South Africa
the art of a nation

27 October 2016 – 26 February 2017

This exhibition has now closed.

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‘dazzling… a journey to the heart of our common humanity’
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Discover the history of South Africa through an incredible 100,000 years of art.

Your journey starts with examples of some of the earliest examples of human creativity – from rock art to perhaps the world’s oldest necklace. From there, be amazed by 800-year-old gold treasures from the kingdom of Mapungubwe, be moved by powerful anti-apartheid pieces, and be inspired by cutting-edge contemporary works. See the history of a nation from a new perspective and celebrate the diverse art created by the many people who have helped shape South Africa’s story.

Exhibition highlights

The Makapansgat Pebble

This rock was found in a cave with the remains of early human ancestors. It was probably collected three million years ago because its natural features make it look like a face. If this is the case, it is an early example of curiosity and it may be the earliest example of ‘found art’ anywhere in the world.

The Makapansgat Pebble. Jasperite stone, collected c. 3,000,000 years ago. Image © Evolutionary Studies Institute, University of the Witwatersrand.

The Coldstream Stone

This stone was painted with figures around 9,000 years ago. It was found in a human burial, indicating the great antiquity of the culture and traditions of the San|Bushmen people. The figures have blood streaming from their noses, indicating they are shamans involved in a ‘trance dance’.

The Coldstream Stone, c. 7000 BC. © Iziko Museums of South Africa, Social History Collections, Cape Town.

The Zaamenkomst Panel

In this rock painting, hunters are running between eland, a type of antelope that is spiritually important for San|Bushmen people. Paintings like this relate to a ritual called the ‘trance dance’ that healers, or shamans, perform when they move between the worlds of the living and the dead.

The Zaamenkomst Panel. Between 1,000 and 3,000 years old. Iziko Museums of South Africa, Social History Collections and SARADA. Photo: Neil Rusch.

Gold rhinoceros

This gold sculpture is from Mapungubwe, the 13th-century capital of the first kingdom of southern Africa. The rhino was discovered alongside hundreds of gold objects, including bracelets and beads in royal graves. Gold was mined in the regions around Mapungubwe and traded with merchants along the coast, becoming a status symbol for the kingdom’s rulers.

Gold rhinoceros. From Mapungubwe, capital of the first kingdom in southern Africa, c. AD 1250–1290. Department of UP Arts, University of Pretoria.


Finely ground tobacco, or snuff, was stored in small boxes that were created in many forms. Artists often included imagery of cattle in objects relating to tobacco. This one has a clay core covered with a paste made from clay, cattle blood and hide, possibly obtained from a sacrificial animal to give the object additional power.

Ox-shaped snuffbox, late 1800s.

Song of the Pick by Gerard Sekoto

In the 20th century black South Africans were forced into racially and ethnically defined reserves and had to pay taxes imposed by the government. This meant many migrated to work in white-owned industries to earn money. Gerard Sekoto based his painting on a photograph taken in the 1930s of black South African workers labouring under the watchful eye of a white foreman. In Song of the Pick, however, the dynamic has changed. Sekoto has enhanced the grace and power of the labourers, turning them to confront the figure of the overseer.

Gerard Sekoto (1913–1993), Song of the Pick. Oil on board, 1946. South32 SA Limited. © The Sekoto Foundation.

BMW Art Car 12 by Esther Mahlangu

In 1991 South African artist Esther Mahlangu was invited to create BMW’s 12th Art Car to mark the end of apartheid. The design is based on traditional Ndebele house painting designs. These designs express Ndebele cultural identity and may also be read as a form of protest against racial segregation and marginalisation that Ndebele experienced in the 20th century.

Esther Mahlangu (b. 1935), detail of BMW Art Car 12, 1991. © Esther Mahlangu. Photo © BMW Group Archives.

Transition by Willie Bester

In his work, Bester is concerned with the post-apartheid persistence of racism, inequality and violence. He created Transition around the time of the first democratic elections. It refers specifically to an incident in KwaZulu-Natal in 1994 when security police attacked a house, wrongly believing it to contain insurgents, and killed seven children.

Willie Bester (b. 1956), Transition, 1994. © Willie Bester.

A Reversed Retrogress: Scene 1 (The Purple Shall Govern) by Mary Sibande

The installation is comprised of two figures cast from the artist’s body. The figure in Victorian dress refers to the artist’s mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, who were maids in white South African households. The purple figure represents the artist and refers to the ‘Purple Rain Protests’ in Cape Town in 1989. During the protest the police sprayed purple dye on the protesters. In the days after the protest the phrase ‘the purple shall govern’ was found painted on walls around the city.

Mary Sibande (b. 1982), A Reversed Retrogress: Scene 1 (The Purple Shall Govern), 2013. © Mary Sibande. Courtesy of the artist and Gallery MOMO.

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Adults £12, under 16s free

This exhibition has now closed.

Opening times

27 October 2016 – 26 February 2017
Last entry 80 minutes before closing
Full opening times

Getting here

Room 35, British Museum,
Great Russell Street, London,


Special group rates available
Bookings +44 (0)20 7323 8181

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Images: Esther Mahlangu (b. 1935), details of BMW Art Car 12, 1991. © Esther Mahlangu. Photo © BMW Group Archives. Object: Ox-shaped snuffbox, late 1800s.