Opinion piece: The brilliance of Africa’s golden art

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African gold! This phrase echoes across the continent with stories, characters and myths that define the mystique of this magical and precious metal. Legends of King Solomon’s mines, the Queen of Sheba, Prester John, Mansa Musa, and the civilisations of Great Zimbabwe and Mapungubwe find resonance with these stories, merging fact and fiction.

In September last year, two priceless African gold collections took up permanent residence at the Javett Art Centre at the University of Pretoria (Javett-UP) and so added their voice to the long – and continuing – story of the art of Africa.

In September the previous year, the discovery of the oldest known drawing made by human hands (in the Western Cape’s Blombos Caves) proved that South Africa is not only home to the Cradle of Humankind, but is also the cradle of human creativity and expression. Those ancient artists were the forebears of others who have since built a rich tradition of art: not only African art, but all art, everywhere.

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Javett-UP opened on Heritage Day 2019 with four exhibitions: 101 Collecting Conversations: Signature Works of a Century (a collection of iconic South African works of the last 100 years); All in a Day’s Eye (a selection of modern South African works from the Javett Foundation collection); and the two Gold of Africa collections: (the Mapungubwe Collection and the AngloGold Ashanti Barbier-Mueller Collection of West African gold).

The gold collections at Javett-UP draw visitors into the Gold of Africa galleries with the irresistible, age-old allure of this precious metal. They come to wonder at the ancient masterpieces: the iconic, fragile and beautiful gold rhino that’s the talisman of the Mapungubwe Collection; and the intricately made gold jewellery and adornment pieces of the AngloGold Ashanti Barbier-Mueller Collection that are exhibited in glass cases suspended from the ceiling, allowing up-close appreciation of these glittering treasures.

The pieces tell a story about a thriving ancient African economy and the power and status of kingship. They give us a clear narrative of a culture that valued the natural world; of people who mined the earth and rivers for this precious metal; who traded; and who counted among their number families of artists of extraordinary talent and craftsmanship, skilfully fashioning raw materials into pieces of immense beauty. It’s this factor that makes the gold collections rare, precious and valuable. They preserve the heritage of African identity and cultural practice. It’s this that accounts for their allure.

They affirm the integrity, genius and (literal) brilliance of African artists. Domiciled as they are alongside a collection of modern South African art and a collection of work from the last 100 years, they are the link between the history of the art of Africa and an ongoing narrative as told by modern artists. Just as the art of Africa thrived 800 years ago, so it is thriving today.

There is no better home than Javett-UP for the Mapungubwe Collection and the AngloGold Ashanti Barbier-Mueller Collection of West African gold: an art centre established as a place where the ongoing and unfolding creativity of the continent stands with integrity, telling its own story on its own terms.

Christopher Till is director at the Javett Art Centre at the University of Pretoria

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