Gold of Africa: The artisan reminiscents of an African Culture

Photo Courtesy Of Craig Mc Clenaghan

The continent of Africa has forever been the cradle of life for all of humankind's needs, wants and desires. Within its earth is a veritable treasure trove: wonders of beauty and stores of energy and gold that have propelled people to greatness with the acquisition of their bounty.

According to Siseko Kumalo, moderator of the Gold of Africa conversations webinar that was hosted by Javett-UP on 11 September 2020: “The allure of gold has motivated humanity to great heights and depths of achievement and destruction. Its glitter, timeless properties and ability to be transformed into objects of beauty and desire have propelled this fascination and the many legends and characters surrounding the gold of Africa.”

The AngloGold Ashanti Barbier-Mueller Collection of West African Gold and the Mapungubwe Gold Collection are both profoundly important prehistoric artisan collections housed by Javett-UP. These collections not only reflect the history of our continent, but also allow us a glimpse into the world and ways of our ancestors who walked the Earth hundreds of years before us.

The AngloGold Ashanti Barbier-Mueller Collection is a collection of West African gold that was originally held at a museum in Geneva, Switzerland. The Barbier-Mueller Collection was collected by Swiss industrialist Josef Mueller, who had a great fascination with African cultures and traditions. The collection was eventually purchased by AngloGold Ashanti, a South African mining company, which then returned it to its continent of origin. The AngloGold Ashanti Barbier-Mueller Collection is essentially made up of artefacts from the West African countries of Ghana, Mali and Côte d’Ivoire.

According to Christopher Till, curatorial director of the Javett-UP Art Centre, the design and techniques of these elements have a signature that is specific to the African continent. The zoomorphic pieces are illustrative of the metaphorical description of the animal and plant forms that had significance in demonstrating the sociology of the time.

Javett-UP’s second gold collection, the Mapungubwe Gold Collection, consists of 14th-century artefacts from Mapungubwe Hill, which is located along the Kolope River, south of the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe rivers, in the province of Limpopo. The Mapungubwe collection was acquired during excavations in the 20th century and was first exhibited by the University of Pretoria in 2000.

Dr Sian Tiley-Nel, head of the University of Pretoria (UP) Museums, stated: “The idea of curating the collection alongside Christopher Till at the Javett Art Centre at UP was to move away from these objects as artefacts, and into the realm of art.” In this sense, the materiality and stories encapsulated within all of these pieces became particularly important and something to be highlighted. With the University of Pretoria acting as a steward of this precious collection, it has invested a significant amount of money over the past decades to conserve and restore much of the collection for the public to view.

Photo By Frances Charlton 1

In a poetic fashion, the Javett-UP’s cast-concrete architecture reflects the Mapungubwe Hill where the gold was discovered. By displaying both these African gold collections in darkened spaces, the gold becomes the focal point, reflecting its sacredness and placing emphasis on the artistic qualities and unique craftmanship of these pieces.

Thinking through the displacement, cultural appropriation and acquisition of these artefacts, the webinar conversation took an interesting direction when the topic of curating national stories and identities in a postcolonial world came under discussion. According to Dr Tiley-Nel, the Mapungubwe Gold Collection is one of the most highly contested archaeological collections that exists. “Even today, the appropriation of gold is still a significant factor of Mapungubwe, as communities not only seek the gold, but also seek truth about whose heritage these gold artefacts represent and where ownership lies.”

With the Thulamela SANParks gold collection being stolen in December 2016, our continent has fewer and fewer valuable archaeological collections, making the Mapungubwe Gold Collection a treasured national collection. Exercising responsible stewardship, the University of Pretoria has tried as far as possible to recognise the Mapungubwe cultural communities, beginning in 2007 with the repatriation of the human remains that marked a symbolic return to the Mapungubwe site.

Dr Tiley-Nel emphasised that collections such as the Mapungubwe Gold Collection are not only for Africa, but also need to be considered more globally, as they belong to the whole of humanity. “We must recognise the local communities, but we should also be looking much wider. Mapungubwe has had links with some of the first-ever international traders, so it has a lot of links with globalism.”

Photo By Frances Charlton 2

Javett-UP and the University of Pretoria aim to democratise these works and make them more accessible, so that the wider public can interact more easily with these previously inaccessible collections and their histories.

However, it is still important to note that the voices of the local communities who hold these golden pieces in esteem as part of their heritage are exceedingly important and must be heard. This forms a critical part of Javett-UP’s motivation. The co-creation of knowledge amid the larger local and global community and among multiparty stakeholders is essential to profile these artefacts. This could bear the precious fruit necessary to more accurately expose the history behind these golden African artefacts. Javett-UP aims to bring together a combination of minds, including academics, curators, artists, public participants and local cultural practitioners, to curate a dialogue and discuss how we might begin to drive policy directives in terms of the trajectory of culture in South Africa.

On a parting note, the artefacts housed in the Gold Tower at the Javett-UP Art Centre are, indeed, authentic gold artefacts, not replicas! While Javett-UP was closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the gold collections continued to glitter brightly in the darkness. We look forward to welcoming the public again from 24 September 2020 to come and view not only our 101 Collecting Conversations: Signature Works of a Century collection as well as the Javett Family Collection, but also our prized Gold of Africa collections.