Illuminating India @ the Science Museum

Illuminating India

Illuminating India is a season of exhibitions and events being held at London’s Science Museum to celebrate India’s contribution to science, technology and mathematics.

At its heart are two FREE major exhibitions: 5,000 Years of Science and Innovation and Photography 1857–2017. The first consists of one large room presenting a history of scientific breakthroughs in India; the second consists of three exhibition spaces presenting a selection of photography from its arrival in India in the 1830s through to the present day.

In addition to the exhibitions there’s a season of India-themed events, including film screenings, music and dance performances, conversations with experts and more.

Wedding Portrait of an Indian Couple (c.1920-40) Unknown photographer and artist © Alkazi Foundation for the Arts

Wedding Portrait of an Indian Couple (c.1920-40) Unknown photographer and artist © Alkazi Foundation for the Arts

Photography in India: 1857-2017

The exhibition is divided into three sections:

  1. Power and Performance
  2. Art and Independence
  3. Modern and Contemporary

(I am often struck by how exhibitions and books about the arts must have alliterative titles cf. the Passion, Power and Politics exhibition just across the road at the Victoria and Albert Museum).

1. Power and Performance

Shortly after its invention in Britain in 1839, photography arrived in India. It was used to document the people and places of the vast sub-continent and as a record of colonial conflicts, particularly of the great Mutiny of 1857. It’s this the show opens with, presenting photographs of the ruined garrisons at some of the key battlefields of the Uprising, such as Cawnpore and Delhi. There’s a map and history briefly explaining the background and course of the Uprising.

Photos were taken by British officers like John Murray, but I was struck to learn that some were taken by Felice Beato, who I came across for his photos of the First Opium War. He was one of the first war photographers and generally staged his photos to conform to artistic conventions.

Bara Imambara after the Indian Mutiny, Lucknow, India (1858) Felice Beato © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Bara Imambara after the Indian Mutiny, Lucknow, India (1858) Felice Beato © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

There are photos of Bahadur Shah Zafar who was rather forced into becoming a figurehead for the rebels which meant that, when the Uprising was finally quelled, members of his family were executed and he – the last descendant of the Mughal emperors – was deposed.

The heyday of imperial control of India was from about 1860 to 1900 and this is reflected in the work of British photographers like Samuel Bourne and Maurice Vidal Portman. Bourne accompanied expeditions up into the Himalayas where he took breath-taking panoramas of the spectacular views, some of which were made up into books and sold to armchair explorers. Photos and bound books of them are on display here.

Portman was a fascinating character, a naval officer who was put in charge of the Andaman Islands and their inhabitants at the age of 19! He was tasked with managing the islands and their inhabitants at a time when several prison camps were established for those imprisoned by the Raj in India. Over the next twenty years he took numerous photos of the native Andamanese, for the British Government and the British Museum.

Portman got to know the natives well and wrote two books on their languages as well as building up a significant collection of ethnographic objects during his time on the Andaman Islands which are now in the British Museum. The selection of his work here emphasises the sinister application of photography, used to photograph islanders from the front and side on, alongside measuring their facial features, skull shape and size and so on, all part of the late 19th century obsession with race.

Ilech, girl of the Ta-Yeri tribe by Maurice Vidal Portman

Ilech, girl of the Ta-Yeri tribe by Maurice Vidal Portman

Meanwhile, a completely different genre grew up which adapted the colour palette  of traditional Indian painting to the new technology: basically, photographs of Indians which were then extensively touched up or painted over to create a distinctive hybrid form.

Maharana Fateh Singh of Udaipur (1849-1930) by Bourne & Shepherd © Alkazi Foundation for the Arts

Maharana Fateh Singh of Udaipur (1849-1930) by Bourne & Shepherd © Alkazi Foundation for the Arts

There are lots of examples of this kind of thing, depicting many of India’s 700 or so ‘princes’, images which were made for them as portraits but also reversioned in books, used in family ‘cabinets’ or made into postcards for their subjects to buy. The style carried on well into the 20th century as the example at the top of this review demonstrates.

