The British Museum recently announced the hosting of a South African art exhibition which will run from 27 October to 26 February 2017. This exhibition will showcase a chronological history of South African art stretching back 100 000 years.
But what is it about art that makes it so unique? What mesmerises us about these artworks and what is it about our art which captures the hearts and imaginations of fellow safas and art connoisseurs alike?
History of South African art
Our oldest purported artworks (or art workshop) is the Blombos Cave which is believed to be between 70 000 and 100 000 years old (during the Middle Stone Age) and is said to be a paint workshop. The most noteworthy discoveries in this cave include engraved ochre, engraved bone, ochre pressing kits and marine shell beads. The site was officially named a provincial heritage site on 29 May 2015.
Another example of South African stone age art is the Diepkloof Eggshell Engravings which date back to approximately 60 000 BCE. These engravings demonstrate the use of abstract art like crosshatching and geometric motifs.
Of all South African art, the most famous is undoubtedly our San Rock Art – which is believed to be some of the most complex and sophisticated of the world’s symbolic art. These artworks have captured much of the San people’s culture, beliefs and practices. The Game Pass Shelter art, which is also known as the ‘Rosetta Stone’ of San rock art, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000. The site, which is in the Kamberg district in KZN has art dating back 120 to 3 000 years.
Not much is known about South African art between the middle stone age and colonial times, though the discovery sculptures like the Lydenburg Heads and the Golden Rhino of Mapungubwe has pointed towards the possibility of an undiscovered treasure-trove of South African art lurking beneath our soil. Nevertheless, if we move on to colonial times, one noteworthy artist includes Surveyor-General Charles Davidson Bell. Bell was an explorer artist who designed silver gallantry medals as, the Cape of Good Hope triangular stamp as well as several sketches and paintings of colonial era South Africa.
Bell worked hand-in-hand with prominent zoologist, Andrew Smith, who published several volumes of illustrations documenting the wildlife and nature in South Africa.
In addition to Bell and Smith, there’s the artist John Thomas Baines who also visited South Africa during an exhibition and made some impressive artworks depicting life in South Africa.
It is important to note that, like Bell and Smith, many artists who played a prominent role in South African art history were not necessarily born on South African soil. Many of these artists were vagrants or relocated to South Africa in their later years.
This includes Pieter Wenning, who was born in the Hague in 1873 and arrived in South Africa in 1905, Jean Welz who was born in Salzburg in 1900 and moved to South Africa in 1937, Pranas Domsaitis who was born in 1880 in the Kingdom of Prussia and moved to South Africa in 1949, Maurice van Essche who was born in 1906 in Antwerp and moved to South Africa sometime after 1940 and Frans Oeder who was born in Rotterdam in 1867 and moved to South Africa in 1890.
Other prominent South African artists include Walter Battiss (born 1906 in Somerset East), Gerard Sekoto (born 1913 in Botshabelo), Jacobus Hendrik Pierneef (born 1886 in Pretoria), Maggie Laubser (born 1886 in Bloublommetjieskloof), Marlene Dumas (born 1953 in Cape Town), Jackson Hlungwani (born 1932 in Nkanyani Village), George Pemba (born 1912 in Hill’s Kraal), Durant Sihlali (born 1935 in Germiston) and Irma Stern (born 1984 in Schweizer-Reneke).
Some of our favourite new age South African artists include Lionel Smith, George Gibson, Karen Wykerd, Loyiso Mkize, Peter Pharoah and Jimmy Law.
Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the extent of the talent found throughout South Africa’s rich art history. We’ve a myriad of talented artists, both in our past and still living among us who make us proud to be part of the rainbow nation.