The Javett Art Centre at the University of Pretoria (UP) has exceeded all expectations about being a space people can identify with, aspire to be seen in, and just simply enjoy.
Online graduations earlier this year saw many UP students commemorating their achievements with on-campus photographs, taken in their academic gowns, in front of their favourite artworks.
Two people staged marriage proposals at the centre, one hiding a proposal letter under one of its benches, and another augmenting the occasion with balloons and a string quartet. One couple even chose to take their wedding pictures among the artworks, rather than in the more traditional setting of a park.
Javett-UP, a partnership between the philanthropic Javett Foundation and the University, is starting to fulfil the potential it showed at its launch on Heritage Day, 24 September, two years ago. The occasion was memorable. Hundreds partied in the museum square, enjoying the festivities of live music and food stalls, while others queued to enter the building in controlled groups to see artwork – which is still on show – such as the AngloGold Ashanti Barbier-Mueller Collection of West African gold artefacts from Ghana, Mali and the Ivory Coast, and the 14th-century Mapungubwe Gold Collection with its gold rhino and leopard, and other treasures excavated from Mapungubwe Hill in Limpopo.
The golden rhinoceros of Mapungubwe in the Mapungubwe Gold Collection at the Javett-UP.
Six months later, the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown hit. The gallery closed, with some online activities, until Heritage Day last year. Then there was another wobble. A few weeks after the reopening, it was announced that founding and curatorial director Christopher Till, who had been involved in the project since its construction phase in 2015, was leaving. Dr Samuel Isaacs was appointed as interim Chief Executive Officer (CEO).
Now it’s back on track. Lekgetho Makola – previously head of the Market Photo Workshop in Johannesburg and who, last year, became the first African to chair the World Press Photo Awards General Jury – was appointed as the new CEO in February. Former Wits lecturer Gabi Ngcobo – who had curated one of the centre’s opening exhibitions, and was included in ARTnews’s May 2021 list 25 Curators Shaping the Art World Today – first became interim curatorial director, until her permanent appointment in May.
With these two dynamos at the helm, Javett-UP is on a roll. “Our vision is to position the art centre as a leading space for transdisciplinary engagement, where different types of practices interface to generate new ways of understanding arts cultural practice,” Makola said. “We are beginning to diversify as a product where people can come to access knowledge and research, but also for leisure and pleasure because that element is critical: not only intellectual engagement, but how the art can be pleasing and healing. With COVID limitations, the digital space becomes critical. So we're going to be investing quite a lot into technology and how it can assist us to be accessible to as wide a public as possible.”
Foot traffic is always important to a centre. More than 2 000 people entered Javett-UP between September 2020 and January this year, and at one stage it was getting 800 visitors a month. But there is always the desire to attract more, and a broader audience to “become a community for different publics, specifically the youth”, Makola said.
He talks about the “politics of access” in the light of Javett-UP being in the more elitist part of Pretoria. Ngcobo is equally aware of the need to find pathways to open up access. “I know what it is like to come from the other side and to find that access is limited or not possible,” she said. “So we always think from the starting point of our experiences, about how we can reach as many people as possible to come to Javett-UP – and also for Javett-UP to go out and have a presence in different areas.” With this in mind, part of their research process is “to open up new entry points to the themes and to the collections” Ngcobo added. One way to do this is to create fresh artistic responses.
With the exhibition Handle with Care, which features a selection from the South32 Collection (the mining company previously known as Gencor and recently BHP Billiton), Ngcobo divided the artworks into four themes. All relate to the world in COVID times, “such as care, self-preservation and dreamscapes – because we all started to dream differently, and pertinent issues are urgent now, like the construction of masculinities, and abstraction” Ngcobo explains. She also invited four younger artists to respond to them: Neo “Hlasko’ Mahlasela, George Mahashe, Sabelo Mlangeni and Nyakallo Maleke. “That is the kind of research we delved into,” Ngcobo said.
Mlangeni’s response to the theme ‘Construction of South African Masculinities’ was two of his photographs in poster format, and not “put up” but “put down”, that is, piled on the floor for visitors to take. Other exhibitions include Willem Boshoff’s Word Woes, a title that intentionally has different meanings in English and Afrikaans, challenges language as an instrument of cultural identity or exclusion and is on show until January.
The most recent exhibition is the multidisciplinary Interfacing New Heavens, which opened on 21 August. South African artist Mahashe did a residency in Switzerland, while Swiss artist Vanessa Lorenzo did a residency in South Africa. “[They were] working with scientists and astronomers, not necessarily with artists, so it's a combination of those collaborations and those thoughts,” Ngcobo said. It is also a collaboration between Javett-UP and the Artists Labs programme at the Zurich University of the Arts.
Javett-UP is focusing on such partnerships. These include the Visionary Award for filmmakers and photographers established with the Tim Hetherington Trust, where the winning entry receives £20 000 (about R415 000) for a research residency and has the opportunity to produce an exhibition at Javett-UP. Other partnerships in the offing include the LagosPhoto Festival, Cairo Photoweek, Picha in Lubumbashi and Rencontres de Bamako (Bamako Encounters) in Mali, “the oldest photo festival in Africa,” Makola said.
“These are platforms we have identified so that the art produced through our programmes can travel to each of those regions,” he said. “One of the founding principles is that the art practice of the continent must be represented within Javett-UP.”
Javett-UP offers memberships and pre-arranged guided tours. It is open from Tuesdays to Sundays from 10am to 5pm, and entry is free on public holidays. On other days, entry is R150 per person, R50 for under-18s, R70 for pensioners, and free for university students and children under the age of six.