2. Art and Independence

As cameras got smaller and cheaper more Indians were able to set up as commercial and even art photographers. This second section is sub-divided into two: examples of native photographers (Art) and a roomful of photos devoted to portraying Gandhi and Indian Independence (Independence).

The photographer Shapoor N. Bhedwar is represented by a suite of photographs depicting middle-class Indian life at the turn of the century. His studied compositions clearly borrow from the conventions of late Victorian painting.

'The Mystic Sign' from the 'Art Studies' album (c.1890) by Shapoor N Bhedwar © Alkazi Foundation for the Arts

‘The Mystic Sign’ from the ‘Art Studies’ album (c.1890) by Shapoor N Bhedwar © Alkazi Foundation for the Arts

A wall is devoted to works by a photographer called Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II who developed an approach based on self-portraits taken over many years, in a variety of guises and Indian costumes.

Self-portrait as a Shiva bhakt (c.1870) by Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II © Trustees, Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II Museum, City Palace, Jaipur

Self-portrait as a Shiva bhakt (c.1870) by Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II © Trustees, Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II Museum, City Palace, Jaipur

The second part of this section is devoted to photographs depicting the very end of the career of Mahatma Gandhi, including his funeral, along with photos of the independence on India in 1947 and of the ruinous partition of the sub-continent.

Gandhi was well aware of the importance of imagery in the ‘modern’ world (of the 1930s and 40s). As the curators point out, it’s no mistake that at the end of his life he was being accompanied by not one but two of the pre-eminent photojournalists of the day, Margaret Bourke-White and Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose works are liberally represented.

The curators take the opportunity to juxtapose these two super well-known westerners with works by India’s first female photojournalist Homai Vyarawalla.

Lord Mountbatten among jubilant crowds outside the Parliament House, Delhi, 15 August 1947 by Homai Vyarawalla © Alkazi Foundation for the Arts

Lord Mountbatten among jubilant crowds outside the Parliament House, Delhi, 15 August 1947 by Homai Vyarawalla © Alkazi Foundation for the Arts

3. Modern and Contemporary

The next space is also sub-divided. The first room contains lots of images from the 1950s and 60s. Gandhi had campaigned on a platform of returning India to its spiritual roots and to an economy based on self-sufficiency and village crafts. But the first prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru (PM from 1947 to 1964) took diametrically the opposite view and set about transforming India into a modern industrialised economy, along with nuclear power and its own space programme.

Hence a wall of wonderful black-and-white photos taken by Werner Bischof and Madan Mahatta of industrial landscapes, building sites, railroad sidings, power plants. A kind of sub-set of these was a couple of b&w photos taken Lucien Hervé. Looking him up on Wikipedia I discover he was French but of Hungarian origin, and I wonder if that accounts for the highly constructivist style of the photos, which remind me of the Bauhaus style of his great compatriot, László Moholy-Nagy.

High Court, Chandigarh, 1955 by Lucien Hervé © J. Paul Getty Trust

High Court, Chandigarh, 1955 by Lucien Hervé © J. Paul Getty Trust

In the next room we come to big colour photos from the 1980s onwards. Two names stand out, Rajhibir Singh and an American called Mitch Epstein. Epstein worked in films and took a cinematic approach to staging and lighting his large, bold compositions. He was, apparently, part of a movement called American New Colour.

Shravanabelagola, Karnataka, India 1981 by Mitch Epstein. Courtesy of Galerie Thomas Zander, Köln

Shravanabelagola, Karnataka, India 1981 by Mitch Epstein. Courtesy of Galerie Thomas Zander, Köln

New Indian Photography

In the final room was a generous selection from the work of three contemporary Indian photographers. As with most art nowadays, it’s not enough to just paint a painting or take a photo, you have to devise a project.

Sohrab Hura (Indian b.1981) worked on a ‘two-chapter’ personal project called Sweet Life from 2005 to 2014. Chapter 1, Life Is Elsewhere (2005 to 2011), focuses on his relationship with his mother who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. A second chapter, Look, It’s Getting Sunny Outside!!! (2008 to 2014) chronicles the improvement of her mental health. An extensive selection from both works is shown on a video screen, along with accompanying commentary.

