South Africa: The Art of the Nation

This October the British Museum, London, opens an all-inclusive and decade-spanning exhibition which presents the rich artistic and cultural tapestry of South Africa. Charting 100,000 years, and delving into personal and collective histories, this major show tells the story of an evolving narrative.

Whilst art has been used for centuries and for multiple purposes, this exhibition uses various media as a platform: recounting the diverse tales of a shifting landscape. Shedding light on the state’s history – including the colonial period and apartheid – right through to contemporary society, the Museum brings together their long-term collections and new acquisitions, some of which haven’t yet been displayed in the UK.

Around 200 artworks will be held in chronological order, separated into seven key cultural periods, alongside illustrations from modern-day artists that provide new perspectives and contextual understanding.

Notable loans include the golden treasures of Mapungubwe, dating back to 1220-1290 AD when it stood as the capital. Regarded as some of the most important sculptures of Africa, the figures are key symbols in pre-colonial civilisation. The golden rhino – one of the figures included in this unprecedented collection – is now the symbol of the Order of Mapungubwe, South Africa’s highest honour that was first presented in 2002 to Nelson Mandela. More than just objects of artistic expression, these fundamental pieces act as an expression of the complex societies that existed in the region before European settlements. Disproving the myths of the region as an “empty land” which was widely believed across Western colonies (and used as an excuse to legitimise white rule) these intricate works challenge the views which fueled the apartheid eras.

As well as works from the Bethesda Arts Centre in South Africa and older communal pieces, recent works will be displayed by artists including Lionel Davis, Candice Breitz, and Mary Sibande alongside works by Willie Bester, William Kentridge and Santu Mofokeng. These practitioners have sought to create an important dialogue between past and present, changing social perspectives of audiences  and locating the region’s history as a narrative that still exists in the lives of artists working in today’s climate.

South Africa: The Art of the Nation opens 27 November and runs until 26 February. Find out more:

1. Esther Mahlangu (b.1935), detail of BMW Art Car 12, 1991. Courtesy of the artist and the British Museum.