Home » Exhibitions » Exhibition Review – South Africa: the art of a nation at the British Museum from 27th October 2016 to 26th February 2017

Exhibition Review – South Africa: the art of a nation at the British Museum from 27th October 2016 to 26th February 2017

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The British Museum presents the first major UK exhibition on South African art that explores a 100,000 year history through archaeological, historic and contemporary artworks, which looks at the long and rich artistic heritage of the country. The exhibition entitled South Africa: the art of a nation will use art to tell the story of the region’s extensive history. Objects from the British Museum’s own South African collections will be displayed alongside contemporary acquisitions. There will also be significant loans in the exhibition, including objects coming to the UK for the very first time.

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The exhibition explores the artistic achievements of South Africa with around 200 objects arranged chronologically across seven key episodes from the country’s history, from ancient history to the present day. Each section is illustrated with artworks by contemporary artists that provide new perspectives regarding South Africa’s past.

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Some of the earliest objects are in the early rooms of the exhibition including the remarkable Zaamenkanst panel and the Makapansgat Pebble of Many Faces which was created naturally but found among fossil skeletons going back three million years. These together with other early pieces provide evidence that it is within Africa that the history of art has its beginnings.  

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One of the highlights of the exhibition is the gold treasures of Mapungubwe, four of which are leaving South Africa for the very first time. From AD 1220 to 1290 Mapungubwe was the capital of the first kingdom in southern Africa. These gold figures, discovered in royal graves  are some of the most significant sculptures in Africa. These gold treasures of Mapungubwe provide evidence of complex and sophisticated society at the start of the second millennium.

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Another highlight is the intricate Xhosa woman’s cloak dating from the mid 1800s, the cloak called an ingubo was probably worn by a woman of high status with considerable wealth.

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These early archaeological artworks are of considerable important in contemporary South Africa for many reasons because they provide evidence that complex societies existed in the region for centuries before the arrival of European settlers. One of the myths of the apartheid era was the colonial concept of ‘terra nullius’, the myth of an empty land which was used as part of the mission to bring ‘civilisation‘ to the region. Modern artwork in the section by Penny Siopis and a sculpture by Owen Ndou encourage the viewer to challenge some of these historic myths.

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Moving into the 20th century, it is the apartheid era that brings forward art that challenges the system and since the creation of the ‘Rainbow Nation’,  South Africa has developed a  dynamic contemporary art scene with a global reputation. A variety of contemporary works are on display a self-portrait by Lionel Davis’ to video featuring Candice Breitz, and a stunning purple installation by Mary Sibande. Other pieces include works by Willie Bester, William Kentridge and Santu Mofokeng.

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This intriguing exhibition challenges many the assumptions about South African art, whilst many Eurocentric theories place the beginnings of the history of art in Europe, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Africa has better claims. The exhibition illustrates that more and more contemporary artist in South Africa are reclaiming the past to inform the present. In many ways the people of South Africa have been creative and artistic for millennia and this exhibition is an important reminder of this fact.

Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended

South Africa:  the art of a nation

27 October 2016 – 26 February 2017

Tickets £12.00, children under 16 free

Opening times

Saturday –Thursday 10.00–17.30

Friday 10.00–20.30

For more information or to book tickets, visit the British Museum website here

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