Seen, Heard and Valued: WAM celebrates 40 years of the Standard Bank African Art Collection

Wits Standard Bank African Art Collection 


Closed for a couple of months, the Wits Art Museum is now open for viewing of the exhibition Seen, Heard and Valued: WAM Celebrates 40 years of the Standard Bank African Art Collection. The history of the Standard Bank collection dates back to 1979, when the bank started to support Wits University in their goal of building the Gallery’s African art collection which now holds over 5000 artworks.  When I was teaching at Wits in the long distant past, it was a treat to have this resource to draw on in teaching Art History. 

Large scale works 

Ideally suited to an exhibition like this, the light open spaces of WAM can accommodate large-scale works such as those by Noria Mabasa and Jackson Hlungwani ,whose Women’s Altar of God is not often available as a complete installation for public viewing.

Jackson Hlungwani’s Women’s Altar of God Partial view.  This is one of several altarpieces which was  originally located at the top of a hill at Mbhokota village in Limpopo, near Mkahado (formerly Louis Trichardt).  As a preacher and healer Hlungwani sculpted large scale works which aided him in his teaching and worship in the church which he established at New Jerusalem, Mbhokota: Yesu Galeliya One Aposto in Sayoni Alt and Omega.
Accompanying identifying diagram of the different elements of the Altar
Excerpts from Jackson Hlungwani interviews

Curatorial underpinning  

In addition to the large scale works in the main gallery level at ground level, some of the works are positioned to accord with suitable spaces: the verticality for the tall staffs below; the uninterrupted horizontal space for the Democracy Tapestry from the Keiskamma Art Project; and the small intimate enclosed room separate from the main gallery for Colbert Mashile‘s Initiation images. 

Ceremonial staffs
Democracy Tapestry from the Keiskamma Art Project 2004-2006 Wool, embroidery, beads on textiles

Everyday household and trade objects 

At the upper level, along with a number of sculptures made for tourist and gallery sale, (Nelson Makhubu, Johannes Segogela, Phutuma Seoka, etc) there are several groupings of often finely crafted everyday functional objects in various materials: sticks, headrests, milk-pails, baskets, pots, pipes, snuff containers  gold-weights, passport pendants, mat-racks, etc;  

On the upper level different categories of objects are displayed alongside each other: everyday functional pots and baskets; clothing and body adornments; pots, baskets and non-functional sculptures made for sale for the tourist market or for galleries; items originally used in a ritual context.
Headrests from various different ethnic groups in South Africa: Zulu, Pedi, Tsonga-Shangane; as well as further afield: Luba, DRC; Swazi, Eswetini; Shona, Zinbabwe; Barotse, Zambia
Basket by Angela Masuka entitled The Zulu Village 2007 made of Illala palm and natural dyes
Gold weights

There are also items of clothing like aprons and minceka, and body adornment such as Zulu earplugs; Zulu and Ndebele necklaces; and various gorgeous beaded items. 

Lovedu charm necklace. Beads, string, fabric, keys, lock, buttons, shells, plastic

And of course many of the objects, like the 3 works at the entrance of the exhibition were originally used in a rituals, ceremonies and divinations.    

Here a Songye Kifwebe (mask) is placed in front of a photo which shows a masker appearing in the Eastern Village of Tlunga Ngula, Kiloshi Kingdom
Igbo Maiden Spirit mask
Child doll and fertility figures: Top row Zulu (Udoli) and Ndebeble (Umdwana); Middle left Ntwane and middle right Ashante and Fante, Ghana (Akuaba); Bottom left: Tsonga-Shangane (N’wana) ; Bottom right: Ovambo, Namibia, Angola.  These dolls are not usually play things but have ritual and religious associations and are often used to teach lessons and morals in rites of passage rituals.  They are often handed down generations.

And don’t miss the glass case with the enigmatic and charming illustrated envelopes from 1966 to 1975 by Tito Zungu.  Zungu, who died in 2000, embellished envelopes and gave them to his family and friends so they would write to him.  Below: a very poor photo through glass.


This is the first time in many years that so much of the WAM’s African Art Collection has been on display for public access so a visit is highly recommended. 




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4 thoughts on “Seen, Heard and Valued: WAM celebrates 40 years of the Standard Bank African Art Collection

  1. Sorry Gail – should have included:
    Booking is essential. Call 011 717 71358 or 011 717 1365, or email

    Please fill out a Covid screening form before entering the museum by dialling the code *120*8501#.You will need to obtain and present this clearance before admittance.

  2. It reminds me to check up with the auctioneers whether they sold my Ndebele skirts, and for how much….

    Is the “Democracy Tapestry” based on an existing tapestry from somewhere else (like many of their other works)?

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