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South Africa: The Art Of A Nation

BMW Car By Esther Mahlangu

This month is your last chance to see South Africa: The Art of a Nation. Held at The British Museum, it is the first major UK exhibition showcasing the fascinating and in-depth history of South African art, featuring a dazzling array of ancient objects, gold treasures and contemporary pieces spanning 100,000 years.

We spoke to one of the co-curators and Head Of Africa at The British Museum John Giblin to shed a little light on the exhibition and what we can expect:

Tell us all about the exhibition and why it is so significant? 

South Africa has some of the world’s oldest artworks and one of the world’s most vibrant contemporary art scenes, our awareness of which has increased hugely in the last couple of decades. There thus seemed to be an opportunity to link these two narrative points and tell one of the world’s longest stories through artworks. As curators, we didn’t simply want to tell a linear story, however, but to bring the past into the present by placing historic artworks into a dialogue with contemporary ones. Through an Art Fund Jonathan Ruffer Curatorial Grant we went to South Africa and sought out the work of contemporary artists that highlighted the relevance of these historical periods.

This exhibition tells an art-based story of the creation of South Africa that remembers and respects problematic histories, including colonialism, apartheid and their legacies, but which also looks beyond these well-discussed issues to celebrate the artistic accomplishments of the many peoples that have contributed to the national story.

How does the exhibition represent and convey the history and diversity of South Africa?

The exhibition sheds light on the varied artistic achievements of South Africa with around 200 objects arranged chronologically across seven key episodes from the country’s history, from the ancient finds at Blombos Cave to the present day. The seven sections span the introduction of the first peoples of South Africa; through early artistic thought sculpture; the arrival of European and Asian colonists, black South Africans in the 1800s; along with a section tackling the issues of apartheid and artists understanding South Africa today. Each section is illustrated with artworks by contemporary artists that provide new perspectives on South Africa’s past.

How will the exhibition help transform perceptions of its international audiences?

We hope the exhibition will challenge the dominance of Western histories of art that focus on Europe and the classical world and do not include sub-Saharan Africa. We hope that visitors will come away from the exhibition with a much greater appreciation of the vast depth and diversity of South Africa’s history and art heritage.

The Gold Rhinoceros

One of the treasures of the exhibition is the famous 800 year old rhinoceros of Mapungubwe (pictured above). Mapungubwe was the capital of the first kingdom in southern Africa from AD 1220 to 1290. Recovered in northern South Africa, near to the Zimbabwean border in 1934 and no bigger than a hand, it is evidence of a powerful kingdom that existed in South Africa hundreds of years before colonialisation. Tell us more!

The gold rhinoceros was found in the grave of one of the leaders of the first state level society in southern Africa, what some have called the first kingdom in southern Africa. The rhinoceros and the other gold objects found in the graves reflect Mapungubwe’s involvement in the mining and export of gold to the Indian Ocean trade network and the emergence of a powerful elite that controlled the trade.

It took on new importance in the 20th Century when it was re-discovered by archaeologists because it demonstrates, along with other remains from this period, that the region was populated by complex settled societies before the arrival of Europeans in the region - evidence that challenged colonial and apartheid ideologies that suggested the land was empty and ripe for colonisation.

However, that evidence was not celebrated in official histories. Instead, it has been argued that the rhino was effectively hidden by the apartheid state until the end of apartheid in the late 20th century when it was made into a National Treasure. In 2002 the government created The Order of Mapungubwe, one of the highest honours in South Africa, with the golden rhinoceros at the centre of the platinum award. Nelson Mandela was the first to receive the award. 

What are your top three must see objects of the exhibition?

1. The Zaamenkomst Panel

2. Mary Sibande’s A Reversed Retrogress

3. The Gold Rhinoceros 

Feeling as inspired are we are? See the exhibition before it closes on February 26th. Tickets can be purchased on The British Museum website. See you there! 

Photo credits: Esther Mahlangu (b. 1935), detail of BMW Art Car 12, 1991. © Esther Mahlangu. Photo © BMW Group Archives.
Gold rhino. From Mapungubwe, capital of the first kingdom in southern Africa, c. AD 1220–1290. Department of Arts © University of Pretoria.