The British Museum’s “South Africa: The Art of a Nation” exhibition is on display until the 26th February and is certainly worth a visit. Curators John Giblin and Chris Spring have created a walking tour through the history of South Africa, using the artworks produced by the nation’s populations, from one hundred thousand years ago to the present day. The result is both aesthetically and intellectually engaging. Visitors to this exhibition will experience a lot of beautiful art, but the curators have been careful not to airbrush the dark historical and political history that inspired many of the artworks on display. Moving through South Africa’s history requires spotlights to be shone on the histories of colonialism and apartheid, and this exhibition doesn’t hide from this reality.

The artistic sweep of the exhibition starts with two pieces produced by the San Bushmen from two very different points in time: one a contemporary tapestry entitled “The Creation of the Sun”, and the other a rock painting known as The Zaamenkomst Panel, which is dated at between one and three thousand years old. These two objects are an early indication of the exhibition’s use of a wide variety of mediums in telling the story of South African art. From here the visitor winds their way through rooms containing weapons (one axe-head is over one million years old), beautiful gold figurines, Zulu clothing, decorative pipes and snuff boxes, paintings, post-Apartheid political badges, and many more types of artistic artifacts. There is such a wealth of objects from which to choose that it is hard for me to give any particular artwork close scrutiny here, but the overall effect of walking through the rooms with their carefully selected contents is truly one of exploring a rich and varied culture to the fullest extent that is possible in one exhibition.

The Zaamenkomst Panel

Probably the most interesting feature of “South Africa: The Art of a Nation” is the decision to display one contemporary artwork in each room to accompany the art from each period of South African history, as is done in the first room with The Zaamenkomst Panel and “The Creation of the Sun”. John Giblin, lead curator of the exhibition says that this decision was driven by a desire “to highlight the importance of these periods for the present”,[1] and the use of contemporary art in this way instills in the visitor an awareness of the modern perspective on the history they see play out before their eyes through art.

Particularly effective is a 1999 piece by Johannes Phokela entitled “Pantomime Act Trilogy”, a reimagining of the 1599 piece “Allegory of the Equality of all Mankind in Death” by Jacob de Gheyn. Phokela replaces the divine image above the heads of de Gheyn’s foregrounded figures with an African child holding an AK47. The child has small angel wings on his shoulders and is sporting a Comic Relief red nose, which stands out from the pale yellow of the rest of the piece. There are two framing white rectangles overlaying the image, which create two separate new pictures within the picture, neither of which feature the face of the boy with the red nose. Phokela has said that the piece is “symbolic of rapid change and the enforced dependency of developing nations”, and he recalls how he once “bought a red nose and it fell off when I tried to fit it onto my nose. That’s when I found out that the noses were not designed to be worn by someone with a flat nose like mine.”[2] This is an uncomfortable piece, as it questions whether charitable giving is innately patronising and encourages only a certain type of person to help, and also whether that help merely creates dependency on charity.

Johannes Phokela,
Pantomine Act Trilogy, 1999

On an adjacent wall to Phokela’s “Pantomime Act Trilogy”, the visitor can see the seventeenth century clash of cultures play out before their eyes. A photograph of an anonymous rock painting of a Dutch galleon from c.1650 hangs on the wall; the gallery notes say it was most likely painted by a Koekhoen herder in order to incorporate the newly arrived Europeans into their belief system through art. The interaction between these pieces, caused by their close proximity, is illustrative of the value of this exhibition: it does not just present art; it encourages you to think critically about what is on display.

In the promotional video for “South Africa: The Art of a Nation” John Giblin says that the one thing he would like people to take away from the exhibition is an “appreciation of the depth and richness of South Africa’s history and art”[3]. This exhibition certainly achieves his ambition, but it is of more interest than simply a chronology of intriguing and, at times, beautiful artifacts. This exhibition manages consistently to place art before politics, but also never loses sight of the necessarily politicised nature of the works on display. What “South Africa: The Art of a Nation” achieves is a textured portrait of South Africa which does not airbrush the dark parts of the nation’s history, but showcases the artistic output of the local populations: those who pre-dated the arrival of European colonists, those who reacted to their arrival, and those who lived with the consequences.




[2] Exhibition gallery notes