Former History Lesson
British Museum Shows South Africa: The Art of a Nation

South Africa is the continent’s art hub. Nowhere else in Africa are there as many galleries and art spaces. And now the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa takes shape in the historic Grain Silo at Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront. In an area encompassing more than 6,000 square meters, exclusively current positions will be exhibited starting in the fall of 2017. Kemang Wa Lehulere, Deutsche Bank’s “Artist of the Year” 2017, whom The New York Times called “South Africa’s rising art star” on the occasion of his current solo show at the Art Institute of Chicago, will surely also be on view.

South Africa is a country that since the 1990s has transformed from an authoritarian apartheid state into a dynamic rainbow nation. Although the consequences of apartheid have not been overcome and social and societal tensions still run high, a very dynamic art scene has developed in the Cape. South African art often investigates the country’s history, which is marked by suppression violence. Accordingly, the the close relationship between art, politics, and history is a focus of South Africa: The Art of a Nation. In the new large-scale exhibition at the British Museum, historical and contemporary works are continually juxtaposed. The show, in which two artists from the Deutsche Bank Collection are represented, William Kentridge and David Koloane, repeatedly draws connections between eras and cultures.

75,000 years separate Karel Nel's painting Potent Fields from 2002 and the shells of sea snails discovered in Blombos Cave. But they both make use of one material: ochre. The cave dwellers used it to paint snail shells that they wore as jewelry. They are among the oldest objects designed by humans. The very same year in which these artifacts were found, Nel covered two square canvases with the pigment, one with reddish ochre and the other with yellow. They not only refer to the age-old objects designed by humans. Hung closely together, the light and dark coloring also symbolizes apartheid and its end brought about by Nelson Mandela.

During the apartheid era, all forms of black culture were largely ignored by the authorities. For this reason, among others, Kemang Wa Lehulere often recalls repressed South African artists such as Ernest Mancoba, who cofounded the artists’ group CoBrA in the 1940s. The exhibition at the British Museum shows that even the existence of high cultures was denied. The apartheid ideologists claimed that the first white settlers arrived in a cultural no man’s land on April 6, 1652. But the most important exhibit – a golden rhinoceros found in a royal tomb in Mapungubwe – proves that the opposite is true. For a long time, such important finds were not mentioned in South African schoolbooks. In the meantime, however, the rhinoceros has become the symbol of the Order of Mapungubwe, South Africa’s highest honor, awarded for the first time in 2002 to Nelson Mandela. The ochre comes from the Eastern Cape, the province in which the Nobel Peace Prize winner grew up.

Another long-repressed chapter of South African history is the subject of a slide projection by Santu Mofokeng, one of artists featured in the German Pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale. The Black Photo Album consists of 80 portraits of urban middle-class black people. The photographs were taken between 1890 and 1950, before the worst years of apartheid. In the photos, most of which were shot in a studio, black residents of Cape Town and Johannesburg pose in the same clothing that white colonialists wore in their portraits, and display the same confidence. The Black Photo Album indicates that, apart from skin color, there is no difference between the two communities.

The exhibition closes with an installation by Mary Sibande. For A Reversed Retrogress, the young artist puts two black mannequins appear next to each other on a stage. One is wearing a blue dress reminiscent of maidservant uniforms. The other is clad in a purple ensemble that looks like something designed by John Galliano for a science-fiction film. The blue figure stands for the past, in which many black women, including women from the artist’s family, were only allowed to work as maids. Purple, on the other hand, was the color of rebellion and liberation. Peaceful anti-apartheid demonstrators, who protested in front of the parliament in Cape Town, were greeted with truncheons, and water cannons were even used. The latter sprayed purple paint so that the demonstrators could be identified more easily later and imprisoned. But one of them managed to take possession of the water cannon and used it to color the headquarters of the National Party, which was responsible for the apartheid policy. After the demonstration the slogan “The purple shall govern” appeared all over Cape Town. Whether it’s Mary Sibande’s installation, the animated films of William Kentridge, or the exhibition projects of Kemang Wa Lehulere, South African art cannot be understood without a knowledge of the country’s history.  

South Africa: The Art of a Nation
Until February 26, 2017
British Museum, London

In London, a selection of the most recent installations and animated films by William Kentridgen is currently on view:

William Kentridge: Thick Time
Until January 15, 2017
Whitechapel Gallery