Ancient African Artistry Preserved and Showcased at Javett-UP

The art centre at the University of Pretoria presents the illustrious Mapungubwe Gold Collection alongside other remarkable exhibits, offering a captivating journey through the continent’s rich artistic heritage

By Petra Mason

National Treasures: The Mapungubwe Gold Collection, housed at the Javett Art Centre at the University of Pretoria (Javett-UP), provides a glimpse into ancient African creativity. The collection is displayed in Javett-UP’s Gold of Africa tower alongside the Anglo Gold Ashanti Barbier-Mueller Gold of Africa Collection.

Mapungubwe Gold installation

Javett-UP’s exhibitions highlight the private art collections they care for, including the Gold of Africa Collections, Bongi Dhlomo Art Collection, Javett Family Collection, and South32 Collection.

The gold of Mapungubwe was unearthed in 1933 on the summit of Mapungubwe hill. It’s evidence of extensive international trade and kingship. The gold artefacts found at this sacred site give a glimpse into thousands of years of ancient African creativity. Artworks include gold foil fragment, gold bead necklaces, a gold sceptre and a gold vessel.

After the Mapungubwe gold was declared a national heritage collection in October 1997, the University of Pretoria (UP) became its official custodian as it played an important role in finding the gold and preserving it, making the university the host of the biggest ancient gold collection in Southern Africa. Other items in the collection include  glass beads, iron and copper bangles as well as earthenware ceramic vessels also form part of the collection.

Two golden rhinos are the museum’s centre pieces and are placed in glass cabinets.  Text, photographic panels and additional display panels have been placed around them to trace the history of Mapungubwe and the gold findings.

Javett-UP was founded through a partnership between the University of Pretoria and the Javett Foundation. Paying homage to the founding philanthropist Michael Javett’s vision, the property, combined with ease of access via the Gautrain to the city of Tshwane at the University of Pretoria campus, allows visitors to experience various exhibitions, public programmes, and community engagement initiatives hosted at the art centre.

The exhibitions at the centre are framed by an Architectural Digest-worthy building, conceptualised by art world luminary Christopher Till and constructed by Mathews & Associates. The building features an indoor Bridge Gallery that stretches over Lynnwood Road, symbolically connecting the University and its surrounding communities.

When Javett-UP opened its doors in September 2019, I had already visited the site and viewed the Bridge Gallery overlooking the Pretoria Boys High School sports field. Founding Director Christopher Till energetically discussed Javett-UP’s belief in the “emancipatory potential of the arts” and their ambitious multidisciplinary curatorial initiatives.

In 2020, Gabi Ngcobo, who curated the Venice Biennale in Italy’s SA Pavilion, joined Javett-UP as Curatorial Director. Ngcobo recently moved on to the Kunstinstituut Melly in Rotterdam, Holland. Her position at Javett-UP has yet to be filled.

WITS Associate Professor David Andrew collaborated with Javett-UP on the educational exhibition Another Roadmap Africa Cluster. He recalls: “My experience working with the staff for about eight months in 2023 was really good. I thought the curatorial vision/programme was excellent. Now that Gabi Ngcobo has left, it’s crucial that someone with a similarly ambitious project is appointed.”

In 2022, New York-based, Joburg-born curator Tumelo Mosaka curated a spectacular show titled Yakhal’ Inkomo from the Bongi Dhlomo art collection, featuring works by some of the most important South African artists from 1960-1990. The exhibition highlighted black South African art from the mid-to-late twentieth century when the apartheid regime denied many black artists access to networks and gallery support.

Author Petra Mason viewing the Bongi Dhlomo Collection

Dhlomo assembled the collection from 2017 to 2019 on behalf of the Javett Foundation. She and Mosaka realised the exhibition and its public programme to focus on the lived experiences of Black artists in apartheid South Africa. The secondary art market played a key role in building the collection, with art auction house Strauss and Co. providing a depth of choice of artworks. The value of the secondary market as a cultural archive and repository was made clear, keeping neglected work alive and valued in the open market, and giving it critical legitimacy. The Yakhal’ Inkomo exhibition was the first curatorial iteration from the collection curated by Tumelo Mosaka.

Michael Javett passed away in 2022, days before the publication of the Bongi Dhlomo collection book titled Mihloti Ya Ntsako. Despite his deliberation to be invisible, the book was dedicated to him, without whose generosity and vision these journeys would never have been possible.

To book a visit and find out what’s on: https://javettup.art

Exhibitions currently on view: National Treasures: The Mapungubwe Gold Collection, The AngloGold Ashanti Barbier-Mueller Gold of Africa Collection, We, the Purple and Homage to Pretoria: An exhibition by the University of Pretoria Art Museum.

About We, The Purple 2024/2025:

We, The Purple will frame topical conversations marking 30 years since South Africa’s first democratic elections. Through multiple themes within the galleries, We, The Purple seeks to explore the complex tapestry of South Africa’s history, celebrating its triumphs and acknowledging its ongoing struggles since 1994, while fostering a space for dialogue, reflection, and artistic expression.

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