Image 5 from Sweet Life © Sohrab Hura

Image 5 from Sweet Life © Sohrab Hura

Olivia Arthur (British, born 1980) is represented by a wall of photos which represent, or hint at, the suppressed LGBT+ sexualities of India, specifically in the port city of Mumbai. At one time India’s ‘city of dreams’, according to the wall label an increasingly reactionary political movement in Mumbai has led to the recriminalisation of homosexuality. Hence Arthur’s photos try to capture marginal places and private moments where this now-subterranean sub-culture can be seen, or at least inferred.

Ishan photographed at his parents home in Bombay (2016) by Olivia Arthur © Magnum Photos

Ishan photographed at his parents home in Bombay (2016) by Olivia Arthur © Magnum Photos

Vasantha Yogananthan (b.1985) had the bright idea of retelling the ancient Hindu epic poem the Ramayana through contemporary photos, and titling the (ongoing) series, A Myth of Two Souls. Thus two walls of large colour photos by him show images which are completely contemporary in feel, but which have captions quoting from key moments in the ancient story.

Cricket Match, Chitrakoot, Uttar Pradesh, India (2013) from the series A Myth of Two Souls by Vasantha Yogananth

Cricket Match, Chitrakoot, Uttar Pradesh, India (2013) from the series A Myth of Two Souls by Vasantha Yogananthan

As a set, these were probably the most consistently interesting and stimulating photographs in the exhibition. Yogananthan’s photos are simultaneously modest, homely, undramatic but wonderfully composed and atmospheric. Which is why I’ve included two.

Rama Combing His Hair, Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, India, 2015, from the series A Myth of Two Souls by Vasantha Yogananthan

Rama Combing His Hair, Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, India, 2015 from the series A Myth of Two Souls by Vasantha Yogananthan

If you like India, and you like photography, what are you waiting for? It’s a terrific show and it’s ABSOLUTELY FREE.

The exhibition video


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More about the photographers

Reviews of photography exhibitions

From Weimar to Wall Street 1918-1929 (1993)

This book is volume three in Hamlyn’s History of the Twentieth Century. It’s a fun, Sunday afternoon coffee-table book, nice and big – 28 cm tall by 22 cm wide – with plenty of space for full-page reproductions of photos, posters, film stills, art works and so on. It also includes timelines for each sector or topic, useful maps and ‘datafiles’, giving facts and figures about populations, industrial production, election results and so on.

One of its appeals is that it doesn’t restrict itself just to Europe and America, but ranges right around the world, describing social and political history in Turkey, the Middle East, Africa, Russia, Asia, China. It’s divided into four big topic areas – Politics, Economics, Society and Culture – and these main chapter headings are interspersed with special features about, for example, Bolshevism, Hollywood, modern medicine, jazz, air travel and so on.

It looks rather like one of my daughter’s school textbooks, with its busy layout of pages, text, Fact Boxes, maps, graphs and graphics – all designed to retain the interest of the hyperactive teenager.

A Peace Conference at the Quai d'Orsay by William Orpen (1919)

A Peace Conference at the Quai d’Orsay by William Orpen (1919)

It includes this striking painting by William Orpen, an Anglo-Irish painter who fought during the Great War and did some paintings of the Front, before moving on to portraits of key political players of the day. Here you can seee the leaders of the victorious allies – thin Woodrow Wilson at centre front, sitting in the red chair; to his right, with the big white moustache, Clemenceau, Premier of France; and to his right David Lloyd-George, Prime Minister of Great Britain, with the mane of white hair.

In the full-page reproduction of this painting what really stands out is the way Orpen handles the immense amount of gold decoration, shaping and moulding it in thick impastos of gold paint, alive with catchlights.

