Main image

South Africa: ‘A land of visionaries and artists’

John Picton, Emeritus Professor of African Art at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, reviews an exhibition at the British Museum that blows away preconceived notions about the origins of the African aesthetic

Once upon a time there was a savannah increasingly dominated by an odd-looking mammal, largely hairless and running on two legs but rather good at making things. The mammal was Homo sapiens, the savannah was that region of Africa where modern humans evolved from Ethiopia to the southern Cape, and the things included stone tools, necklaces, engravings on pieces of bone and red ochre, pictures painted on the walls of rock shelters, and goodness knows what else. Indeed, what was that red ochre in Blombos Cave for if not for drawing and colouring, as well as for staunching wounds?

This is where we all began; it is where art and language began (the latter driven by that success in making things). All this and more is celebrated in the current, very carefully chosen exhibition at the British Museum, South Africa: the art of a nation, which runs until 26 February 2017, and which everyone with even the most remote interest in art, human history and Africa should see. 

This is an exhibition that simply blows away most of our preconceived notions, for people in the part of the world we now call South Africa have been making art longer than anywhere else in Africa, and indeed the world; and none of it conforms to the ‘tribal’ art beloved of the artists and collectors of Europe and America.

The past has always been a resource for the present — not just in Africa — and the present equally a resource for (understanding) the past

An African aesthetic did not begin with those mask and figure sculptures — that is a very recent past. In no way does this belittle the sculptural achievements of African artists, but there is so much more to be seen. Neither did that aesthetic begin with the rock art that emerges in Africa, Australia, and Europe around 30,000 years ago, after Homo sapiens had moved out of Africa and begun to colonise the rest of the planet. 

The Makapansgat Pebble. Image Brett Eloff © University of Witwatersrand
The Makapansgat Pebble. Image: Brett Eloff © University of Witwatersrand

Aesthetic value can be discerned in some of the earliest stone tools made by pre-sapiens species a million or so years ago. And if the hypothesis advanced in the exhibition in regard to the Makapansgat pebble is to be believed, evidence of visual interest can be backdated to our pre-hominid forbears some three million years ago, and specifically to this pebble with naturally occurring marks that can be seen as a face, which was found at an australopithecine site several miles from its geological origins.

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

The exhibition has eight parts covering every aspect of southern African history, from the earliest beginnings to present-day transformations in art-making. Each art-making medium is here: wrought iron; sculpture in ceramic, wood, rawhide, gold, stone; beadwork; rock engraving and painting; mural painting; easel painting; appliqué textile; installation; graphic design; drawing; print-making; photography. The earliest evidence for sculpture in this part of Africa is the series of ceramic heads excavated at Lydenburg and associated with the iron-using mixed farmers who moved into the region from 500 A.D. 

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

People from Europe and Asia are also part of the story: Mahatma Gandhi’s sandals are here too; and a plate decorated by a Boer woman interned in one of the concentration camps initiated by the British. 

Throughout the exhibition, the work of current and contemporary artists is used as a means of reflecting upon earlier material: after all, art did not stop at some point in the development of a modern world, whenever that was. As the curators note in the catalogue, ‘All art is influenced in one way or another by what has been made before. However, because South Africa’s contemporary art scene emerged as a direct response to segregation and apartheid… the practice of exploring the past in order to comment on the present is particularly pronounced.’ 

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

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

The past has always been a resource for the present — not just in Africa — and the present is equally a resource for (understanding) the past. By stressing this the curators successfully smash one of the most pernicious stereotypes currently afflicting the study of African art, the separation of ‘traditional’ from ‘contemporary’ — the one signifying an authenticity that largely serves an art market external to Africa; the other an origin in European modernism.

But neither proposition works in South Africa. Artists of all colours and creeds were united in contesting apartheid. And as if to illustrate the complexities of this extraordinary country, I leave the last words to the late Jackson Hlungwani (1923-2010), a man afflicted by ulcers so painful that he had considered suicide until: ‘Jesus stretched out his right arm and grasped my right hand. Then he gave me his message. Number one, he said: “You see, today, you are healed, you will not die.” Then, number two: “You will serve God for your whole life.” Number three, he said: ‘You will see God himself. Look over there.” … I watched the legs passing by … Jesus said to me: “Now you have seen God”.’

Hlungwani, a charismatic visionary from Limpopo Province, had been taught him the basic skills of a wood carver by his father, skills that he used to construct his own New Jerusalem on an iron-age hilltop site. His sculpture of Christ playing football dominates one corner of the show. 

South Africa is a land of visionaries and artists, purveying a message of hope and reconciliation, without bitterness in spite of all manner of traumatic events and experiences.

South Africa: the art of a nation is at the British Museum until 26 February 2017