Javett Art Centre Pretoria – a must visit

Showcasing African art 

I first visited the Javett Art Centre in Pretoria 2 months BC (Before Covid) in January 2020 (it seems like a previous lifetime?)  What a treat it was too, as the opening exhibition, 101 Collecting Conversations: Signature works of a Century, included many iconic South African works which often formed the focus of student projects when I was teaching at Wits in the 1990s and early 2000s.  So, it really was like meeting “old friends” … some of whom I had never met “in person”, like Alexis Preller’s Discovery. This huge scale mural with its ideologically fraught title and content, was painted in 1959 as a commission for the Transvaal Provincial Administration. It was the first time it had been seen by the public in 30 years.  Although sad that this exhibition has long gone, there are several excellent exhibitions running currently, including the outstanding retrospective overview of Willem Boshoff’s works in a breathtaking exhibition entitled Word Woes which runs until 27th March 2022. But more of that in Liz at Lancaster’s next blog. When you visit make sure you leave time for the Gold exhibitions (or plan a second visit). 

David Brown’s Voyage II 1987 (Pretoria Art Museum) in the right foreground; Andries Botha’s Dromedaris, Donder en ander Dom Dinge 1988 (Johannesburg Art Gallery) centre, in front of the visiting group; Alexis Preller’s Discovery 1959 on the back right wall; Gerard Sekoto’s Song of the Pick 1947 (South 32 collection (what was Gencor and then BHP Billiton) on the left wall; Neels Coetzee’s sculpture AK-47 Crucible 1994 (Apartheid Museum) is seen in the reflection on the back wall.

History of the Javett Art Centre

The Javett Art Centre arose out of many years of planning.  Philanthropist, art collector and retired businessman, Michael Javett, approached the late art expert Stephan Welz to establish a cutting-edge museum for African arts.  Together with Dr Conrad Strauss they entered negotiations with the University of Pretoria to establish an institution which would show case African art and promote research and education in this field. An independent trust was established, and the trustees approached Christopher Till, best known for his role as the executive director of the Apartheid Museum, to head up this Centre.  Construction started in the second half of 2016 and the first exhibition opened on Heritage Day, September 2019.

The buildings

The Javett complex was designed by Pretoria-based architect Pieter Mathews from Mathews and Associates Architects. 

Site Plan.  Source: Mathews and Associates Pretoria

On the south University campus is the main gallery and the 70m-high vault-like hexagonal concrete building  that houses the 2 gold collections.  These are linked to what was intended to be an open museum square which was to include a restaurant and outdoor exhibition space.  Sadly, there have been no takers to run the restaurant, so it remains an empty space. Linking the main gallery to the northern Hatfield campus across Lynnwood Road, is a bridge which houses a gallery and a pedestrian concourse, symbolically and physically linking “town and gown”. 

The concrete building on the left houses the gold collections. The main gallery can be seen in the centre.  The design in the wall of the bridge over Lynwood Road was inspired by the patterns on Shweshwe cloth. Source: Javett-UP

On either side of the bridge on the main Hatfield campus are the buildings housing the Architecture and Visual Arts department so making a very coherent arts and culture cluster completed by a new student gallery on the main campus.

The steps from the bridge exit into the square with student gallery. Source: Javett-UP

The core of the Javett Foundation includes 4 collections:

  1. Javett Foundation’s collection of 20th century South African art
  2. Barbier-Mueller Gold of Africa collection owned by AngloGold Ashanti and comprises golden artefacts and jewelry from West Africa dating back to the 1800s
  3. Mapungubwe Gold, an archaeological collection 
  4. South 32 (previously the Gencor/Billiton) collection on loan for 10 years

Gold Collections 

The two gold collections are on permanent display.  The Barbier-Mueller Collection was collected by Swiss industrialist Josef Müller and later housed in the Musée Barbier-Mueller, Geneva – the museum started by his son-in-law Jean-Paul Barbier-Mueller, also an avid  collector.  AngloAshanti Gold bought the collection which was initially located in the Gold of Africa Museum in Martin Melck House in Capetown.  After the Gold Museum closed the collection found a new home at the Javett-UP. The some 350 artefacts originate mainly  from the West African countries of Ghana, Mali and Côte d’Ivoire.  

The artefacts are beautifully wrought markers of status, power, wealth and kingship
These straw imitations of gold jewelry are often known as Timbuktu gold. Those who couldn’t afford gold made imitations using baked and painted clay, beeswax, silk and golden-coloured straw.
This golden pangolin, weighing 130g and dating to the late 19th/early20th century, was collected in Côte d’Ivoire in the 1930s or ’40s. The pangolin is associated with chiefdom. “Our chief, like a pangolin, steps softly and lives peacefully, yet if betrayed , with one swipe of his tail he can turn into a killer”.

Javett-UP’s second gold collection, the Mapungubwe Gold Collection, consists of 14th-century artefacts, including the iconic golden rhino,  found at Mapungubwe Hill during the 1930s. The hexagonal building housing the gold collections was conceived by  the architects as an abstract interpretation of the Mapungubwe Hill. 

The golden rhinoceros was recovered in 1934 from a royal burial site as Mapungubwe along with other precious golden artefacts
The Mapungubwe collection is beautifully displayed in a small case with carefully crafted indentations for the various objects and fragments

The Javett Art Centre at the University of Pretoria is open Tuesday to Sunday from 10am to 5pm. Entrance is R150 for adults, R50 for children, R70 for pensioners and free for all South African university students (with a valid student card). Guided tours are available, but must be booked at least 48 hours in advance. South Campus, 23 Lynnwood Road, Hatfield. Details: 012-420-3960, javettup.art.  The easiest way to get here from Joburg is to take the Gautrain to Hatfield station, on weekdays you can catch the Gautrain bus from the station direct to the museum. 


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