A flavour of the 1920s

  • 11 November 1918 end of World War One. Collapse of the Wilhelmine Empire and creation of the Weimar Republic. Germany’s colonies in Africa handed over to Britain (Tanganyika), France (Cameroon) and Belgium (Rwanda). Britain maintains its blockade on German seaports leading to thousands of civilian deaths from starvation over winter 1918, until Germany signs the Versailles Treaty in June 1919.
  • The Versailles Treaty imposes punishing reparations on Germany. Successive treaties see the creation of new countries from the collapsed European empires e.g. Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia. Establishment of the League of Nations which, however, the U.S. Senate refuses to ratify in 1919.
  • The Ottoman Empire is dismembered by the Treaty of Sèvres (August 1920). Mustafa Kemal, who has led the Turkish nationalist revolution, becomes Turkish president in 1920. the Allies encourage Greece to invade mainland Turkey which leads to the bitter Greco-Turkish War (1919-22). France and Britain take over ‘mandates’, controlling newly created countries across the Middle East in what had been the Ottoman Empire.
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1918)

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1918)

  • Economic boom in America. Political confrontations between Left and Right in Italy climax with Mussolini’s seizure of power for the Fascist Party in 1922. In 1923 Germany experiences hyper-inflation, economic collapse and the occupation of the Ruhr by France for failing to keep up with war reparations.
  • By 1920 Japan’s population has doubled since 1868 and it seeks new markets for its economy. This quest will lead to the creation of the Far East Economic Sphere i.e. the Japanese Empire, in the 1930s, to the invasion of Manchuria in 1937 and, eventually, war with America.
  • The Bolsheviks win their civil war against the Whites (1922) but catastrophic economic collapse forces Lenin to introduce the New Economic Policy, reintroducing limited business and trade. Lenin dies in 1924 giving way to a joint leadership which includes Josef Stalin. Only in 1928, with the exile of Leon Trotsky, does Joseph Stalin take full control of the USSR and impose the first Five Year Plan for full industrialisation and the collectivisation of agriculture.
  • In 1921 the Chinese communist party is created, in 1925 the Vietnamese Nationalist Party is established by Ho Chi Minh (among others). Both of which will have massive long term repercussions in the 1940s and 50s.
Young Ho Chi Minh

Young Ho Chi Minh at the Communist Congress in Marseilles, 1921

  • A succession of British government reports fail to satisfy calls for independence from Indian politicians and the 1920s see the rise to prominence of Mahatma Gandhi with his strategy of peaceful non-cooperation.
  • Cinema evolves in leaps and bounds with Hollywood stars led by Charlie Chaplin becoming world famous. 1927 sees the first part-talking movie (the Jazz Singer). Jazz evolves rapidly with Louis Armstrong emerging as one among many star performers. Jazz becomes more sophisticated in the hands of arrangers like Duke Ellington and gives its name to the entire era in America. It spawns dance crazes not only across America but in Europe too (the Charleston, the Black Bottom etc).
  • America imposes Prohibition in 1919. This swiftly leads to the creation of organised crime across the country, running bootleg booze production and a network of illegal nightclubs. Gangsters like Al Capone become notorious and a world-wide symbol of American’s ‘criminal capitalism’.
  • Radio becomes global. In 1920, in a radio first, Nelly Melba broadcasts from London to listeners all across Europe. In the US radio explodes into commercial chaos; in the USSR radio is strictly controlled, like all the arts, by the Communist Party. Britain invents the BBC in 1922, funded by a compulsory licence fee paid by every owner of a radio.
  • The spread of affordable birth control (not least via the educational books of Marie Stopes) liberates women, many of whom had for the first time worked during the Great War. Many take jobs in the new light industries which are springing up around major cities – the spread of the phenomenon called ‘suburbia’, all facilitated by the enormous growth in car ownership. Women around the world get the right to vote: in the UK women over 30 got the vote in 1918, over 21 in 1928 – with some countries (the Nordics) ahead of this, some (France) lagging behind.
Constructing the Empire State Building

Constructing the Empire State Building

Some thoughts

I liked the way the book restricts itself to the period 1918 to 1929. It scrupulously avoids the Wall Street Crash because that economic catastrophe in fact rumbled on into 1930 and, of course, its economic consequences were chiefly felt in the following decade.

