Javett Art Centre at the University of Pretoria bags a national book award

Posted on March 30, 2023

The Javett-UP Art Centre is starting to live up to its name, and not only in terms of its physical location. Just over three years since the centre opened its doors on the border of the University of Pretoria’s (UP’s) Hatfield campus – linked by a gallery on a bridge across Lynnwood Road – the partnership between the two institutions is starting to bear fruit.  

And this comes in the light of Javett-UP’s recent successes. It has won a national award for its book about a collection and an exhibition and, in the last financial year, increased their revenue and attracted 35 000 visitors.

Lekgetho Makola, Javett’s Chief Executive Officer, said: “We're beginning to establish our value proposition to the university. We see ourselves as part of the university and one of our major roles is to support the university to translate research into impact”.

The Javett Art Centre and UP are now collaborating on projects that extend beyond fine arts. “We have started creating programmes that are academic in their nature, but artistic in terms of their process and concept,” said Makola, referring to the centre’s collaborations with departments of such as geography and agriculture.

One tangible collaboration is with Engineering 4.0, one of the university’s flagship research facilities, which recently built a track for one of Javett-UP’s exhibitions. Nyakallo Maleke, a South African artist whose work has been exhibited in New York and Japan, wanted a high-tech moveable track to incorporate and transform her art installation, as part of the exhibition titled Scenorama.

Maleke’s work explores all aspects of the word “drawing”, down to drawing a conclusion, and includes drawings done with shoe polish and hairspray on materials ranging from wrapping paper to drop sheets.

Javett-UP’s Curatorial Director, Gabi Ngcobo, who curated Scenorama, said they even considered restaurants’ sushi belts and toy trains’ rails in their search for a suitable moveable track. In the end they opted for a rail with small box carriages that can be moved manually, and which Engineering 4.0 created, much of it 3D-printed, over a couple of months.

Scenorama will be travelling to Durban’s contemporary art gallery, KwaZulu Natal Society of Arts (KZNSA), where it opens in May 2023.

Ngcobo will also be working with UP’s fourth-year fine art students for six weeks in August. She will be critiquing their work and popping into their studios to assess their progress.

This is not a new endeavour for Ngcobo, who has a Master in Curatorial Studies from Bard College in New York, and who was a lecturer at the Wits (University) School of Arts between 2011 and 2020. Her international accomplishments include curating the 10th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art in 2018.

Another of Ngcobo’s collaborations with UP is multidisciplinary. She has set up two collective learning rooms, or open classrooms, within Javett-UP. Each focuses on a work from the Javett Family Collection as a springboard for discussion.

The one work is Sam Nhlengethwa’s Glimpses of the Fifties and Sixties, 30 photo collages on paper dated 2002/3, which depict black urban life in the first two decades of apartheid South Africa. UP’s Urban Geography students will have an opportunity to respond to the collages during their Wednesday classes in the room next semester.

The second is Cecil Skotnes’s The Last Supper, a mural of three panels that the late artist presented to the Santa Sophia Institute for Catholic Education in Waterkloof, Pretoria, in 1995 and which the Javett Foundation bought on auction for R1.8m in 2013. Ngcobo has invited the Faculty of Theology and Religion to respond to the work.

Both these collective learning rooms represent a process Ngcobo refers to as “curating in reverse”. Instead of presenting everything as cut and dried to viewers (that include students), they are invited to contribute their own ideas and responses to the artworks.

Ngcobo invites interactions by adding a wall for people to leave notes, and by continually adding to the exhibitions. “So by the end of the year, the room will have more content brought into it by different people,” she said. She is toying, for example, with adding George Pemba’s Black Christ, also in the Javett collection, to the room with Skotnes’s The Last Supper.

The building’s architectural appeal is also making it a popular choice for functions, such as the National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences’ annual award ceremony on 16 March 2023. Javett-UP itself was the proud recipient of the award for Best Non-Fiction Monograph at the event.

The university is now reaching out to Javett-UP with its plans to expand the art centre’s roof with a platform for musical events – which will provide an opportunity for yet another collaboration with the School of the Arts.

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