A landmark exhibition at the British Museum of 100,000 years of South African art is not only unprecedented, but also expected to raise the profile of local art far beyond a limited number of shooting stars.
While South Africans are accustomed to their gold being mined and exported, the British have now extracted a different kind of precious cargo. A trio of gold figures – first discovered in the royal graves in Mapungubwe – are part of a wide collection of prized artefacts and artworks that have been loaned to the British Museum for one of the largest surveys of art from South Africa.
This gargantuan exhibition, titled ‘South Africa: the art of a nation’, will present around 200 art objects from our shores at this prestigious institution.
South African art has made inroads into the UK in recent years, with exhibitions such as the Figures and Fictions exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 2011 offering a snapshot of photography produced by locals and the establishment of the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, set annually at Somerset House, providing a platform for our contemporary art. However, no exhibition of this scale and breadth has been staged in that country, or South Africa for that matter.
‘South Africa: the art of a nation’ plots a path from the pre-colonial era, through the colonial one, to the apartheid period, concluding with the democratic era, which has ushered in a new generation of artists. In this way the exhibition will encompass a 100,000-year period.
‘South Africa has some of the world’s oldest artworks and one of the world’s most vibrant contemporary art scenes, our knowledge of which has increased massively in the past couple of decades. There thus seemed to be an opportunity to link these two narrative points and tell one of the world’s longest stories through artworks,’ says Hartwig Fischer, Director of the British Museum.
The objects will be arranged chronologically and packaged ‘in seven key episodes from the country’s history, from ancient history to the present day’.
A FRESH PERSPECTIVE
Upturning this narrative, however, will be contemporary artworks that expose or reflect on these historical periods from the fresh perspective of the here and now. This has allowed the curators to confront the biases that informed the ethnographic practices attached to some of the British Museum’s collection of South African art, Fischer suggests.
‘We didn’t simply want to tell a linear story, but to bring the past into the present by placing historic artworks into a dialogue with contemporary ones. Through an Art Fund Jonathan Ruffer Curatorial Grant, we went to South Africa and sought out the work of contemporary artists that highlighted the relevance of these historical periods.’
This landmark exhibition will broaden the international community’s conception of South African art, suggests Stefan Hundt, curator of the Sanlam Art Collection and art adviser to Sanlam’s clientele.
‘A show like this repositions the country in a global context. It will establish in people’s minds that South Africa has an art history and that we haven’t just produced a few shooting stars in the art world who come out now and then, like William Kentridge.’
Contemporary works by Kentridge will be included in the exhibition, but works by Mary Sibande, Karel Nel and Berlin-based Candice Breitz will also feature. Being included in a show of this magnitude will add prestige to the contemporary artists that have been included, says Hundt, who will closely observe the selection of works.
It’s a stamp of approval from people in the know that suggests their work speaks beyond its time and place. STEFAN HUNDT - Curator of the Sanlam Art Collection
‘South Africa: the art of a nation’ runs from 27 October 2016 to 26 February 2017. Visit www.britishmuseum.orgfor more information.
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