By limiting itself to just the 1920s, the book conveys the chaos and excitement of the Jazz Decade in itself, of itself, without the shadow of the Depression looming over it, let alone the Nazis. All too often histories of the period skip through the 1920s to get to the Crash and then to Hitler, who then completely overshadows everything that came before, whereas the 20s are quite fascinating in their own right.

Stepping back, the two Big Political Themes which resonate through the decade are:

  1. The Repercussions of the First World War, namely:
    • The collapse of the four empires, Germany, Russia, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian, which gave rise to a host of new independent countries, generally with very fragile new political systems and unhappy ethnic minorities,
    • The economic consequences of the peace – the tough reparations on Germany lead to hyper-inflation, but Britain ended the war deeply in debt and never regained the worldwide power she enjoyed in the 1900s. By contrast, America clearly emerged as the world’s most advanced industrial, technological and financial centre.
  2. The Repercussions of the Russian Revolution. New communist parties were set up in virtually every country in the world, promising freedom, justice, equality and so on, especially appealing to developing countries and colonies seeking their freedom.

Consumer culture

All these political changes were obviously important but the bigger message is that the 1920s were also a major step down the path towards a consumer capitalist society, as the practical notions of convenience and home comforts took precedence over older ideas of nationhood, morality and so on.

The populations of Western societies wanted to benefit from the invention and widespread distribution of gas, electricity, lamps and lights, hoovers, sewing machines, telephones, radio and gramophones, and so on, not to mention the huge growth in car use.

And accompanying all this were the posters, adverts, hoardings, design and branding, huge developments in the layout of magazines and ads, of fonts and styles. All these had existed in the 1890s, 1900s and 1910s and each of these decades had seen the steady growth in number and sophistication of all the media of consumer culture. But the 1920s saw the arrival of major new technologies – led by gramophones and sound movies, which promoted whole new forms of music (jazz) and new types of personality (the movie star) as never before.

Even if they didn’t all personally enjoy it, more people than ever before in the industrialised nations could see what a good standard of living – with a car, a home of your own and foreign holidays – looked like, bombarded through newspapers, magazine and billboard hoardings with compelling images of astonishing luxury.

Just flicking through the book shows that the imagery of consumer capitalism was more vivid, stylish, ‘liberated’ and ubiquitous than ever before. It’s lots of fun!


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South Africa: The art of a nation @ the British Museum

This is an interesting and enlightening exhibition with plenty of good things in it, but which in parts is a little puzzling and frustrating.

Deep prehistory

The curators (John Giblin, Chris Spring and Laura Snowling) say they’re setting out to give an overview of the art of South Africa and this they certainly do with visual representations of every period of South Africa, beginning in the inconceivably distant past with a stone from a site inhabited by pre-humans some 3 million years ago. The experts think it was brought from some distance away because of its presumable similarity to a human face, and so indicates self-awareness in our remotest ancestors.

There’s a hand axe made by Homo ergaster, a predecessor of Homo sapiens, and dated to 1 million years ago – apparently, in fact, not that practical as an axe, but here to demonstrate that an aesthetic sense seems to have existed in our remotest ancestors.

There’s the Blombos Cave beads, created some 75,000 years ago, painted and pierced in order to be strung together as a necklace. There’s the Coldstream Stone from 9,000 years ago.

Coldstream Stone, ochre, stone (c. 7000 BC) © Iziko Museums of South Africa, Social History Collections, Cape Town

Coldstream Stone, ochre, stone (c. 7,000 BC) © Iziko Museums of South Africa, Social History Collections, Cape Town

And the beautiful Zaamenkomst Panel, cave paintings made between one and three thousand years ago.

Taken together, these wonderful objects give a powerful sense of South Africa as one of the origins not only of early humans but of the earliest art works.

Contemporary art

What’s a little confusing is that right from the start this very museum-y ancient history is mixed in with works by contemporary South African artists – a lot of works. It may be creative curating, but it means it’s quite a lot to take on board – the origins of our species, the ancient prehistory of the area, done rather quickly – while, at the same time, we’re trying to understand post-apartheid art which, by its nature, mixes African traditions with the confusing panoply of postmodern artistic techniques and assumptions.

