Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 9, 2018
John Giblin and Chris Spring South Africa: The Art of a Nation New York: Thames & Hudson, 2016. 256 pp.; 100 color ills. Hardcover $55.00 (9780500292839)
British Museum, London, October 27, 2016–February 26, 2017

South Africa: The Art of a Nation threads together a narrative of breathtaking chronological scope, beginning with the Makapangsgat Pebble, the earliest evidence—three million years old—of a hominid choosing to keep an object for aesthetic reasons, and ending with contemporary art that uses both local and global artistic idioms to grapple with the aftermath of apartheid. The catalogue of the British Museum’s 2016–17 exhibition of the same name, South Africa represents a conscientious effort to braid the conflicting histories and definitions that make up this impossibly broad mandate—for indeed, nowhere else in the world could the chronological scope be so extensive. The effort at comprehensiveness makes for some uneven moments, but this volume has much to offer readers in a variety of different fields. It provides a beautifully illustrated survey and opens a series of significant methodological questions that circle around the two key terms of the title (in addition to “South Africa”): art and nation.  

Along with the broad chronological scope comes, inevitably, an inclusive approach to the definition of art. The catalogue embraces a wide array of object types, made for many different reasons: along with contemporary art that would sit comfortably in the Venice Biennale and colonial-era imagery conveyed through typical European artistic media, they include ancient rock carvings, unattributed military photography, Tsonga carved headrests, and modern cartoons. Though many of these objects were loans, their range reflects the British Museum’s collecting interests, more comprehensive than those that might have appeared in a similar exhibition focused more narrowly on art as traditionally defined by Euro-American institutions. The curators take a stand when they insist on using the term art of the title to cover all these objects. They would receive little serious disagreement on this when they consider rock painting such as the nine-thousand-year-old Coldstream Stone, delicately painted with three human figures, or the remarkable golden Mapungubwe rhinoceros. But their definition is more daring when it embraces utilitarian objects designed or decorated in ways that are unnecessary for their function, such as a Zulu spear or a political badge.

Part of the way Giblin and Spring delimit their broad definition is by identifying aesthetic concerns “beyond what is required for [an object] to fulfil its function” (20). This position is welcome, but appears to be in tension with a concomitant drive to find a supplementary function, rather than pure aesthetic interest or enjoyment, in certain interpretive riddles. To the question of why some stone axes are thin and symmetrical, the rather circular answer appears: because those qualities may have helped attract mates (“symmetrical hand-axes may have made their maker and user more attractive to the opposite sex,” 31). No sooner have aesthetic characteristics been identified but they are instrumentalized (and in an uncomfortably quasi-Darwinian fashion; do people paint paintings to help attract mates?). Later in the catalogue the authors note the misleading way in which the idea of “fertility” is applied to more recent “fertility dolls” (142); perhaps this same critical attitude could have been applied to much earlier imagery, where fertility seems to be a vague catchall explanation for overtly gendered depictions of the human body (might not other characteristics be implied, such as sexuality, social status, divine status, health, or wealth?). Here, it seems that the curators—relying on the existing archaeological literature—may have missed an opportunity to inject a more critical set of questions about objects made by early humans.

Sensibly defining many different object types as art has a salutary effect on the way they are attributed to makers. The curators systematically attribute anonymous works to individuals, unnamed because their identities were unrecorded, rather than being bound by the tradition by which makers of art (European artifacts collected in art museums) are understood as individuals whose identities might or might not be known while makers of artifacts (non-European artifacts collected in ethnographic or natural history museums) are labeled with cultural identifiers that pigeonhole them as representatives of their culture. Thus in chapter 3, “European and Asian Arrivals,” a Portuguese stone cross, pieces of Chinese porcelain, and Khoekhoen rock painting (all of the “early modern” period) are each labeled with “Name(s) of artist(s) unrecorded,” which evens out cultural hierarchies around both geography and medium.  

