Situated in Bloomsbury, The British Museum is just moments away from our elegant boutique hotel, The Montague on the Gardens. This expansive museum is renowned worldwide for its incredible collection of artefacts revealing stories of human history. And now the museum is set to exhibit its latest showcase, ‘South Africa: The Art of a Nation’, bringing items dating as far back as 100,000 years together with contemporary artworks from the present day. To celebrate the launch of this highly anticipated show, we spoke to the curator John Giblin, who revealed some of the highlights of this truly fascinating exhibition at the British Museum.
What was involved in putting this exhibition together?
“The exhibition idea was proposed around two years ago. Since then we have undertaken research around possible objects and the narrative of the exhibition and have visited museum and university collections and contemporary artists in South Africa to develop the project.”
“We have worked closely with museums, universities and contemporary artists in South Africa, and collectors and collections in Europe, to select a range of artworks to be exhibited alongside those from the British Museum.”
What insight does the exhibition give into South African history and culture?
“The exhibition tells what is possibly the longest art story of any country, beginning 100,000 years ago. It highlights the many different peoples that have contributed to the artistic history of the nation of South Africa.”
What do you find most exciting about the exhibition?
“I find the combination of archaeological, historical, and contemporary artworks throughout the exhibition exciting. The way in which these works interact highlights the importance of the past in the present day.”
Are there any artworks you find especially intriguing?
“The selection of clay Schroda figurines, which come from a collection of over a hundred. They hint at the social concerns of society 1,000 years ago. Male and female fertility figures, wild and domestic animals, and mythological creatures, provide a fascinating, though incomplete, window into the lives of these people. They leave us speculating on what these objects were actually used for, and what they meant to the people who made and encountered them.”
Were there any unexpected discoveries made while curating the exhibition?
“As a relatively new curator at the British Museum, every time I explore the collection I make new unexpected discoveries.”
Do you have any personal favourites out of the exhibition’s artworks?
“I think that all of the artworks in the exhibition are fantastic, so I do not have particular favourites. But, one artwork I’d highlight is Mary Sibande’s A Reversed Retrogress (2013) from The Purple Shall Govern series, which will be the final artwork at the end of the exhibition and raises questions about South Africa’s contemporary relationship with its past, present, and future. The artwork includes two full size figures that the artist cast from her own body. One of the figures, named Sophie, wears a Victorian dress, and represents her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, who were maids in white South African households. The second figure, in purple, represents Sibande herself.”
“The Purple Shall Govern refers to the statement ‘the people shall govern’, from the 1955 Freedom Charter and post-apartheid constitution. It also refers to the Purple Rain Protests of 1989, when protesters captured the police water cannon being used to spray them with purple dye and turned it on their assailants. Over the following days the slogan ‘the purple shall govern’ was painted on walls around Cape Town. Although a tension remains, Sibande is saying goodbye to Sophie, her past, and confronting the ‘purple’ present.”
What revelations do you think this exhibition at the British Museum presents to visitors?
“People can expect to have their minds opened up to the full spectrum of South African art and history. And I think the complexity of South Africa’s history and Britain’s often challenging legacy within that story will come as a revelation.”
Combine your cultural sightseeing with a cultural experience of another kind – a quintessentially British Afternoon Tea at The Montague on the Gardens, taken overlooking the hotel’s surrounding gardens.
South Africa: the art of a nation is at the British Museum from 2th October 2016 until the 26th February 2017.
This exhibition at the British Museum is sponsored by Betsy and Jack Ryan and the logistics partner is IAG Cargo.
Image credits: Cover photo of Transitions, painting mixed media, 1994, by Willie Bester (born 1956) © the artist. Pair of Sotho Gun Cartridge Dolls, glass, brass and leather, South Africa, late 19th Century © The Trustees of the British Museum. Zulu carved ox horns, South Africa, Late 19th Century Photo © The Trustees of the British Museum. Schroda clay figurines, c. 900 AD. Ditsong National Museum of Cultural History, Pretoria. Mary Sibande (b. 1982), A Reversed Retrogress: Scene 1 (The Purple Shall Govern). Mixed media, 2013. © Mary Sibande. Courtesy of the artist and Gallery MOMO.