‘Javett-UP is the place to see the art of Africa on the continent’ – Javett-UP Director Christopher Till on the vision behind Pretoria’s iconic new art centre

Posted on April 15, 2020

“Our mission is to look at what I have described as ‘the art of Africa’. If you use the terminology ‘African art’, it throws up stereotypes in people’s minds. We say ‘the art of Africa’ instead, because we are looking for the signature which makes the art of Africa, just that. Where does it formulate itself? In what form does it present itself? That is what we’re attempting to do at the Javett.”

The arts sector is often met with an attitude of nonchalance, but those who believe in the power of art inevitably become activists, working to keep dreams alive. One such activist is Christopher Till, Founding Director of the Javett Art Centre at the University of Pretoria (Javett-UP).


Founding Director of the Javett Art Centre at UP Christopher Till.

Till, who’s also the director of Johannesburg’s Apartheid Museum and the principal driver behind the Nelson Mandela Capture Site in Howick, KwaZulu-Natal, is renowned in the art world and has won numerous awards for his visionary achievements. He spoke with Masego Panyane about his involvement in creating the Javett-UP out of the vision of many.

The making of the Javett-UP

Till was educated at Hilton College and Rhodes University, where he obtained a master’s degree in fine art. He began his career at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe in 1977, and has since held a variety of other leadership positions, among them in the National Arts Festival and the International Council of Museums Fine Art Committee (ICOM).

His latest project, the Javett-UP, was officially launched on Heritage Day (24 September) 2019, a process he describes as “almost like a sculptural artistic process, in following its development from drawings to something real”.

The aesthetically pleasing building links the University of Pretoria’s (UP) South Campus to its iconic Hatfield Campus via an overhead bridge which runs over the busy Lynnwood Road. Till was closely involved with the curation of the centre’s inaugural exhibition, 101 Collecting Conversations: Signature Works of a Century.

The Javett Art Centre at UP. 

“I am delighted that the public response has been extremely positive in beginning to track those threads that we’re putting together in making the Javett a space where that art of Africa can be researched, collected, and conserved, in a public space where we can draw in a complete cross-section of audiences. It’s not only the art aficionados, it’s people in the street, it’s students from schools, and students from the University.”

A fighting chance for the arts

Now that the dream of the Javett-UP has taken physical shape, Till and the Javett team’s current challenge is how to build the institution into a sustainable centre integral to the healthy functioning of the city it is helping to reshape. Of course, this is not a problem unique to the Javett-UP.

Globally, one of the biggest challenges art institutions face is funding and sustainability. Without access to regular funding, museums, galleries, theatres and other art institutions are unable to survive. Till emphasised that the way to win that fight is by entrenching art institutions in the lives of the people they are meant to service.

Zanele Muholi's 'Simthembile I, East London' and Justin Dingwall's ‘Three Marys Blue’ pictured at the opening of the Javett-UP on 24 September 2019.

“Galleries and museums that fall under both national and local government are sorely neglected. Funding is not there, the staff struggle with facilities not being maintained because museums and galleries are not a priority. This is a critical mistake, because those institutions are places and spaces where you can pass on a great deal of education and insight; spaces such as the Javett are spaces where imagination can grow. And to grow such places, funding needs to be made available on an ongoing basis.

“We do have a charge at the door, with discounts in specific instances to make it accessible, and we have free days to accommodate people who can’t afford too much, but on an ongoing basis we have to build not only a clientele who will come back again, but also people who are prepared to engage in some sort of financial way in supporting the Javett. That can be corporate support or individual support. We need to develop that in order to keep the Javett sustainable, energised and not to merely be a space where things hang and never change. It has to be a living, breathing organism, continually changing what it presents to a visiting public, and responding to what that public is excited about and interested in.”

To aid this vision, the Javett-UP hosts a number of public programmes, including discussions, lectures, tours for the public, and tours aimed at school children, to help awaken a love of fine art from an early age.

The immediate future and beyond

Till envisages the Javett-UP growing in line with UP’s ongoing transformation into a truly cosmopolitan institution, one that specialises in using interdisciplinary resources to solve some of Africa’s most complex problems.

The Mapungubwe Tower at Javett-UP.

“We’ve developed a five year-programme which we continually refine as we look ahead. If you look at the interdisciplinary work taking place at UP’s new Future Africa Campus [launched March 2019], we want to embrace that as well. I want to see the Javett become a ground-breaking institution with academic programmes and interactions with other institutions, with residencies, with postgraduates coming to spend time with us, doing research with us. I think the Javett can play a really big role in the journey we’re all taking to redefine ourselves. It can become a fully-fledged African campus, one that organisations and institutions from across Africa who work with the art of Africa can embrace. Ultimately, Javett-UP is the place to come to see the art of Africa on the continent.”

- Author Masego Panyane

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