Gavin Jantjes
Gavin Jantjes

Acrylic on canvas
200 x 300 cm (78 3/4 x 118 1/8 in.)
96–23–1, purchased with funds provided by the Smithsonian Collections Acquisition Program

Education and experience

Gavin Jantjes was born in 1948 in Cape Town, South Africa. During his childhood Jantjes had the opportunity to study art at the Children’s Art Centre in District 6. In 1969 he completed his B.A. at Michaelis School of Fine Art, Cape Town. He left South Africa in 1970 on a scholarship to the Hochschule für Bildende Künste, in Hamburg, Germany, where he received an M.A. in 1972. He lived and worked in Hamburg from 1970–82, choosing not to return to a country organized around the hate of apartheid. In 1982 he moved to Britain where he was an active participant in the art scene. He curated a number of exhibitions, lectured widely and served on the advisory boards of several galleries. Jantjes has had several solo exhibitions as well as participated in group shows, primarily in Europe and South Africa but also in Cuba and the United States. He has since returned to live in South Africa.

The painting

The San are the indigenous peoples of the Cape of South Africa. They have a strong oral tradition, and Jantjes was inspired to paint this picture by reading poetic translations of one San woman’s narratives on creation myths. The painting recalls a San tale about the creation of the stars and Milky Way. In the story, a young girl reaches into the fire and throws burning embers into the sky. The coals form the stars and the white ashes become the Milky Way. The sky dominates this painting; Jantjes created the Milky Way by using a grayish paint against the darker sky. A blue line arcs through the picture from the top left corner. The three figures, mere outlines of people situated in the bottom half of the painting, are drawn in the style of Khoi San rock art. The sky can be seen through their bodies, reinforcing the overwhelming nature of astronomic space.
This painting is part of the Zulu series. In English, the word Zulu literally translates to “the space above your head” or “the heavens.” The Zulu series, paintings and drawings depicting various images of cosmology, reveals Jantjes’ inspirations from Khoi San rock art, mythology, and astronomy.

Classroom Activities

Elementary School
Art, drawing, drama
Identify another creation myth and have the students act out the story through a short play.
Social studies, oral history This painting incorporates a belief in how the Milky Way was created. Among the San, such beliefs were passed down through oral tradition.
Have the student interview an older person and learn about stories from the child’s family or local history.
Middle School
Art, Language arts
Jantjes has been repeatedly inspired by poetry. Choose a poem rich in visual imagery (or have students choose their own) and ask students to respond by drawing, painting, or other form of artistic expression. Encourage students to think about their reactions to the poem and translate those reactions into images.
Social studies research
Rock art, both paintings and carvings, are not singular to South Africa. Have students research rock painting of different groups, including those of Southern Africa, Australia, Europe, and the southwestern United States. Compare them for content and style. Search on the Internet for sites about rock art, especially for those places not included here. Websites with images of rock art from around the world include:

American Rock Art Research Association (SW USA):

The Cave of Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc (France):


Rock Art Foundation (SW USA):

Rock Art Research Institute (South Africa):

High School
Many other artists have used images of the night sky in their work. One famous painting is Van Gogh’s Starry Night. Have students compare these works with celestial maps and this painting.
Social studies
Social unrest: Artists in exile. Jantjes chose to stay out of South Africa until the fear of apartheid was over. During the last century hundreds of artists, writers, and members of the intellectual community have chosen or been forced to leave their homes because they did not agree with the policies of their governments. Discuss the policy of apartheid and what it meant for the different peoples of South Africa. Where else have such policies been in force?

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