Exploring the Villa Gallery: A fusion of art, history, and culture at UP

Posted on March 05, 2024

The month of February provides the opportunity to share love and admiration for all the pretty things, cherished people, and creative spaces we love at the University of Pretoria (UP). GLAM is the acronym for galleries/gardens, libraries, archives, and museums, and at UP we are fortunate to have some of the most beautiful, educational, and inspiring museum galleries in higher education. These galleries predominantly exhibit UP’s permanent collections acquired over the past 116 years. Besides being an institution of tertiary education, the University is also a cultural institution with a mission to provide art access and generate knowledge through its diverse museum collections. These collections serve the community and are open for public viewing.

For this month's GLAM article, we feature the Villa Gallery, one of the most beloved museum galleries on the Hatfield Campus curated by the UP Museums. It is located on level 3 of the Old Merensky Building, showcasing UP's welcoming position. This imposing granite building, resembling a square shape, was designed in 1937 by architect Gerard Moerdyk (1890-1958) thanks to a £10,000 contribution from Hans Merensky, a South African mining magnate. As a tribute to his generosity, the building was named in his honour.

Originally further funded by public inscription, the second largest donation was received from Pretoria’s Jewish community, which is acknowledged in the interior design through the use of the star-of-David cream lattice screens around the upper portions of the gallery. The characteristic curvature of the walls at its entrance are thought to represent an open book and reveal knowledge. The interior features an iconic historical parquet floor with three large secular gallery spaces, a central oculus, and a domed ceiling. The interior of the building is supported by beautifully crafted marble Corinthian columns decorated with reliefs of corn surmounted by horned rams. Many of the symbols featured at the entrance door in bas-relief and the architraves, such as the crocodile and Zimbabwe bird, symbolise soil, water, and African skies. The lintels also depict baboons and are characterised by zigzag stonework and chevron patterns inspired by the ancient walling at Great Zimbabwe. While Moerdyk’s construction was largely influenced by biblical themes, and mirrored aspects of the architecture of the Voortrekker Monument, his inspirations remained drawn from African animals, plant patterns, and designs.

General Jan Smuts laid the Old Merensky foundation stone on 11 October 1937, and on 5 April 1938, the building was officiated on the centennial anniversary of the Great Trek. The building housed the UP library, that is why Biblioteek is engraved at its entrance. The building functioned as a University library until about the 1970s, when it became too small for the growing number of books and was expanded towards the back to accommodate new sections. It was only later in 1995 that level 3 of the Old Merensky was reopened as the Edoardo Villa Museum, dedicated to housing the sculptural collections of the Italian-born South African artist, Edoardo Villa (1915-2011), who had donated a large portion of his works to UP.

Over the years, the Old Merensky has undergone transformations, serving as both an art gallery and a permanent museum space dedicated to honouring Edoardo Villa. Starting from 2019, the interior of the gallery has undergone additional refurbishments, thanks to the Villa Trust. These renovations included upgraded museum-led lighting and curated changes that transformed the gallery into a more contemporary space. Currently, the gallery showcases over 143 works, featuring sculptural pieces by Edoardo Villa and notable bronze works by Anton Van Wouw (1862-1945). The gallery was curated with more contemporary artworks to introduce a fresh and more modern perspective into the gallery space.

In April 2020, the massive 13m oil on canvas by Alexis Preller (1911-1975), the Discovery of the sea route circumnavigating southern Africa (1959-1963) was permanently installed in the Villa Gallery. It is on a long-term loan from the Gauteng Department of Infrastructure and Development (GDID) with support from the Department of Public Works. The Villa Gallery, with a total floor space of 497.63m, showcases a diverse range of sculptures, encompassing both classical and contemporary works. It proudly features renowned artwork by Preller and displays the University of Pretoria Art Committee's latest art acquisitions.

Today the Villa Gallery exhibits several other new features such as a new portraiture wall of bronze busts of children, women, and men to showcase a diversity of South African portraits. Juxtaposed against the Van Wouw bronzes and dotted with the large imposing works of Villa are other contemporary works by black South African artists such as Michael Teffo, Samson Makwala, Sydney Kumalo, Johannes Maswanganyi, and Lucas Thobejane. The Villa Gallery is also now more inclusive, with works by female artists such as Avitha Sooful, Philiswa Lila, Zelda Stroud, Nandipha Mntambo, Laurika Postma and Noria Mabasa as notable examples.

The Villa Gallery of the University of Pretoria Museums remains a favourite and exciting space, exhibiting temporary South African works, the permanent oil sculpture, and some of the institution's art collections. The gallery serves as a learning space for educational purposes used in research, teaching, and training. It is also an open public museum, introducing domestic and international tourists visiting UP to one of the art collections within university museums in South Africa.

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