It traces the cultural and social evolution of South Africa through 100,000 years of art from some of the earliest examples of human creativity to the cutting-edge styled contemporary works that have emerged today.
The southernmost country on the African continent is renowned for its varied topography, great natural beauty and cultural diversity.
South Africa’s more recent history, included the disdained apartheid regime. This was when economic and cultural boycotts affected every aspect of life, while triggering a creative response from among its many culturally diverse and very different peoples. They responded through a deeply personal and intense need for self-expression.
Over 200 objects arranged chronologically reveal the arc of the country’s history from ancient times until today, including the golden treasures of Mapungubwe, the capital of the first kingdom in southern Africa.
Images of animals of high status; a wild cat, the endangered and much revered rhinoceros and a cow are being shown alongside objects associated with power, a sceptre, a bowl or crown.
The golden rhino is the symbol of the Order of Mapungubwe, South Africa’s highest honour, which was presented first in 2002 to freedom fighter and revolutionary politician and philanthropist Nelson Mandela.
The complexity of the varied societies that existed within the region of South Africa prior to the arrival of European settlers is immense and they all have long and colourful histories.
Hartwig Fischer, Director of the British Museum said “… South Africa: the Art of a Nation, is a chance to explore the long and diverse history of South African art and to challenge audience preconceptions in the way our visitors have come to expect from a British Museum exhibition”.
The British Museum has been collecting contemporary African art for over 20 years, and the exhibition presents an opportunity to showcase some of the pieces acquired from revered South African artists.
Inspired by archival recordings of their ancestors’ beliefs, they have produced contemporary representations of their founding stories, which offers an opportunity to present a mythological narrative while improving the lives of some of the most needy people in South Africa.
A stunning 2 metre wide textile ‘The Creation of the Sun’ (2015) is a collaborative work from artists at the Bethesda Arts Centre in the village of Nieu Bethesda, which teaches art to descendants of South Africa’s first dispossessed inhabitants.
The San were hunter gatherers and lived peacefully in the region for some twenty thousand years alongside the Khoekhoen nomadic pastoralists who were also first peoples before the arrival of white Dutch colonists in 1652.
Still today they struggle to be recognised, in the same way aboriginals in Australia are identified as our nation’s first inhabitants.
The widespread rock art tradition of the Khoekhoen ‘affects the debate over what archaeology can tell us about prehistory in southern Africa‘*
Collectively their contemporary charismatic art is extremely ‘haveable’ and admired far and wide.
This stunning exhibition at The British Museum celebrates the significant artistic accomplishment for all those who have down the centuries, contributed to the continuing story of South Africa.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2016
On Show – 26 February, 2017