The Creation of the Sun, a collaborative textile piece from the Bethesda Arts Centre. Picture: British Museum
The Creation of the Sun, a collaborative textile piece from the Bethesda Arts Centre. Picture: British Museum
A late 19th century Xhosa snuffbox in the shape of an ox. Picture: British Museum
A late 19th century Xhosa snuffbox in the shape of an ox. Picture: British Museum
Detail from BMW Art Car by Esther Mahlangu. Picture: British Museum
Detail from BMW Art Car by Esther Mahlangu. Picture: British Museum
Cape Town artist Willie Besters Transitions, painting mixed media. Picture: British Museum
Cape Town artist Willie Besters Transitions, painting mixed media. Picture: British Museum

SOUTH African art – from its ancient beginnings to a sampling of the very latest of work – is to be given extensive and prestigious exposure in an exhibition opening at the British Museum next month.

The museum is the country’s most popular visitor attraction, drawing more than 6.5 million people a year. And, from October 27 until February 26, one of the star attractions will be the 200 items of the South Africa, art of a nation exhibition.

It will feature an extraordinary range of work, from the gold art of Mapungubwe and early work in stone, clay, wood, iron and glass beads, to pieces which reflect the cutting edge of the contemporary art scene.

Objects and artefacts will be arranged chronologically across seven key historical epochs, with each section accompanied or paired with artworks by contemporary artists to tell the region’s story from its deep past through the colonial era and apartheid, to the emergence of the democratic state.

One example of this approach is Karel Nel’s Potent fields, rendered in two planes of red and white ochre, created at the time of the 2002 discovery of the 75 000-year-old cross-hatched ochre at Blombos Cave in the Western Cape, a find which repositioned southern Africa rather than Europe as one of the earliest sites of artistic thought and creation.

Among contemporary Western Cape artists to be represented in the exhibition are Willie Bester and Lionel Davis.

Also on show will be the recent acquisition to the museum’s permanent collection of the 2m-wide collaborative tapestry, The Creation of the Sun, from the Bethesda Arts Centre.

The artists, descendants of San/Bushmen and Khoekhoen, were inspired by archival recordings of their ancestors’ beliefs to produce contemporary representations of their founding stories, such as the creation of the sun.

Premier artists in the show range from Pierneef, John Muafangejo and Gerard Sekoto to William Kentridge, David Goldblatt, Sam Nhlengethwa and Penny Siopis.

Esther Mahlangu’s BMW Art Car of 1991 will be among the exhibits, along with a video featuring Candice Breitz, a 3D installation by Mary Sibande and a sculpture by Owen Ndou.

But one of the most remarkable items on the exhibition – for its beauty as an object, its age and its place in the long story of humanity – is the Kathu hand axe which, with its very own human escort, leaves the country for the first time in its one million-year existence tomorrow.

Kimberley archaeologist Dr David Morris will fly to London with the ancient stone tool and see it delivered safely to its temporary home at Great Russell Street, WC1.

It is a remarkable journey for a remarkable object.

The 23.2cm hand axe, part of an assemblage whose formal name is simply “MMK 6538” – its accession number at the McGregor Museum in Kimberley – is, as a tool, utilitarian in a doubtless brutish sort of way, given the harsh environment it would have been used in and perhaps also the limited cultural and technological accomplishments of the early people who used it.

They would have been our early ancestors, “probably Homo ergaster – the African equivalent of Homo erectus”, Morris said.

The banded ironstone hand axe is estimated to have been crafted about a million years ago, at the time of “some of the phases” of the “Out of Africa” dispersal of early humans across the globe.

An ordinary tool it may have been back then, but we perceive it today not merely as a hand-made object of scalloped finesse, but an awesome token of our long human journey of endeavour, insight, resourcefulness and endurance. In its chiselled symmetry, it even looks like a work of art.

By a quirk of nature over time – to put it in context, the age of the hand axe spans some 40 000 generations – the tool gleams as if varnished or polished.

Morris said the sheen was actually a silica glazing “which can result when ground-water levels fluctuate and the water has high pH, the water becoming saturated with silica”. Over time, the silica deposits hardened into a glaze.

The tool was excavated near the Northern Cape mining town of Kathu at the end of the 1970s by Morris’s predecessor at the McGregor Museum, archaeologist Peter Beaumont, who died only weeks ago.

In addition to a South African Heritage Resources Agency “temporary export permit”, the precious artefact is one of many items on the exhibition which enters Britain under the protection of the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act of 2007, which protects “cultural objects on loan” against seizure save under a court order made in the UK on the grounds of a “community or treaty obligation”.

On its flight tomorrow, the hand axe has an arguably lesser travel mate, the so-called Kenilworth Head. This pre-colonial head sculpted from stone was found in the Kimberley suburb of Kenilworth in about 1900, reputedly just short of 2.5m below the surface. Morris noted that little was known about the “context” of this piece.

Among the glittering stars of the London show are the gold treasures of Mapungubwe, which are leaving South Africa on loan for the first time.

They date from 1220 to 1290 when Mapungubwe, near the border of Zimbabwe and Botswana, was the capital of the first kingdom in southern Africa. The pieces were discovered in three royal graves in the 1930s and, according to the British Museum, “are among the most significant sculptures in Africa today”. The golden rhino is the symbol of the Order of Mapungubwe, South Africa’s highest honour, first presented in 2002 to Nelson Mandela.

The museum noted: “The gold treasures of Mapungubwe are evidence of new developments in artistic production at the start of the second millennium around the time of the creation of the first southern African kingdoms, as society shifted towards more hierarchical styles of rule.”

These archaeological artworks were important for many reasons, not least as evidence of a sophisticated society which traded gold and ivory with China, India and Egypt centuries before the arrival of European settlers.

This was a history “hidden during the apartheid era when the colonial concept of terra nullius, the myth of an empty land, was used to legitimise white rule”.

In the exhibition, the gold treasures will be displayed alongside a modern artwork by Siopis and a sculpture by Ndou that “encourage the viewer to challenge the historic assumptions of the colonial and apartheid eras”.

Among the more curious items on the show is a pair of leather sandals made by Mahatma Gandhi while a prisoner in South Africa as a present for prime minister Jan Smuts. The sandals were given to Smuts on his 70th birthday in 1939.

Another is the stone memorial erected by Dutch governor Joachim van Plettenberg in 1778 to record his visits and to signal the Dutch East India Company claim to colony land.

Also in the exhibition is the three million-year-old water-worn Makapansgat Pebble, a jasperite stone that resembles a sculpted face, found at Mokopane in Limpopo. It is a “manuport”, an object carried by hand.

Hartwig Fischer, director of the British Museum, said the exhibition was “a chance to explore the long and diverse history of South African art and challenge audience preconceptions in the way our visitors have come to expect”.

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