Thursday, 15 December 2016

Visit to South Africa the Art of a Nation at the British Museum

On Thursday 8th December, I visited the exhibition South Africa the Art of a Nation at the British Museum with members of the Museum Ethnographers Group. It is always interesting to get out of the office and visit other museums and exhibitions and I was particularly excited about seeing this exhibition given South Africa’s remarkable history. We were lucky enough to be given an insight into the curatorial process of creating the exhibition with one of its curator’s Chris Spring, curator of contemporary, sastern and southern Africa at the British Museum. The exhibition was very much a collaborative venture working closely with museums, art galleries and heritage centres in South Africa itself and contemporary South African artists.

The earliest item in the exhibition is a pebble found at Makapansgat with three circular indentations. The pebble did not originate in this location, with water-worn indentations suggesting that it was carried from water to Makapansgat by early humans. It has been suggested that the pebble is the first appreciation of art in that these early humans recognised a face in the weathered pebble and so showed an aesthetic appreciation of the pebble by collecting it. In contrast is the last room of the exhibition which display’s contemporary art pieces by the likes of Willie Bester and Lionel Davis acknowledging that South Africa’s history is not resolved by the end of apartheid but complexities still exist in the ‘New South Africa’ best demonstrated by white South African Candice Breitz video installation where she inserts herself as a passive presence in the Black South African soap opera Generations questioning her role in South African society as a white person. Most striking is the installation by Mary Sibande where the representation of her mother, her grandmother and her great grandmother through a mannequin dressed in Victorian costume alluding to the roles they had as maids in white South African households stands in juxtaposition to a second figure dressed in purple representing Sibande herself. The use of the colour purple is significant and refers to the purple dye used in the police water cannons during the anti-apartheid Purple Rain protests of 1989. In this installation Sibande is saying goodbye to her past and embracing or confronting her present and future. Overall the exhibition successfully displays the art of South Africa old and new in an interesting way, comparing and contrasting past and present and acknowledging the colourful and turbulent history of a nation.

Mary Sibande's installation, A Reversed Retrogress, Scene 1

Faye Belsey 
Assistant Curator