Thursday, 12 January 2017

A rainbow nation in curved air.

The British Museum is hosting South Africa:Art of a Nation. It ranges from prehistory to this very decade so there's a lot to pack in. Maybe a bit too much. It might've been a better idea to concentrate on individual eras. After all a country of 55,000,000 people with such a colourful history would certainly merit it.

Having said that the curators have made a bloody good fist of it. There's just the right amount of information and artefacts representing each era. If you want to find out more there are books for sale at the end or you can always do your own research.

Before even ascending the stairs to the exhibition space you're greeted by Esther Mahlangu's BMW Art Car No.12 from 1991. Designed to resemble the traditional Ndebele houses in South Africa (as you'll see later) and made to celebrate the end of apartheid. It's a great way of catching passing visitors attention.

Once you get into the gallery proper you jump back thousands, millions, of years with examples of South African rock art, an art form which continued until European colonisation in the late 19th century. The Zaamenkomst panel is from 30,000 years ago and the Makapansgat pebble from a staggering 3,000,000 years back. Here you can also see shell beads, a hand axe, a rock with an engraving of a quagga, and lots and lots of ochre.

About 1,500 years ago Bantu speakers migrated to South Africa where they became the descendants of many different ethnic groups:- Zulu, Xhosa, Swazi, Sotho, Tsonga, Tswana, and Venda. From this time we're presented with a selection of clay figurines representing both animals and weirdly abstracted and elongated females. There are sculptures made from gold mined in Mapungubwe and one of the Lyndenburg heads. A terracotta affair that was possibly a ceremonial mask used in initiation rites. The Lyndenburg heads, discovered in Mpumalanga, are among the oldest known African Iron Age artworks from below the equator.

One of the charms of the exhibition is the way the curators have mixed up the ancient with the new. Evenly distributed as you wander through are modern pieces having, what we're obliged to call these days, a conversation with the older works. Some work incredibly well. A few not so. Certainly Owen Ndou's Oxford Man (1992) is in the former camp. This revolutionary prisoner is portrayed as a man with all knowledge in his hands. It was made just a couple of years after Nelson Mandela's release from prison and is very much in the spirit of the great man. From the same year we have Jackson Mbhazima Hlungwani's Christ with Football. The thinking, seemingly being, that Christ, like Mandela, was a man of the people and a man of the people would play football. Obviously.

Colonisation began with a Dutch settlement in Table Boy (later Cape Town) in 1652. Europeans claimed South Africa was a Terra nullis, empty land, an untruth that would later be used to justify apartheid. In 1795 the British seized control and in their usual, methodical, if insensitive fashion began to take surveys of the local people. They coined the now discredited, or openly racist, term Hotentot (for the Khoikhoi people who lived mainly in the Cape but also in Botswana) and popularised the even more incendiary Kaffir. Initially meaning non-believer it soon became a catch all term of racist abuse directed towards black South Africans. I can remember ignorant thugs bandying it around in the 80s and 90s.

With the arrival of the Europeans came the arrival of Asians. The Dutch had sent political opponents from their South East Asian colonies, as well as slaves, to South Africa. They brought with them Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism as well as their conical hats and leather sandals. Easily the most famous Asian to end up in South Africa was Mahatma Gandhi.

Gandhi was 24 when he arrived in the country to work as a legal representative in Pretoria. He lived in the country for 21 years and it was there he first experienced racism. He was barred from hotels and beaten by stagecoach drivers. After being thrown off a train in Pietermaritzburg for refusing to move from first class he protested and was allowed back on the next day. Now a statue of Gandhi in his dhoti stands in Church Street in the city centre of Pietermaritzburg commemorating that event and the ideas, most notably satyagraha, that were shaped in Gandhi's mind that day and went on to change the map, the shape, of our world.

