See One Million Year-Old Art At The British Museum

South Africa: Art of a Nation, The British Museum ★★★★☆

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 43 months ago

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See One Million Year-Old Art At The British Museum South Africa: Art of a Nation, The British Museum 4
These magnificent ox horns are carved with images from the Anglo-Zulu war. Photo © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Apartheid era and the Boer wars may be key parts of South Africa's history over the last hundred or so years, but the region itself has a history stretching back millennia. The British Museum has arranged an exhibition that tells this story through a selection of fantastic artefacts and artworks.

A massive one-tonne rock begins the show, depicting bushmen among a herd of eland, and a tapestry depicting the creation of the sun. It's a great choice to open with these two distinctive and visually striking items.

A gold sculpture of a rhino from Mapungubwe, capital of the first kingdom in South Africa. © University of Pretoria.

The oldest item on display is a beautifully preserved hand axe from around a million years ago. What's all the more impressive is that it's so delicately carved, it couldn't possibly have been used practically. It must have been made by a primitive hominid purely for aesthetic purposes — art in one of its earliest guises.

We're then taken on a quick tour of South Africa's history including a 2,000 year old carving of a Quagga (an extinct species of zebra) and small sculptures of humans, animals and mythical creatures.

The myth of the creation of the sun is a modern tapestry that greets visitors as they first enter the show. © University of Pretoria.

The colonialism of Africa gets plenty of airtime too. We see a ceremonial axe, probably taken by a British soldier in the ninth Xhosa frontier war, plus there is an impressive pair of ox horns carved with scenes from the Anglo-Zulu war.

When covering war, The British Museum doesn't shy from the horrible acts the British carried out, including destroying Afrikaner Boer land and sending tens of thousands of black South African and Boer civilians to concentration camps.

Given South Africa's history, a lot of the exhibition is about discrimination. We see a contemporary artwork which critiques how Christianity was used to justify slavery, and the sandals Gandhi gifted to his political opponent Jan Smuts. After Smuts became prime minister of South Africa he is reported to have written to Gandhi:

I have worn these sandals for many a summer, even though I may feel that I am not worthy to stand in the shoes of so great a man.

People depicted on a 9,000 year old stone. © University of Pretoria.

The freeing of Nelson Mandela and the death of Steve Biko in police custody are two further important historical moments reflected in artworks, as the exhibition closes on recent history.

This show is a quick canter through South Africa's diverse history, and by not dwelling too long on any one time period we get a snappy and engaging exhibition which ensures all the important moments in the country's history are addressed.  The British Museum took a similar approach to their Germany show and once again, it has proved a success.

South Africa: the art of a nation is on at The British Museum from 27 October-26 February 2017. Tickets are £12 for adults, concessions available. There's also still a month left to catch the excellent Sunken Cities.

Last Updated 26 October 2016