South Africa: Five must-see objects

South Africa: Art of the Nation is at the British Museum from 27 October – 26 February 2017. See it for 50% off with a National Art Pass.


Gold rhinoceros, from Mapungubwe, capital of the first kingdom in southern Africa, c. AD 1220

This sculpture is from Mapungubwe, the 13th-century capital of the first kingdom of southern Africa. The rhinoceros was placed in a royal grave with other symbolically powerful objects. In 2002 the South African government created its highest honour, the platinum ‘Order of Mapungubwe’. The badge has the gold rhinoceros at its centre. The first person to receive the platinum award was Nelson Mandela.


Makapansgat pebble, c.3,000,000 BP

Discovered in a cave with the remains of early human ancestors, this pebble is an incredible 3 million years old. It was probably collected because its natural features make it look like a face. If this is the case it may be one of the earliest examples of ‘found art’ and creative thought anywhere in the world.


Esther Mahlangu, BMW Art Car 12, 1991

In 1991 South African artist Esther Mahlangu created BMW’s 12th Art Car to mark the end of apartheid. The decoration is based on traditional Ndebele house painting designs which express the group's cultural identity and may also be read as a form of protest against racial segregation and marginalisation that they experienced in the 20th century.


Coldstream Stone, c.7000 BC

This stone was painted with figures around 9,000 years ago. It was found in a human burial, indicating the great antiquity of the culture and traditions of the San|Bushmen people. It is a wonderful example of South African rock art. If you look carefully you can see that the figures have blood streaming from their noses and this means that they are shaman involved in a trance dance.


Mary Sibande, A Reversed Retrogress: Scene 1 (The Purple Shall Govern), 2013

This incredible piece is one of the last works you will see in the exhibition. Cast from the artist’s body, the figure in Victorian dress refers to her maternal ancestors who were maids in white South African households. The purple figure represents the artist and the future of South Africa. The series title refers to the Purple Rain Protests in Cape Town in 1989. During the event protestors captured police water cannon-spraying purple dye and turned it back onto them, after which ‘the purple shall govern’ was painted on the walls in the city. It is a wonderful comment on the past, present and future of the nation, which we felt was an appropriate note on which to end the show.

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