Location: The British Museum
Closest underground station: Russell Square/Holborn
Open until: 26th Feb 2017
Ticket price: £12 (members go free)
“New year, new me” – perhaps one of the most nauseating expressions since ” the boy done good” or “Hiddleswift”. I have never fully understood why anyone would envisage turning into a more interesting person as the clock struck midnight, but in the spirit of trying, I made a new year’s resolution to go to more exhibitions this year. As my favourite museum in London is the British Museum, I decided to start 2017 off right by buying myself an annual membership.
Membership card in hand, the first exhibition I decided to visit was “South Africa: The Art of a Nation”. Although this has been on since October, for some reason it doesn’t seem to have been as widely publicised as previous exhibitions, perhaps because it lacked the Atlantis style glamour of “Sunken Cities” or the gore of “Ancient Lives“.
“South Africa: The Art of a Nation” (I can’t shorten this into an acronym because it spells SATAN), tells the history of this region through its art.
The exhibition starts around the dawn of man and it shows that even in the origins of humanity, we were drawn to depictions of ourselves and expressions of life in art. The oldest artefact on show was the Makapansgat Pebble, which was probably collected due to the fact that it looks like a little face. This is thought to have been collected by Australopithecus (an early human species) around 3 million years ago! Even now, we love to recognise people in inanimate objects; whether it be seeing Jesus in a piece of toast or the ‘face’ rock formation in Kents Cavern.
From here, the exhibition also explores rock paintings from over 3,000 years ago, the world’s oldest necklace and sculptures which begin to depict man. Sculptures also moved from stone to metal, as a number of impressive gold animal sculptures were discovered in royal tombs from the 13th century.
The entire exhibition is curated with a nod to modern art and it was when I reached the colonial section that I was brought face to face with one of the most beautiful paintings I’ve ever seen.
‘Cape of Good Hope: A History’ by Penny Siopis is said to depict an African woman pulling down the curtain of apartheid. While on the face of things the painting seems simple, the closer you get, you realise that the texture of the paint actually forms minute human bodies, clawing their way out of her skin and writhing vividly on the canvas.
As I moved through the exhibition, I progressed into the colonial occupation of South Africa by the Dutch and then the English. This was a bloody period which was characterised in the exhibition through the art of war. This ranged from depictions of native South African people by European artists through to the textiles and traditional weaponry of the time.
The exhibition showed that Christianity had in some ways been a tool of colonisation; indeed, if you’ve ever read the journals of Charles Darwin, you would note that during the colonial period, the main focus was obviously gaining territory but a casual ‘benefit’ would be the opportunity to ‘civilise’ the ‘wild natives’. It’s a shame that these invaders didn’t employ some of the same techniques as the Ptolemies in Ancient Egypt – what seems clear when looking at these sections of history is that a takeover usually runs more smoothly if you seek integration rather than annihilation.
The exhibition also touched on some famous names. Gandhi lived in South Africa for 21 years and during this time he was imprisoned on four occasions, after protesting against the treatment of the Indians in this region. He eventually returned to his native India to protest against the presence of the British there, however. This section showed a pair of sandals which Gandhi had made during one imprisonment, and also showcased traditional Xhosa dress, which had been worn by Nelson Mandela in court to express his cultural pride.
Finally, the exhibition moved towards protest art which was created during the apartheid. These pieces were vibrant, political and passionate but once apartheid had ended, South Africa entered a transitional period which birthed further expressions of discontentment. While post-apartheid South Africa was supposedly the most diverse country on the planet, its residents were dealing with ongoing residual racism and violence.
This exhibition takes you on a real journey and does a great job of depicting the rich and tumultuous history of South Africa. As regular readers will know, my trip to South Africa was one of the best I have ever been on and while there is obviously a focus on the atrocities which were carried out (both in the exhibition and in the country), the exhibition also captures the sense of pride and celebration which can be felt when you spend time in this wonderful part of the world.
Thanks for reading,