The framing of the exhibition and catalogue also trades upon different resonances in the word nation, though perhaps not as fully and explicitly as they might. Is the nation a geographic region that happens to have certain borders that will later become those of South Africa, the nation-state? Is it that nation-state, forged through a history of colonization, decolonization, and its aftermath, apartheid and the struggle against it? In this context, what about African nationalism? For the early chapters, this framing lightly embeds a teleology within the southern African artifacts that fall within the current national boundaries of South Africa—even objects from millions of years ago, or resistant objects from the early colonial era, become the assumed property of the modern nation. The curators manage this problem quite deftly by including contemporary and recent art in the early chapters that look back to the early artifacts. They quickly stake out an interest in “Using the past as a resource for the present”—the first heading in the introduction. They thus put very early objects side by side with works by modern and contemporary artists who have responded to them directly or indirectly. One example, Esther Mahlangu’s BMW Art Car 525i Number 12 (1991), which the artist adorned with Ndebele house-painting designs, appears on the very striking cover. Not every chronological jump works smoothly, but as a curatorial practice, this implies the welcome possibility of a dialogue in which the scholarly voice is not always the authoritative one.

The juxtapositions work less well in situations where the curators clearly felt it important to include some significant historical phenomenon, but struggled to find artworks to represent it, as is the case at the end of chapter 3 (“European and Asian arrivals”) in the account of Christianity and Islam, two major new religions that entered South Africa in the colonial period. Christianity is represented through recent art by Jackson Hlungwani and Willem Boshoff, who re-invent and critique the legacy of Christianity in South Africa through their substantial (and very different) artistic practices. Islam appears far less convincingly embodied in a Muslim man and woman portrayed by the nineteenth-century British artist George French Angas in ink drawings from  The Kafirs Illustrated, part of a body of work that otherwise finds its place earlier in the chapter. The absence of any object made by a Muslim South African might perhaps have occasioned more critical and historical reflection. Angas also painted stunning watercolors of Zulu men and women, and Giblin and Spring note persuasively that he afforded “respect” to his subjects, more than some other European artists who documented African cultural and ethnic groups. Still, the account is a bit too breezy: how are we to evaluate “respect” in relation to the inevitable complicity of colonial-era European artists with the imperial project? And what might it have meant to acknowledge the appearance of Christianity with objects made with missionary intent?

This slightly awkward moment in the catalogue highlights one definitional problem in the book and exhibition: the fact that, almost invariably, artworks either illustrate historical episodes or show artists engaging explicitly with history, tradition, and politics. For some of the modern and contemporary artists, in particular, a focus on “the nation” and its history delimit the account of their work that is possible in the exhibition and book. I would not suggest that this profoundly warps the story that can be told of the art of South Africa; as artist Willie Bester put it, “remaining apolitical is a luxury that South Africans simply cannot afford” (211). In both the apartheid and post-apartheid periods, many of the recent and contemporary artworks presented in the exhibition are urgent and instructive in their unapologetically forceful political positions. And yet, it seems a little strange to encompass Gerard Sekoto’s work fully under the heading of “Forced Migrant Labour.” It almost seems that in the realm of contemporary art, political activism plays the role that “fertility” does for earlier periods, as the taken-for-granted supplementary functionality of any aesthetic practice. The national focus also means that international connections are minimized. The authors have chosen to emphasize moments of dialogue within South Africa’s own history and art history for contemporary South African artists, whatever their training. This may be a needed corrective to the impulse to seek points of reference in European or European-style training. Still, I also wonder if it would be worthwhile to think (just to pick one example) about Romare Bearden in viewing something like Sam Nhlengethwa’s poignant collage, It Left Him Cold—The Death of Steve Biko (1990).

South Africa: The Art of a Nation sets itself a vast scope. This inevitably brings with it some nontrivial gaps and tensions, and specialists in the various areas it covers may find, unsurprisingly, that it raises more questions than it answers. But it is an impressive synthesis. Representing an array of stunning and provocative art objects, it ably documents the research embedded in the British Museum’s important exhibition, and is sure to encourage more attention to the art of South Africa by an international community including scholars, students, and casual readers alike. 

Rebecca Zorach
Mary Jane Crowe Professor in Art and Art History, Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences, Department of Art History, Northwestern University