South Africa – The Art Of A Nation

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Having left South Africa 12 years ago to move to the UK, I felt it was time to get a top up of South African culture for my curiosity day. It was also time my husband learnt something about the country where I was born. So I dragged him along to see South Africa The Art Of A Nation exhibition at the British Museum.

South Africa is known as the ‘rainbow nation’ and has a colourful history and culture. Art has always been used to tell the story of the countries history from the colonial period, apartheid to the modern South Africa of today. The exhibition explored South Africa’s 100,000 year history through archaeological, historic and contemporary artworks. Here are a few of the interesting things I saw…

Makapansgat Pebble

Also known as the ‘Stone of many faces’ this pebble was found near the bones of a predecessor of modern humans who lived 3 million years ago. The pebble bears an uncanny resemblance to a human face but the ‘features’ are not man made. It was discovered 40km’s away from any possible natural source so it is thought the pebble was picked up by our ancestors and carried away and this shows the earliest sign of symbolic thinking by our ancestors.

Mapungubwe treasures

Three gold figures were discovered in three royal graves and are among the most significant sculptures in Africa today. They depict animals of high status a cow, a wild cat and a rhinoceros, and are objects associated with power. The golden rhino is now the symbol of the Order of Mapungubwe, South Africa’s highest honour that was first presented in 2002 to Nelson Mandela. It is thought it was made 800 years ago.

UDF 1987: Forward to Peoples Power – Zapiro

The calendar cover was created by Jonathan Shapiro, a well-known South African editorial cartoonist on behalf of the United Democratic Front (UDF). The UDF was established in 1983 to oppose the establishment of the tricameral parliament, which was to consist of separate houses for people classified under apartheid as white, coloured and indian, but which excluded blacks.

The calendar shows UDF members clashing with riot police during a protest. Archbishop Tutu and Trevor Huddleston are depicted, narrowly missing the purple dye spray the police are firing into the crowd – a ploy they used to identify protestors later on. It shows recognisable UDF activists going about their business while under the surveillance of the security forces, who are portrayed as pigs. 

Penny Siopis’ Cape of Good Hope

Reveals the tensions that were prevalent in 1989 – a time when apartheid was coming to an end and South Africa was transforming into a democratic nation.

The painting is layered with complex meaning. A naked woman stands in a submissive position and there are pictures of Jan van Riebeeck’s arrival at the Cape of Good Hope attached to the curtain in front of her. The arrival of Jan van Riebeeck is widely regarded to be the start of European settlement in South Africa.

The skin has been created using a collage of photocopies of documents relating to slavery, and a varnish of membranous glue. This effect makes it look like her back is covered in welts and scabs, reminiscent of the flesh of a whipped slave.

Transition, 1994 – Willie Bester

Bester’s works are a combination of found objects which he gathers from the townships in South Africa. He sees rubbish dumps as symbols of the community in which he lives. Just as people often regard those living in the townships as rejects of society, his works in themselves symbolise the falseness of that perception.

In this piece, the book in the centre refers to the ideology and how people were made to believe in the apartheid system. The guitar symbolises the system. The system (apartheid) was forced upon people and you had to play to the tune.

The cups represents the bitter cups that Jesus was forced to drink before he was crucified. They are a metaphor for the bitter actions forced upon the very people who were supposed to benefit from a government that was supposed to be Christian

A vehicle for change – Esther Mahlangu 1991

Esther was taught the skill of mural painting by her mother and grandmother, following a tradition of her native South Ndebele people for females to paint the exterior of houses.

In 1991, she was commissioned by BMW to create an art car, as other BMW Art Car creators had done before (including Andy Warhol). The car, a BMW 525i, was the first “African Art Car” and was painted with typical patterns of the Ndebele tribe.

She was the first non-Western person and female to design one of a BMW Art Car and for the exhibition it was positioned in the entrance of the British Museum.

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AUTHOR: LISA ALLEWAY

Lisa is an experienced Senior Account Manager and works across our diverse range of clients and gained her extensive communications experience in London. She helps to support and develop communications for our clients… and not to mention, every agency needs a South African.

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