A Visit to the Javett Art Centre at the University of Pretoria

I’d been hearing about the Javett Art Centre for a while, but only got the chance to go and see it this week as part of a Tshwane Tourism Association (TTA) members’ meeting.

In fact, on my way there, I thought about how I spent so many years driving down Lynnwood Road, past the University of Pretoria (UP), to get to school, but it’s only in the last year that anything has really changed on that section of road.

From a simple overhead pedestrian walkway, passing from one campus to another, there is now a cut-out decorated overpass that forms part of the newly opened art centre, which is headed up by the former director of the Apartheid Museum (Christopher Till).

The setup is still quite new, but there are some very interesting pieces in the collection, which I appreciated being able to look at, and thought I’d share more about below:

Highlights from A Visit to the Javett Art Centre

HIV painting

One of the first paintings we stopped past on our informal tour, after presentations in the centre’s 120-seater auditorium, was a painting of men going through a ritual circumcision, under the moonlight.

I can’t say the painting is a pleasure to look at, as it shows a lot of fear and pain, but it definitely made an impact on me. So much so that I didn’t even look at the name of the artist (well, that’s the excuse I’m going with anyway).

Reading into it, some of the figures on the painting are bald, and are wearing different coloured blankets, which apparently alludes to the question of being infected with HIV, and the fact that the person doing the circumcisions is only using one knife.

It’s quite a piece to start off with, I know, but the effect of looking at this painting is visceral, and a strong reminder of the way in which art can force us to confront some serious societal issues.

Jesus Walking On Water

This was the second piece of art we looked at on the tour, a wooden painted sculpture of a black Jesus figure, which wears an upside cross around its neck and is shown to not actually be walking on water, but standing on a crocodile instead.

(Once again, forgot to look at the artist details. Shit)

There was so much to think about when looking at this sculpture, but what I took from it was the notion of questioning the representation of religious figures, and challenging the ideas that we have around them.

For me, it also alludes to local traditional belief systems with the use of totems, and how perhaps the spread of Christianity in Africa “stands” on these, which I guess could be viewed in both a negative and positive light (depending on who you talk to).

However, the upside cross does make me think that this is work is really challenging the concept of religion overall though.

Mary Sibande’s Sophie

It’s obvious at this point that the work being presented at the Javett Art Centre isn’t always easy to see. It’s challenging, and speaks to what I feel is the aim of the space- to question everything, and not be afraid to bring up complex issues in the way Africa has been and is represented in the world of art.

I’d seen Mary Sibande’s work at the Zeitz Mocca in Cape Town before, and remember feeling a sense of intimidation and fear when looking at the life-size, and quite brutal figures in her sculptures.

According to our guide, Sophie represents the figure of the domestic worker, with umbilical cords coming from her body, which may have served as the leashes for the pack of dogs around her.

As the undeniable backbone of African society, I feel like this represents the power of black African women being “unleashed”, something which has been incredibly repressed in our complex and devastating social history.

Mapungubwe rhino

As someone who loves to look at art, I have to admit that it’s not often comfortable to engage with these kinds of topics, but it’s good. I feel like it’s reminder of the things we should but don’t talk about.

And the fact that people have experiences that are painful to talk about, and art is one means of expressing these in a meaningful and lasting way.

However, as much as I feel that this kind of engagement is critical, it was also a welcome break to step into a dark double storey room full of gold (not that the extraction of gold hasn’t come with it’s share of complexity and destruction either though).

The first of these rooms is an exhibition of gold jewellery from West Africa, which is quite spectacular. With maps on the walls of the entrance that suggest the insane intricacies of the gold trade over millennia, it’s clear that a collection like this is something to appreciate.

West Africa Gold Collection Javett Art Centre

In addition to this, it was really cool to see the famous Mapungubwe rhino in real life. And it’s really small!

No one told me that there was also a cow and a feline figurine too, so I’m not clear as to why the rhino was singled out. Either way, it was a highlight to have a look at these gold artefacts, which represent a vast history of trade relations in Africa that I don’t think is been talked about enough.

Dumile Feni’s African Guernica

While working at South African History Online (SAHO) in 2009 and 2010, I read a bit about Dumile Feni, and the important role that he played in South African struggle art.

So it was interesting to see one of his large scale works, African Guernica on the wall in the passage leading back down to the first floor of the Javett Art Centre. Like the Picasso piece it is modelled on, this painting also shows the effects of war, but not only on people.

I’d have to go and see the original work in Spain to really know, but I’m thinking that a lot of what that piece was aiming to communicate here is shown in Feni’s work too, except instead of horses, there are cows, and the cause of the conflict might is slightly different.

Thoughts after Visiting the Javett Art Centre

Unfortunately, while our student guide made an effort to provide some information about the works, she wasn’t too knowledgeable about all of the pieces, so I’ll definitely be going back to check them out again (and take note of the artist’s details this time).

As with any kind of museum, it’s also impossible to take it all in in one day. Overall though, I’m a huge fan of art museums, so it’s great to know that there is one of this calibre so close by.

The Javett Art Centre is also busy building a restaurant, which will also make it much more of a place to go and spend time in (which I think could be as if not better than Issy’s at the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre).

In the meantime though, I think it’s really cool that students have free access to this, and there is free entry to the public on public holidays.

In fact, at the TTA meeting, I found out that there’s also an outdoor sculpture route on the other side of the UP campus, with Eduardo Villa works, so I’ll also be back to check that out soon too.

Have you been to the Javett Art Centre? If you have I’d love to hear your thoughts about it in the comments below.

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