The weight of South Africa's turbulent and violent past often determines the narrative scope of present scholarship. South Africa: The Art of a Nation is a beautifully illustrated monograph published in conjunction with the British Museum's 2016–2017 exhibition of the same title. Co-curators of the exhibition John Giblin (head of the Africa collection at the British Museum) and Chris Spring (curator of contemporary African art and the eastern and southern African collections at the British Museum) co-wrote the catalogue. The catalogue provides the breadth that is usually associated with textbooks, but also contributes to ongoing scholarly debates. The ambitious scope does not hinder the depth of analysis that extends through all seven chapters. This feat is accomplished by way of the effective and creatively structured chapters, which move chronologically, but also incorporate a thematic call-and-response between the earliest forms of South African art (ca. 3,000,000 bp) and modern and contemporary responses. This call-and-response structure establishes themes in which the past is put into conversation with the present and projects into the future of South Africa's artistic culture, providing a coherent history that greatly enriches our understanding of an ongoing history of growth and development.
The catalogue is organized into seven chapters with a focused introduction that addresses the goals and limitations, as well as the sources on which the authors relied. Chapter 1, “Origins and Early Art,” examines objects grouped into in four ascending stages of human development. The first stage examines the Makapansgat Pebble, a manuport dated to 3 million years ago. The Kathu Pan hand-axe (ca. 1,000,000 bp) illustrates the second stage, in which objects were altered for nonutilitarian, aesthetic pleasure. The next stage marks South Africa as having “the earliest firm evidence for the existence of modern human behavior and a symbolic artistic culture” (p. 31) as evidenced by the Blombos Cave beads. The fourth and final stage begins 30,000 years ago with emergence of figurative rock art. The careful examination of these four stages celebrates the cultural and aesthetic advancements made by the earliest people of present-day South Africa, and it also lays bare the fallacy of a Eurocentric origin story. This is the great gift that the catalogue offers its readers—a continuous and coherent history of South African art traditions that refutes any claim of white supremacy. Giblin and Spring conclude chapter 1 by threading together an analysis of South Africa's archaeological heritage with contemporary artist Karel Nel. Nel's Taung/Piltdown (2011) is a clever and pointed redress to the now defunct Piltdown Man controversy (pp. 39–43).
Moving into the Iron Age, chapter 2 begins with the complex social histories revealed in figurative sculptures and concludes with mid-seventeenth century works. The chapter includes for analysis the often-illustrated Lydenburg Head and Mapungubwe Rhinoceros credited to the early Bantu-speaking people of South Africa. The naturalistic Kenilworth Head highlights the lesser discussed figurative work of the San | Bushman and/or Khoekhoen. In this chapter the authors discuss Shula Marks's “The Myth of the Empty Land” (1980), stating that “the ‘myth’ of the title of Marks's paper states that Bantu-speaking groups arrived in southern Africa only at the same time as Europeans, diminishing their land rights even further” (p. 58). The “myth” is also known as terra nullius (literally “no one's land”) and is discussed in relationship to Jacob Hendrik Pieneef's (intentionally or unintentionally) propagandistic landscape paintings (pp. 179–80).
Chapter 3, “European and Asian Arrivals,” begins with a brief chronology of European explorers in search of sea routes to Asia; this ultimately resulted in the 1652 European settlement at what is now Cape Town. The subsection “European Arrivals: Portuguese, Dutch and British” does a fine job of illustrating the various objects and artworks that were created as native South Africans and Europeans observed and interacted with each other. Highlights include the discussion of the Dias Cross (p. 67) and the Khoekhoen rock art painting of a Dutch galleon (p. 68). Two other subsections in this chapter, “Colonialism and Contemporary Art” and “New Religion: Christianity and Islam” are unequal in their strengths. “Pantomime Art Trilogy effectively addresses the absurdities and legacy of colonialism through the mimicry/mockery of Old Dutch Master paintings. However, the subsection of “New Religions: Christianity and Islam” falls short because the catalogue does too little to address precontact religions in previous chapters.
The discussion of Christianity folds in two contemporary male artists—Jackson Hlungwani and Willem Boshoff—and their deeply personal experiences with their Christian faith. The depth and personal intimacy explored in Boshoff and Hlungwani's works make the two meager paragraphs devoted to Islam superficial, at best. Furthermore, the artworks chosen to illustrate Islam's profound impact on South Africa are limited to two illustrations titled “Cape Malay Priest and his wife Nazea” from George French Angas's nineteenth century book, The Kafirs Illustrated. This was a missed opportunity to incorporate more examples of contemporary art, but more importantly, this section would be strengthened if it provided insights into how South African Muslims represent themselves and their faith (p. 93).
Chapter 4, “Colonial Conflicts,” comprises a primer on nineteenth and twentieth century wars, focusing on three major conflicts: the Xhosa Frontier War, the Anglo-Zulu War, and the Second South African War. This chapter is well illustrated with various examples of weaponry that communicate their owners' ethnic and sociopolitical status. The topic of adornment is carried into chapter 5, “Rural Art in the 1800s.” Perhaps the most insightful part of this chapter is the careful consideration of the problematic history and approach to collecting by Europeans. The Swazi “Headdress in Bell Jar” perfectly reflects this tradition, which established a deeply ingrained bias that positions black South Africans as specimens of a dying race. Let us not forget Saartjie Baartman, who is not discussed in this chapter but is mentioned in relation to the compelling work of Penny Siopis (pp. 58–62). The authors end the chapter well. The use of Santu Mofokeng's powerful series The Black Photo Album deconstructs black South African stereotypes and also challenges the European archive (p. 165).
Chapters 6 and 7 examine lived experiences of South Africans during apartheid and after its fall. Chapter 6, “Experiencing and Resisting Segregation and Apartheid,” looks at the various ways that cultural producers covertly resisted subjugation by adapting new materials and forms in which they could maintain and express their cultural affiliations. For instance, the Xhosa beaded tie and Zulu beaded waistcoat illustrate how migrant workers subverted the Western-style dress code with which they were expected to comply. Wearing these beaded items signified protest against hegemony and allowed for the assertion of one's ethnic affiliation. Five examples of “resistance art” allow readers to get a better sense of the specific racist and segregationist laws that South Africans, especially black South Africans, had to endure during apartheid. “Transformations” is the title of the final chapter, and it addresses many of the issues facing the new democratic nation. The artists represented in this section reflect a current ethos in South African art: reconciliation. The complexities of political trauma, recovery, and transformation are but a few areas contemporary South African take inspiration.
South Africa: The Art of a Nation is a foundational text that presents a rich and coherent history of art produced in Southern Africa. I visited the exhibition at the British Museum in January 2017 and found that the catalogue greatly enhanced my understanding of the chronological and thematic layout. The book is more than simply a record of the exhibition with detailed descriptions of the objects, although it is quite valuable for the inclusion of a large number of high-quality reproductions. Each chapter can stand alone as a focused analysis. However, it is best in its totality. The themes that Giblin and Spring build on from chapter to chapter make this a major contribution to the field. It is a comprehensive text that will be of great value for all readers, from undergraduate students to experts in the field.