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  • Lisa Martus

THE PASSION & PURPOSE OF JURGEN WITT - LIMPOPO'S CULTURAL TREASURES

In the pursuit of his passion and purpose, Jurgen Witt developed a lifelong relationship with the cultural custodians of Limpopo and developed one of the most significant collections of art and artifacts in the Province. This is his story.


There is a constant pulse, an ancient rhythm pushing life through the veins of the Limpopo Province, some may say that this is the real heart of Africa. It is a place of innate creativity, where storytelling is built into daily life and the myths and legends of the past are woven into the fabric of today. The golden thread of culture and heritage weaves its way from the cycad forest of Modjadji to the rolling hills of Elim and the myths surrounding the spiritual space of Mount Ribola and down to the verdant valley of Tzaneen.


Here, Hilda Witt sits in her home surrounded by sculptures, books, Maberly paintings and a host of photographs. You can almost see the images flit across her eyes as the memories come flooding back. Hilda and Jurgen met in Sweden in 1951 at a German book exhibition, where Hilda was teaching children German and Jurgen had fled from Germany during the war. They got to know each other well but recognised that a serious relationship was not on the cards because Jurgen had his path mapped out to go to Africa to start a new future with his uncle in Tanzania, while Hilda planned to study languages and travel the world beginning with South America. They knew that once they said goodbye to each other, they would never see each other again. When Jurgen left for South Africa by boat, Hilda was fortunate enough to go to the Olympic Games in Helsinki, Finland in 1952 but they continued to write each other letters and stayed in touch wherever they were in the world.


When Hilda’s plans for South America fell through, and she wrote to Jurgen pondering where she would go instead, he replied ‘if you want to go so far away from Germany, why not come to South Africa?’ He promised that he would arrange everything and get her a job, so in 1955 the pair met again on the Johannesburg Railway Station platform. Hilda describes the reunion as exciting because they realised straight away that the connection between them was still strong. This would be the first step towards their adventurous life together.


Jurgen and Hilda took up jobs in Johannesburg and Jurgen began to pursue his passion for archaeological and ethnological artifacts. According to an article in Noseweek Magazine in May 2019, ‘Always interested in the world around him, Witt joined the Archeological Society. In 1969 he was employed part-time – along with a number of well-known international academics – by the German Research Council. Archaeology, geology, geomorphology, ethnology, and plant geography were amongst the disciplines involved.’ ‘Witt became a scientific assistant to Professor Otto Fraenzle, a position he held until the latter’s death. He was also co-founder of the Interdisciplinary Sahara Research Society, and a member of the Institutum Canarium, concerned with the cultural heritage of the Canary Islands. In the course of his research, he was able to identify nearly 200 sites of archaeological interest from Tzaneen, along the escarpment to the Indian Ocean.’


The active role he played in these circles resulted in him meeting Nelson Mandela as well as establishing lifelong connections with inspiring individuals such as Professor Raymond Dart, the anthropologist involved in the 1924 discovery of the first fossil ever found of Australopithecus africanus; Peter Becker, author and ethnologist specialising in the people of southern African and their customs and their close friend Charles Astley Maberly who wrote and illustrated a number of early reference books including the Game Animals of Southern Africa.


When the family moved to Tzaneen, Jurgen Witt began to explore the Province, collecting sculptures and cultural items as well as the stories and indigenous knowledge which he wanted to maintain so that it did not get lost. His passion for African art and culture which started in the 1960’s, continued for his entire life leaving a legacy of one of the most unique collections in the country governed by a ‘desire to act in a responsible direction that is guided by wisdom and not by the infamous desires that are only beneficial for a single individual.’


Jurgen Witt’s collection developed and diversified as he travelled far and wide, but he became increasingly aware of the need to protect and preserve it for future generations. The Tzaneen Museum became the physical manifestation of his life’s work and the repository for prized pieces from renowned artists such as Jackson Hlungwane; Dr Phutuma Seoka, Samson Makwala, Bevan Mkhabele, John Baloyi, Thomas Kubayi, Johannes Maswanganyi and Phillip Rikhotso.


The Tzaneen Museum is a small, nondescript building in the municipal administration centre of town. Officially opened by the then Mayor, Felix Masinge, on June 24, 1995, the Tzaneen Museum is, according to the Macmillan Travel Guide, ‘considered to be one of the finest collections of African Art and artifacts in the whole of South Africa. The museum, containing the private collection of dedicated curator, Jurgen Witt, consists of four small rooms filled with over a thousand well-traveled exhibits relating to the traditions and history of the North Sotho, Tsonga and Venda.’


‘Ethnological artefacts include weapons, pottery (covering a period of nearly 2,000 years), basketry, beadwork, initiation figures, pole carvings (the world’s largest collection), as well as old books and documents relating to the area. Outside the museum, you will meet mythical creatures from Tsonga tales. These carvings were commissioned by Mr. Witt in order to keep oral traditions alive and to offer a focal point for children who visit the museum, many of whom are brought by parents wanting to encourage an interest in their own culture. ’

The FootPrint South Africa Handbook is of the opinion that, ‘A visit to the museum is a must, where one can view one of the finest collections of African art household objects in the whole of South Africa… Do not be deceived by its size or the building, this is one of the best museums in South Africa, and it deserves far greater recognition and resources.’


In the words of Jurgen Witt himself, ‘We at the Museum are trying to encourage all people to be proud of a vanishing culture that may not be allowed to die. For as long as we can possibly secure this culture, we should do it with all our might. We can only do it with the physical power and resourcefulness of our mental capacity because that is all we have to build on.’


Since his death, Jurgen Witt’s talented Museum Assistant Florence Tshibeyahope has taken over the baton of his life’s work, and is still caring for sculptures like the Crucifixion carved by Jackson Hlungwane and the carved staffs he depended on to climb to the summit of his charismatic outdoor church, New Jerusalem. On a daily basis, Florence dusts off the cobwebs and keeps the magic alive so that this art collection can continue to transform, inspire and shape young minds.


Jurgen Witt said, ‘Culture is like the hub which is nearest to the axle of a wheel...it can only turn when it is maintained. Culture is not a dead asset - it needs constant impulses from the outside to give rise to new impulses.’


Art is the golden thread running through the generations, connecting us to our cultural heritage and who we are. It is a celebration of the true spirit of the Limpopo Province, reflecting the beauty of its people, landscapes, heritage and culture. The Jurgen Witt Art Collection comes alive by sharing it with others who will be transformed by it. Linking the heritage of the past to the present must inevitably also tap in on a momentum for dynamic change into the future. In this way, the living artists will be an integral part of a reimagined future. To fulfil the dream of Jurgen Witt, it is our responsibility to move this legacy forward through innovative ideas in order to empower the future growth of the creative industry for the benefit of us all.


The Tzaneen Museum is to be found on a quiet corner of the Municipal Buildings - connect with Gallery Manager, Florence Tshibeyahope on 082 421 6555 to find out more. And join us at the Spring Celebrations and Heritage Weekend Art Exhibition in Haenertsburg from 23 to 25 September 2022.


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