Rock art painting of a herd of springboks

South Africa: an exhibition of two halves?

Publication date: 19 January 2017

Presenting 100,000 years of history through art was always going to be an immense challenge. Here, the co-curators of the current exhibition South Africa: the art of a nation give their personal insight into the thinking behind this ambitious project.

South Africa: an exhibition of two halves?

John Giblin, Head of the Africa Section at the British Museum, and lead curator of the exhibition South Africa: the art of a nation:

My background is in African archaeology and I joined forces with Chris Spring, who has a background in contemporary art, to tell a long story of South Africa through artworks. As a curator, my role is to construct the narrative and to select the objects that will express the different parts of the story that we want to communicate to the visitors. South Africa has one of the richest art histories of any country in the world and a fascinating history and this exhibition introduces that depth and diversity to a British and international audience. By collapsing the artificial divide between archaeological, historic, and contemporary objects, and by reframing all of these as art made by artists, we aimed to present a fresh slant on a complex past.

Figure of a rhinoceros made from gold
Mapungubwe gold rhinoceros, made about 1220–1290. On loan from University of Pretoria.
Nine black labourers digging the ground with picks supervised by a white man wearing a hat and with a pipe in his mouth
Gerard Sekoto (1913–1993), Song of the Pick. Oil on board, 1946. South32 SA Limited. © The Sekoto Foundation.

Chris Spring, Curator of the Museum’s collections from eastern and southern Africa, and co-curator of the exhibition South Africa: the art of a nation:

I am responsible for developing the Museum’s collections of contemporary art from across the African continent and from ‘global Africa’. My role as co-curator of the exhibition was to suggest works by contemporary artists – as well as historical works – which might help people to appreciate in depth the particular periods in South African history through art. In some ways our approach mirrored that in the Sainsbury African Galleries (Room 25) at the Museum, where works by contemporary artists help to illuminate, mediate and curate the other works in the galleries, which represent longstanding artistic traditions. In the exhibition we applied this approach to a historical narrative in which artists take ownership of South African history, from the deep past to the present day. I have always wanted to introduce Africa’s deep past into the African Galleries, so I was extremely excited to work with John when the opportunity arose to do this in relation to art from South Africa – and I’m glad to say that there has been an overwhelmingly positive critical response.

A black African woman gestures to the sun. The sun's swirling rays move towards people who are rejoicing.
Jeni Couzyn (artistic director), Sandra Sweers (lead artist), The Creation of the Sun. A collaborative piece from Bethesda Arts Centre, textile, 2015. © The Bethesda Foundation Limited.
Curators John Giblin, Chris Spring and Laura Snowling explore the extraordinary breadth and diversity of creativity to come out of South Africa, not simply in the modern age but over the past 3 million years. From rock art and hand axes to oil paintings and installations this exhibition displays some of the most beautiful and powerful creations to come out of southern Africa.

South Africa: the art of a nation ran until 26 February 2017.

Sponsored by Betsy and Jack Ryan

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