South Africa: the art of a nation at the British Museum

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Car transformed into Ndebele Art

The exhibition, the art of a nation, retraces the chronological history of South Africa through art going back 3 million years, up to the emergence of what is known today as the Rainbow Nation. It is a myth busting display, challenging some long held beliefs in Art History.

3 Million years ago, a Human Ancestor in South Africa collected a face-like stone, The Makapansgat Pebble, probably on the sole merit of its shape and aesthetics. Some millions of years later, those who followed, had shaped ironstone into a hand axe (found in Kathu Pan) and shell beads into necklace. These exhibits, dating back respectively 100,000 and 78,000 years, demonstrate Humans’ early interest in Art and position South Africa as one of the artistic cradles of humanity.

The golden figurines of Mapungubwe dated around 1,250 and initially found in a Royal Cave, reveal the existence of a well-structured society with a particular aesthetic, way before the Europeans settled there. It is the first time that some of these artifacts have been shown outside of South Africa. They are interesting for their artistic value but even more so in the context of a South Africa, portrayed for a long time as a barren land until colonization. And it is this complex link between Politics, Art and Identity that is the focus of the last sections of the exhibition. After the native Land Act of 1913, the black population was moved to some reserves and specific zones. Around that time, the Ndebele Art, initially black and white, evolved to become more colourful, bright and bold. The change signaled the population’s artistic resistance, their determination to preserve their identity and their refusal to be invisible. Within the confines of an oppressive political regime, or a standardized employee uniform, the black population carried on creating Artful objects such as the beaded tie, that reflected their identity.

The South Africa that the world celebrates today is born out of a long artistic tradition and of the long political struggles of yesterday. The exhibition finishes on an optimistic note with Marie Sibande’s installation: ‘A Reversed Retrogress’, 2013. A woman dressed in purple representing the present and the future (the color purple symbolizes the uprising of 1989) is saying goodbye to the other, dressed in blue representing the past with the uniform of the house employees during apartheid.

The superb exhibition, South Africa: the art of a nation runs until February 26th at the British Museum.

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One thought on “South Africa: the art of a nation at the British Museum

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