It's nice that a philosophy of peace came out of a place that had known more than its fair share of wars. John Muafangejo's Battle of Rorke's Drift (1981) tells a very different story of the Anglo-Zulu war than the Michael Caine film Zulu. That war is also represented by a selection of spears, brass armbands, oxhide shields, carved ox horns, claw necklaces, beaded aprons, and Umnqwazi headdresses.

As we all know things didn't improve for the vast majority of South Africans when Gandhi went back to India. In fact things got considerably worse as 80% of the population were forced, by law, to live on just 10% of the land. The National Party came into power in 1924 and soon started on its policy of forced segregation. Apartheid. Which had actually already been coming into effect for the last decade anyway following the Native Land Act of 1913 passed by the Union Parliament.

The African National Congress had been founded in Bloemfontein that same decade with the primary objective of ending apartheid and giving voting rights to black and mixed race Africans. We all know now what a long, painful, and bloody struggle that was. Art, too, was used to make points about the political situation.

From the traditional Ndebele house and beadworks that proudly stated their own culture to Gerard Sekoto's Song of the Pick (1946) which portrayed the white land owner as weak and impotent in the face of the black workers. Jacobus Pierneef's beautiful landscaped works (in the centre of the below selection) were unfortunately co-opted by the apartheid government. The emptiness of the canvasses seen as an example of Terra nullis. 

From 1976 through to 1990 the resistance art got fiercer and more pointed. Jane Alexander's Butcher Boys ('85/'86) was a response to the state of emergency in South Africa at the time. The work consists of three lifesize humanoid beasts with powdery skin, black eyes, and broken horns sitting on a bench. Devoid of their senses their ears are nothing more than deep gorges in their heads and their mouths are missing, covered with thick roughened skin.

Sam Nhlengethwa's It Left Him Cold:The Death of Steve Biko (1990) is both a tribute to the anti-apartheid activist who died in police custody in 1977 and a searing indictment at the astonishing statement made at the time by the then minister of police Jimmy Kruger:- "I am not glad and I am not sorry about Mr. Biko. It leaves me cold."

There are other great works from this era including William Kentridge's Goya inspired monochrome Negotiations Minuet and Helen Mmakgabo Sebidi's Anguish. There are anti-apartheid badges and posters for marches with Oliver Tambo and Jesse Jackson giving speeches in Trafalgar Square outside South Africa. I remember these protests as a regular feature of my early visits to London.

I also remember being in a television rental shop in Basingstoke the day Mandela was released from prison. The lady who worked there was disgusted that a 'terrorist' was being set free. We've come a long way since 1990. Let's not let Trump or Farage drag us back there.

With Mandela's release and the end of apartheid came a period of transition. A removal of bans on opposition parties. The freeing of political prisoners. In 1994 the first democratic election and from 1998 to 2003 the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report. South Africa became the Rainbow Nation. They even won the rugby world cup in Ellis Park, Johannesburg, in 1995.

But the crime rate soared. Life was still not easy. There was still a huge division between the rich and the poor. The damage done by apartheid won't take years, or decades, to undo but lifetimes. That's the danger when people sign up to the politics of hate, the politics of envy, and the politics of divisiveness. It's not unique to South Africa but we'd do well to have a look at the story of South Africa in the last century and see if we can't learn a very important history lesson.

The last few works (Lionel Davis - Reclamation (2004), Willie Bester - Transition (1994), and Mary Sibande's A Reversed Retrogress Scene 1 (The Purple Shall Govern) (2013)) address the last couple of turbulent decades, but I think in doing that they're addressing a much wider South African history and as such they're a fitting end to an educational and entertaining exhibition that sure packs an emotional punch.

I'll end with a quote from Nelson Mandela's 1994 inauguration speech that remains as relevant today as it was then and will no doubt continue to always be so.

"Each of us is as intimately attached to the soil of this beautiful country as are the famous jacaranda trees of Pretoria and the mimosa trees of the bushveld. The time for healing of wounds has come. The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come. The time to build is upon us".

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