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British ‘decolonise’ SA collection

It is the exhibition that South Africans have been waiting for; a display charting the country’s visual expression over the last 100 000 years. Unfortunately, not many South Africans will get to see it. South Africa: Art of a Nation as it is being staged at the British Museum in London. It is a landmark exhibition not only due to the historical breadth, but also in the manner in which the curators have attempted to ‘decolonise’ their collection. The compensatory gestures they have embraced towards dealing with how and why they accumulated African artefacts are interesting to observe, yet also fraught with contradictions.

This mega-show should be to South Africa’s credit as it will enlighten the British and all the tourists visiting their capital city about our country’s rich art history. It should establish that our art predates and extends beyond the likes of William Kentridge or Marlene Dumas - the two SA artists most well known internationally.

“Shows like this reposition the country in a global context, which it doesn’t get through its own efforts,” observes Stefan Hundt, curator of the Sanlam art collection and art advisor to Sanlam’s Wealth clientele.

South Africa Art of a Nation will raise awareness around our country’s rich and diverse visual history, however, it takes a certain kind of cultural arrogance for an institution belonging to a former colonial power to tell the history of a nation it once conquered and exploited.

“We do not shy away from Britain’s’ problematic colonial legacy. Although this exhibition is for an international audience, it will expand the British visiting public’s knowledge of British involvement in colonial South Africa, of which little is widely known,” says Dr John Giblin, the head curator of the Africa Section at the British Museum.

Certainly, the curation of the exhibition evinces some compensatory gestures towards challenging hegemonic imperial culture. For example the exhibition charts our country’s visual history before the colonial era, beginning a narrative from AD 1220, with the extraordinary history of Mapungubwe, which will be evoked through the loan of gold figures excavated from royal graves in that r