South Africa the Art of a Nation | The British Museum

Dr. Esther Mahlangu
27 Oct 2016

The task of exploring a thousand years of a country’s history in one exhibition – particularly one with as contested a history as South Africa – is not an easy one. Yet the British Museum has managed to create an exhibition that is informative and well curated, offering new and surprising insights even for a South African audience. ‘South Africa: the art of a nation’ is a thoughtful journey through the artistic history of the country, from as far back as three million BP through to 2013. While you might think an exhibition of this scope would take the form of a purely chronological curatorial structure, Chris Spring and John Giblin’s sensitive juxtaposition of contemporary work with ancient art objects creates a lively conversation between past and present work.


The Colonial Myth

Hosting an exhibition of South African art within an institution such as the British Museum, given the country’s colonial history, would no doubt raise a few eyebrows, yet all of the colonial issues that come to the foreground are properly addressed. There are explanations for why the artists of certain works are unknown (for example the artists responsible for rock art panels and fertility figurines); for how these types of works were problematically collected (as ethnographic curiosities); as well as explanations around the problematic use of terms to describe different cultures (such as ‘San/Bushman’ and ‘Khoekhoe’). The exhibition constantly calls attention to these issues within the Western canon and how they influenced views of Southern African art and culture, pointing out bias behind the colonial myth of an ‘empty land.’ Each work of art is contextualised and analysed with a view to interrogate the context it was created in, as well as how it is viewed in the context of the present...Click to continue reading


Author: Siobhan Keam is a freelance art writer based in London.

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