South Africa: The Art Of A Nation
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History is usually written by the victors, but art history is written by white Western men in turtlenecks. That’s not totally true, some of it was written before turtlenecks were a thing, but the point remains: most of our museums, galleries and art history books are filled with art created by white Western men, chosen by white Western men and written about by white Western men. It’s what has pushed Tate Modern to go to great lengths to ‘broaden the canon’ by exploring non-Western art and under-recognised female artists. So any show at a major British institution that looks beyond Europe is a good, important and necessary thing.
But the British Museum’s exhibition of South African art is frustratingly and infuriatingly wide of the mark. The idea is to present a survey of the artistic production of the whole country, from 3 million years ago to the present day. Sound broad? Too broad? Too ridiculously and stupidly broad? You’re right, it is.
There are some stunning objects here, and some heart-wrenching stories. The 3-million-year-old Makapansgat pebble – a prehistoric bit of found art – is a beautiful, intriguing start to the show. Then there’s the incredible Kenilworth Head, which is shockingly lifelike, and the stunning, glittering Mapungubwe gold sculptures. After that you get into the influence of colonialism: headrests shaped like rifles, spears pulled from the body of a European lieutenant, sketches by Dutch soldiers. There’s a staggering amount of anger here – huge swathes of blood, suffering, war, tears and pain.
Scattered throughout the show are works of contemporary art by various artists, reacting to or being influenced by those earlier traditional forms. Then you’re plunged into the vicious turbulence of the apartheid era with works by William Kentridge and Helen Mmakgabo Sebidi. Then there are protest posters and badges, some contemporary video art, craft figurines by rural women and then some maps, and then you realise that it’s a total mess.
The British Museum has complicated this for itself: it admits that the tribal artefacts were never intended to be seen as art, and that Western collections of them play into a problematic view of the ‘exotic’. But the objects are still presented through the prism of art, juxtaposed with contemporary paintings or sculptures, so you’re forced to consider them in relation to each other. Either that or the objects are placed next to historical maps or drawings. The show ends up being a tiny bit of everything and a whole lot of problems.
You could dedicate a whole exhibition to each of the sub-themes here. A show on pre-colonial artefacts would be incredible, as would one on objects produced during colonial occupation, or on apartheid art, or contemporary South African art. How can you sum up the art of a whole country in one show? This just scratches the surface, and does it messily. It’s just too proscriptive, too problematic and paints too simplified a picture. The British Museum set itself an impossible task – and failed.