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 region.
As the press release for the exhibition implies in using this era and the extraordinary artefacts from it – such as the seminal gold rhinoceros, they are able to demonstrate that “complex societies existed in the region immediately prior to the arrival of European settlers.”
The rhetoric around the exhibition could be viewed as slightly patronising – of course, “complex societies” existed in Africa before the British arrived. This highlights the way in which acts of redress, or if you wanted to stretch it further, processes of decolonising the archive, are fraught with contradictions and political traps. The narrative that the exhibition presents will not bypass or gloss over Britain’s colonial relationship with South Africa, proposes Giblin.
One section of the exhibition will be dedicated to showing early British colonisation of South Africa explored through ‘explorer art’. Colonial conflicts such as the Xhosa Frontier Wars, the Anglo-Zulu War, and the Second South African War will also be referenced. The latter battles are addressed through artworks focussing on the construction of concentration camps and their legacy in the present-day.
In this age where institutions are under pressure to ‘decolonise’ and rewrite history from a non-Western perspective, museums like this British one face a huge challenge in terms of reinventing themselves.
“I think they are trying to present the museum as one of universal culture that everyone has access to, without fear of prejudice and ridicule. It is trying to shake off that old image of a racist museum, rooted in practices of digging up places and putting them on display as a nationalistic act. I think they are trying to show that their mandate extends beyond the ethnological,” says Hundt.
Ethnological material from the British museum’s collection, which encompasses objects of material culture, like beaded items and sculptures by anonymous artists are paired with contemporary artworks as a means of recategorising them as art. This is not a novel approach; curators working in South African museums embraced this approach in the late eighties to early nineties as a way of reconfiguring the status of collections previously part of ethnographic projects or justifying collecting material cultural objects.
This was attempted through exhibitions such as Ezakwantu, beadwork from the Eastern Cape (1993 by Emma Bedford at Sang) Engaging Modernities: Transformations of the Commonplace (Anitra Nettleton, Julia Charlton and Fiona Rankin Smith, 2003) and Dungamanzi (Nessa Leibhammer, Natalie Knight and Billy Makhubela at the Joburg Art Gallery). The results were mixed; often the material came attached to troublesome and limited ethnic labels that could not be sidestepped and the lack of interest and support from black South Africans implied that elevating these objects to art further advanced white objectification of black life.
“We have chosen to address it (these issues) by only selecting objects that were created with clear symbolic values beyond the purely utilitarian and thus can be considered artworks. Throughout the exhibition all of the artworks are given the same respect and where the artist name was not recorded this is made explicit. We also face the biases inherent in the ethnographic collection of these artworks head on through the interpretative information provided and through the selection of contemporary and historic artworks that challenge early ethnographic collecting practices,” explains Giblin.
One of the main strategies that Giblin and his colleagues at the museum are employing in SA: Art of a Nation is juxtaposing historical works with contemporary ones. Works by artists such as Willie Bester, Karel Nel and Mary Sibande will be contrasted with dated works as a means of providing a more Afrocentric framing.
“Nel created ‘Potent Fields’, with its two planes of red and white ochre, in the same year as the discovery of the approximately 75,000 year old cross-hatched ochre at Blombos Cave in the Western Cape. This discovery repositioned southern Africa, not Europe, as one of the earliest sites of artistic thought and creation,” observes Giblin.
Whatever the approach to ‘decolonising’ the collection or museology practices, the result will inevitably be uncomfortable, suggests Hundt. He believes, however, that in a way it is easier for a British institution to attempt to do so.
“They just don’t have the same baggage as we do. We have just stopped doing this kind of work.”
Public art institutions in South Africa do not have the resources or the political will to stage such a massive and comprehensive exhibition, says Hundt.
“People here who have the freedom or the scope simply aren’t undertaking this.”
It seems unlikely that the curators at the new Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art, which will open in Cape Town’s Waterfront in September 2017, will tackle this nationalistic narrative either. This is the case given the express institutional focus is on the continent at large and on art being produced now, rather than digging into the past and having to deal with all the political ghosts that are released in the process.
This is regrettable; the story of South Africa’s visual history is probably not known to most of its citizens. The British Museum exhibition will not be travelling to our shores, so we will have to observe the story of our nation, to borrow from the title, from afar, while dealing with other forms of decolonization playing out at our educational institutions. This exhibition raises some interesting questions around decolonisation - who gets to do it - should the coloniser? Is this their work; to confront their own complicity and history from a different point of view. That may have more impact. Or should it be done by the colonised? Or perhaps a process involving both. This exhibition may have therefore benefitted from a South African curator or two. an edited version of this story was first published in Business Day