first-time visitor to Cape Town, and to South Africa, I knew nothing about African art so I booked on to one of the free tours of the museum run by its team of art curators. El Anatsui's Dissolving Continents canvas spreads across an entire wall. The Akham people of Ghana (the home country of the artist) weave cotton and silk tapestries so there's a tendency to believe this is a fragile textile piece, the curator Sakhisizwe Gcina explained to our afternoon multi-national tour group. On closer inspection, though, we realised the canvas was studded with whisky bottle caps, and looked like a map showing Pangaea, the old supercontinent which existed before it drifted apart.
"Originally we were one continent and this piece references transnational companies – one thing from one country, and one from another. It also speaks of Africa's mineral wealth and of waste and debris. The artist has created waste and given it value."
Gcina told us.
The outlandish self-portraits of Kenya's Cyrus Kabiru (Macho Nne 01-25) are dazzling. Images of the artist hidden by fantastical masks made from metal and natural materials belong to the realm of science fiction. Gcina explained:
"Kabiru has a visual code. His animal usage in the masks is familiar to African folklore. Interestingly this story telling has been lost to African fables."
My favourite Kabiru photograph is one where his mask appears, perhaps, like a peacock's face made from two gourds studded with coiled and beaded pins.
From cockle pickers to cow hide
Other must-see exhibits are Julien Isaac's "Ten Thousand Waves", a series of film shown across nine huge screens. Isaac is interested in modern day slavery and this installation focuses on the 23 Chinese cockle pickers who lost their lives in Morecambe Bay in 2004 when they were trapped by the incoming tide.
The work is about the spiritual journey of the cockle pickers' souls, Gcina explained. William Kentridge's film "More Sweetly Play the Dance", a danse macabre with the dance led by brass-trumpeting puppets is mesmerising and very loud, so much so that it detracts from concentrating on nearby works.
This is not unintentional, Gcina remarked. Extraordinary sculptures fashioned from cow hide (Material Value) by Swaziland's Nandipha Mntambo hang silently from an exhibition room ceiling. To me, they veered between appearing like rigid costumes hung on a coat hanger to carcasses hanging on abattoir hooks.
South Africa's Mary Sibande's female battalion, rearing horse, snarling dogs and ready-to-pounce vultures – all military green, blood red and black fibre glass, metal and wood life-sized sculptures - "In the Midst of Chaos there is Opportunity" – overwhelms an entire room and challenges our perception of (black) women in the armed services, and women as warriors as here the female soldiers are planted in a tableau of terror.
Ice cream and views
Break at the top-floor cafe for coffee, its signature black ice cream cone (coloured vanilla ice cream not charcoal-flavoured as the waiter joked to me), and for its panoramic views of the marina, the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, and Table Mountain. Then head out on to the re-enforced glass ceiling of the museum to get on your knees and peer down through the atrium to the ground floor. Nerves of steel are needed!
The Zeitz MOCAA, how to visit?
Zeitz MOCAA offers half-price entry on the first Friday of every month after 4pm and late closing on these nights; under-18s go free. The informative free tours of the museum with rotating themes are excellent, and are led by a rota of curators. Don't delay, Hlobo's dragon-bird "iimpundulu zonke ziyandilenda" will be dangling from the BMW Atrium until July 30 only.