Magic from the Land of Madiba; in Association withFrom the Prehistoric Era to the Boer Wars to Mandela's Struggle against Apartheid -- This Show Encapsulates the Powerful Narrative of South Africa's History

The Evening Standard (London, England), October 26, 2016 | Go to article overview

Magic from the Land of Madiba; in Association withFrom the Prehistoric Era to the Boer Wars to Mandela's Struggle against Apartheid -- This Show Encapsulates the Powerful Narrative of South Africa's History


Byline: Matthew Collings

EXHIBITION OF THE WEEK SOUTH AFRICA: THE ART OF A NATION British Museum, WC1 IN THE past few years archaeologists in South Africa have unearthed some of the world's oldest artworks. The British Museum's new exhibition shows us some examples as well as art from the periods of South Africa's history that are more well known: rule by the Boers and the British, the period of struggle against Apartheid, and post-Apartheid -- the past 20 years, which have seen the rise of a black middleclass and the marginalisation of whites.

The fascination of the show is not with individual artistic achievement so much as with the curators showing you, in a series of clever play-offs between past and present, how artists in different eras of this country's existence -- and of course for a long time it wasn't a country -- have expressed their sense of reality, inevitably from conflicting points of view.

For each of the seven stages in time the show looks at there is a contemporary art comment. One of the displays from the colonial era includes a decorated British soldier's tunic from 1902 -- a touching object with inked scenes of daily life, cavalry, buildings, ships, dead animals and termite mounds distributed within carefully organised flowing rectangles across the back of the jacket -- and a magnificent patterned plate from 1900, made by an inmate in a British concentration camp. The awful thought of the camp, the knowledge that such places were actually invented by the British in South Africa, the sweet sensitivity of the drawings on the jacket and the sheer beauty of the plate create a mixture of emotions typical of the show as a whole. It disarms you, and makes the present-day art in the show, which isn't immune to the shallowness of much contemporary art, entirely sympathetic, if only because of its contribution to the powerful narrative content of the show.

The contemporary element of this particular display includes Francki Burger's photographic print, The Watchers (2014), part of a series exploring landscapes whose terrain has been affected by battle. The method is to fuse and overlay old and new photographic images. In The Watchers we see the site of the battle of Spion Kop where 8,000 Boers defeated 20,000 British soldiers. A blurred 19th-century face turns out to be a child at a station waiting to be transported to a concentration camp. We're seeing pride in a significant victory and appalling trauma at the idea of children dying in the camps, but also a delicious visual richness captured in the present-day landscape.

An example of rock art in the show, discovered in the 19th century -- scientific examination has yet to determine when it was actually made and it might be thousands of years old -- demonstrates not only the visual intensity but also the multi-layered meaning of this kind of expression.

Observation and belief go hand-inhand as the artist, whoever it was, pictures the highest aspirations of the society of the time. Animals herded by naked men appear in earth colours on a grey surface. The figures are elegant. They come in and out of focus. The cattle are in their own register, in yellows, reds and whites. The men seem to emerge and disappear again, as if they're partly painted and partly cut into the rock. …

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Magic from the Land of Madiba; in Association withFrom the Prehistoric Era to the Boer Wars to Mandela's Struggle against Apartheid -- This Show Encapsulates the Powerful Narrative of South Africa's History
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