The latest exhibition at the British Museum offers an overview of South African art from manuports to Mandela and beyond. Lucia Marchini finds out more.

The Coldstream stone: some thought – wrongly – that excavators enhanced these painted figures. (Photo: Iziko Museums of South Africa, Social History Collections, Cape Town)

Between 1948 and 1994, when the ruling National Party was enforcing apartheid legislation, the official version of South African history portrayed the country as a terra nullius before European settlement in the 17th century. Contemporary artists have protested against this image of an empty land, and it is powerfully repudiated by South Africa’s archaeology and precolonial art, often denied and marginalised by the apartheid state.

South Africa: the art of a nation brings together some of the world’s earliest artworks, demonstrating that the country had long been home to artistic activity and adding to the picture of the prehistoric continent where anatomically modern humans evolved. These signs of the early development of modern human behaviour have challenged previously held views that behavioural modernity developed in Europe. The oldest object on display, and one that is sometimes described controversially as the world’s oldest artwork, is the Makapansgat Pebble. This jasperite stone was found by Wilfred Eitzmann in Makapansgat Cave in 1925 among the remains of Australopithecines, ancestors of modern humans, who lived there around 3 million years ago. This manuport (an object that has been collected but not modified or used) stands out because of its simple face-like markings, caused by the action of water. Though these markings weren’t made by Hominin hands, it seems that they attracted the attention of one of the Australopithecines, who brought it to the dolomite cave.

There are plenty of other early archaeological riches on display. A thinned and symmetrical ironstone hand-axe, made around 1 million years ago and found with thousands of other stone tools at Kathu Pan, shows how some objects were manipulated, favouring form over function. While shell beads from Blombos Cave, coloured with red ochre and probably strung together by their holes to form a necklace, are the earliest firm evidence for symbolic bodily decoration, c.75,000-78,000 years ago.

On the rocks

Among the most remarkable of the exhibition’s artworks are some impressively well-preserved examples of San|Bushman (hunter-gatherer) rock art. One of these is the Coldstream Stone, found above where the head of a human burial would have lain. The burial dates to c.7000 BC and indicates an early ritual use for rock art. The three graceful human figures painted in ochre on the stone are in such excellent condition that some have claimed they were touched up by the archaeologists who found the stone in 1911, but analysis has since disproved this.

This ox-shaped Xhosa snuffbox was made from a paste consisting of clay, cattle blood, and hide, perhaps taken from sacrificial animals to imbue the object with power. (Photo: The Trustees of the British Museum)

In contrast with the small (30cm-high) Coldstream Stone, the striking Zaamenkomst Panel measures 2.5m in length. It depicts a herd of red eland with pale undersides, pursued by hunters armed with bows and arrows and battle-axes; the carefully executed paintings have been well preserved thanks to the ash deposit in which the panel was found, face-down. These two pieces of rock art show an artistic medium in use over what may be a long period of time. Though the date of the Zaamenkomst Panel is recorded just as pre-1900, Khoekhoen (herder) rock art clearly attests to an artistic tradition that continued after the arrival of Europeans, with examples portraying Dutch galleons, four-horse wagons, and settlers in crinoline dresses.

European influences can be seen, often unsettlingly, in other objects, such as 19th-century Tsonga headrests carved to resemble the Martini-Henry and Lee-Speed rifles used by British forces. An abundance of snuffboxes and other tobacco-related paraphernalia speak of the importance in 19th-century South Africa of the substance first introduced by the Portuguese in the 16th century.

Gold and glory

By c.AD 500, long before European colonisation, Bantu-speaking migrants (from whom the majority of the current South African population descends) had settled in parts of the southern continent. They established complex societies, traded across the Indian Ocean, and produced sculptures, sometimes using new technologies they brought with them, like metalworking. Among the artefacts from this period are a group of seven terracotta heads, found near Lydenburg in the 1950s. Two of these heads have eyeholes, and they are large enough to be worn over the head as a mask, perhaps as part of ceremonial performances. Dating from AD 500 to 900, the Lydenburg Heads are the oldest-known three-dimensional figurative artworks from southern Africa.

The 13th-century golden rhinoceros of Mapungubwe now appears on the Order of Mapungubwe, South Africa’s highest honour. (Photo: University of Pretoria)

But perhaps the most significant set of precolonial objects are the gold grave goods from Mapungubwe, four of which are on display outside South Africa for the first time. Discovered in three royal graves in what was the capital of the first kingdom of South Africa between AD 1220 and 1290, the treasures include a sceptre, a bowl, bracelets, and figurines of high-status animals. The most iconic of these is a rhinoceros, which has lent its image to the Order of Mapungubwe, the country’s highest honour, first received by Nelson Mandela in 2002.

The golden rhino – and indeed many of the early artworks in this exhibition – shows the important role that archaeology can play in contemporary South African society, after decades of denying these exceptional finds. From the earliest manifestations of creative expression via landmark objects from the modern age, including anti-apartheid badges and a 1994 ballot paper, to bold contemporary art, the astonishing array of pieces on display provide a powerful view of the country’s lengthy history, and highlight how painfully blind it is to ignore archaeological evidence.

South Africa: the art of a nation runs until 26 February 2017 at the British Museum; thanks are due to logistics partner IAG Cargo. Tickets cost £12. Visit for more information.

This review was published in CA 322.

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