A new show at the British Museum tells the story of a country
Mapungubwe rhinoceros, 1220-90
This set of gold objects comes from the 13th-century kingdom site of Mapungubwe, the earliest kingdom in southern Africa, and are some of South Africa’s most important treasures — this is the first time the rhino has left the country. They indicate the importance of Mapungubwe in the gold trade of the Indian Ocean and were known about by the apartheid regime. However, the objects were deliberately marginalised and not incorporated into the country’s official histories because they contradicted apartheid ideology that the land was empty and ripe for settlement by Europeans.
In 1999 the objects were recognised as national treasures and in 2002, the Order of Mapungubwe was created — the platinum award is the most important, with the gold rhino at the centre. Nelson Mandela received the first, and it continues to be South Africa’s highest prize.
Makapansgat pebble, collected three million years ago
The earliest object on display in South Africa: the Art of a Nation, the Makapansgat pebble was found alongside remains of Australopithecus africanus, one of our early ancestors, and dated to about three million years ago. The pebble is not natural to the cave it was found in, so must have been carried there. It’s too big to go in a bird’s stomach, has no use wear (the markings were made by water action) and it’s not particularly useful as a shape, the show’s co-curator, John Giblin, explains. “The only argument that has been given for why it’s there is because of the face-like qualities of it.” Our ancestor may have recognised those qualities — an important part of the development of hominids and a demonstration of early curiosity.
Taung, Karel Nel, 1985
This is a computer-generated image made by the contemporary artist Karel Nel on the 60th anniversary of the discovery of the Taung Child, also Australopithecus africanus. When discovered in the 1920s by Raymond Dart, the remains changed the way we viewed anatomical human development, and with that our understanding of where the cradle of humankind was located. “That’s a very important part of South Africa’s identity today, and is very much celebrated,” says Giblin. The patterning on the image is the artist’s impression of the inner workings of the Taung Child’s mind.
Zaamenkomst panel, pre-1900
This 2m panel of rock weighs about a ton and was found face down in a cave in about 1912. The original picture, which is impossible to date accurately, would have been much bigger, but the rest has been eroded — this section was preserved because it fell and landed upside down. It depicts a hunting scene of San bushmen running between eland (a large antelope, spiritually important to the San). “It’s actually a metaphor of movement between the worlds of the living and the dead,” says Giblin. The figures have blood streaming from their noses and frothing at the mouths, referencing the shamanistic trance, a practice still performed in the Kalahari today. Rock art had died out in southern Africa by 1900 due to colonial pressures and people being forced off their land, but descendents of Khoisan (hunter-gatherer) communities continue to make art based on their traditions.
Lydenburg head, AD500-700
This is one of seven terracotta heads found by a schoolboy in a gully near the town of Lydenburg in the 1950s. Two were large enough to be worn over the head, and are thought to have been used in initiation ceremonies. They date between AD500-900, making them the earliest known examples of 3D figurative sculpture in southern Africa. They show important information about what people were like and how people were living at the time, says Giblin, in terms of the hair and neck decoration, scarification on the faces and dental modifications — the filing and removal of teeth. New populations arrived at this time; agriculturalists brought a more sedentary way of life and with it new means of communicating social information.
Carved cattle horns and cranium, Zulu, 1879-99
This surprising object memorialises the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879. One horn is decorated with British military formations and the other with Zulu formations. It’s one of only four examples of Zulu figurative art from this period and was probably made for a British officer by a Zulu soldier who was fighting on the British side. Details such as a British soldier riding upside down on his horse, as if in a gymkhana, suggest that the artist was familiar with British life in South Africa besides battle. Large numbers of Zulu soldiers fought alongside the British — they would have been paid and perhaps saw an opportunity for their groups to gain more power. “Or potentially they saw what was to come, which was the defeat and the breakup of the Zulu kingdom,” says Giblin.
