South Africa: The Art of a Nation – The British Museum


Coldstream Stone, ochre, stone, c. 7000 BC, © Iziko Museums of South Africa, Social History Collections, Cape Town

The British Museum at London has a new exhibition, South Africa: The Art of a Nation now on show until February 26, 2017.

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.


Willie Bester (born 1956), Transition, painting mixed media, 1994. Private collection. © the artist

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.


Xhosa Snuffbox in the shape of an ox, South Africa, Late 19th Century © The Trustees of the British Museum

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.


Gold rhino. From Mapungubwe, capital of the first kingdom in southern Africa, c. AD 1220–1290. Department of Arts © University of Pretoria.

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.


Pair of Sotho Gun Cartridge Dolls, Glass, brass and leather, South Africa, late 19th Century © The Trustees of the British Museum

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.


Jeni Couzyn (artistic director), Sandra Sweers (lead artist), The Creation of the Sun, a collaborative piece from Bethesda Arts Centre, textile, 2015, © The Bethesda Foundation Limited (2015)

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.


Zulu beaded waistcoat, glass and wool, South Africa, made before 1987 © The Trustees of the British Museum

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


Karel Nel (born 1955), Potent Fields, red and white ochre, 2002 © the artist Photo © The Trustees of the British Museum

South Africa: The Art of a Nation
British Museum, London

On Show – 26 February, 2017


*Taking stock: identifying Khoekhoen herder rock art in southern Africa






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