Concentration camp plate, Miss Hamelberg, c 1900
The other conflict the exhibition focuses on is the Second South African War, also known as the Second Boer War. Once believed to be a white man’s war, in fact large numbers of black South Africans were also involved. This plate commemorates the legacy within South Africa of British concentration camps. “Towards the end of the Second South African War, when they were essentially fighting guerrilla warfare with the ‘bitter-enders’ — the Boer Afrikaaner soldiers working as commandos in the landscape — the British enacted a scorched earth policy, where they burnt the farmhouses and imprisoned the families of the bitter-enders in concentration camps,” says Giblin. About 27,000 white South Africans, mostly women and children, and tens of thousands of black South Africans died in those camps. This plate, decorated with finely cut postage stamps by one Miss Hamelberg in the Bethlehem concentration camp, is one of many artworks made by inmates despite the brutality and difficulty of life there.
Ox snuff box, Xhosa, 1800-99
Cute, isn’t it? Made of the blood, sinew and hair of cattle (possibly sacrificial) mixed with clay, this little ox is also very powerful, in its ingredients — the earth, the matter of a strong animal — and its symbolism. “Cattle wealth was very important at this time, it was what society was based on,” says Giblin. This is a container for a powerful substance — snuff, important in ceremonies for conversing with the ancestors.
Song of the Pick, Gerard Sekoto, 1946
This painting is one of several works in the exhibition dealing with the experience of and resistance to segregation and apartheid — in this case forced migrant labour, which began in the 19th century (at least), bringing cheap black labour into white-owned industries such as diamond and gold mining, and continued into the 20th century. This piece is based on a photograph from 1936, in which a white overseer leans comfortably behind the black workers, who toil with pickaxes. Here, the artist Gerard Sekoto inverts the power balance, with a graceful line of powerful men — who may be about to impale the diminutive white overseer.
Transition, Willie Bester, 1994
This large work was made in the year of the first democratic general elections, but the artist tells the story of police killing a group of children. They shot 300 bullets into a house, supposedly believing there to be political activists inside. The work speaks of the persistence of the landscape of apartheid — while the world was talking about a democratic and free South Africa, violence against the black population persisted. Bester uses a great deal of symbolism in his work, but the guitar always references the way that the apartheid state made people dance to its tune.
It Left Him Cold — The Death of Steve Biko, Sam Nhlengethwa, 1990
Nhlengethwa’s painting tells the story of Steve Biko, one of the founding members of the Black Consciousness Movement. An activist involved in the protests that led to the Soweto Uprising and famous for using the phrase “black is beautiful”, Biko was arrested in 1977 for breach of an order banning him from speaking in public. Brutally beaten in police custody, he suffered a brain haemorrhage and died, resulting in mass protests. The police claimed that he died due to a hunger strike, but photographs taken during the autopsy were leaked to the press — Nhlengethwa used a composite of several of these images to create Biko’s face in this bleak painting. Although the Truth and Reconciliation Commission later found that Biko’s death was “a gross human rights violation” and four police officers admitted culpability, they were not brought to justice due to insufficient evidence and time elapsed.
A Reversed Retrogress: Scene 1, Mary Sibande, 2013
This piece, the last in the exhibition, is from a series by Mary Sibande, called The Purple Shall Govern. The life-sized mannequins are cast from her body; the figure in blue, “Sophie”, refers to her present and her past — the last three generations of Sibande’s maternal line worked in white households as domestic servants. Sophie (the name reflects the European names bestowed on black maids by white employers) was central to Sibande’s work until recently. In the new series, “the purple” represents Sibande’s present and future — here in a kind of dance or tussle with Sophie.
Sibande says the highly personal piece is about saying goodbye to Sophie and looking forward — The Purple Shall Govern refers to the graffiti that appeared after the 1989 Purple Rain protest, which in turn referred to the 1955 Freedom Charter, stating “the People Shall Govern”. The term is now in the post-apartheid constitution. “Now the purple, in a sense, do govern,” says Giblin. “But what is the future?”
South Africa: the Art of a Nation is at the British Museum, London WC1 (020 7323 8181), from October 27 to February 26. Supported by IAG Cargo