Thus I can see that it’s clever to place Potent fields by Karel Nel (2002) next to the ancient cave paintings, since both use ochre as a colour and material. And the curators have put a tapestry, ‘The Creation of the Sun‘, made by artists at the Bethesda Art Centre, opposite the cave paintings to show the continuity of style and creativity from South Africa’s first peoples, the San|Bushmen and Khoekhoen, to their contemporary descendants. In these first rooms we also see:

Clever but… it demands quite a lot of the visitor to juggle all these different frames of reference.

Tone

Another slightly disorienting element is the rather patronising or simplistic tone of the commentary. Right at the start there’s a wall panel titled ‘Cradle of Humanity’, which points out that the prehistoric finds gathered here prove that humanity evolved in Africa and so that – contrary to Eurocentric narratives – we are all in a deep sense Africans. What puzzled me is that I’ve never thought otherwise, I’ve never read anywhere anywhere any alternative theory of human origins: all my adult life I’ve known that humans evolved from apelike ancestors in Africa, my children know that, everyone knows it. A quick search reveals that Darwin suggested it as long ago as 1871 in The Descent of Man. Who are they arguing with? If apartheid taught that humans evolved in some other place – like Holland – it would have been informative and funny to have read more about it.

Scattered throughout the exhibition are wall panels talking about the need to fight and counter apartheid ‘narratives’ about the ‘savagery’ of the blacks or their ‘lack of culture’ – all cast in the present tense, as if this is an ongoing struggle.

a) I was there in the 1980s when we all wore anti-apartheid badges, sang along to ‘Free Nelson Mandela‘ and ‘Biko‘, and boycotted South African products. I never met anybody who in any way defended apartheid. Looking around the visitors to the show, I don’t think there was much risk that any of them would defend ‘apartheid narratives’ about ‘savage’ blacks or the ‘lack of black culture’.
b) It was all such a long time ago. The apartheid regime collapsed in the early 1990s and free elections brought the ANC government to power in 1994, 22 years ago. Many of the wall panels give the impression the curators are still bravely fighting a battle which, in fact, ended a generation ago. My companion joked that maybe their next exhibition should be devoted to bringing down the Soviet Union.

Because of the interleaving of big and very varied works by contemporary artists I found the timeline of pre-colonial South African art a bit hard to follow. I got that the Bantu people spread across the region (which in fact I knew from Chris Stringer’s book The Origin of Our Species). There was a case of exquisite gold statuettes of African animals, including a golden rhino which, we were told, are from Mapungubwe, capital of the first kingdom in southern Africa (c. AD 1220–1290). Maybe I blinked and missed the follow-up information, but I would really have liked to learn much more about the rise of kingdoms and territories and language groups and cultures and traditions across this huge area.

Gold rhino from Mapungubwe, capital of the first kingdom in southern Africa (c. AD 1220–1290) Department of Arts © University of Pretoria

Gold rhino from Mapungubwe, capital of the first kingdom in southern Africa (c. AD 1220–1290) Department of Arts © University of Pretoria. The golden rhino is now the symbol of the Order of Mapungubwe, South Africa’s highest honour that was first presented in 2002 to Nelson Mandela.

Maybe the history just isn’t there, I mean the written history that would allow that kind of detailed narrative to be constructed. There were a few display cases showing weapons – a big shield made of hide alongside spears – and another one containing traditional carved wood figures, including a really beautiful ‘stylised wooden figure’, examples of traditional beadwork and some striking traditional dresses.

But I felt slightly afraid of liking anything because the wall labels made quite a point, repeatedly, of emphasising how the European colonists from the first Dutch arrivals in the 1650s through to the end of apartheid in the 1990s, had in a whole host of ways denied the validity of pre-colonial art and culture, denying in fact that the land was inhabited at all or, if conceding that it was, then only by ‘savages’ who didn’t plough or reap, by non-Christians who needed to be converted, by violent tribesmen who needed to be pacified.

And that one of the ways the European colonists/imperialists/racists limited and controlled the native people was by defining their art and traditions as ‘exotic’, pigeonholing them as ‘primitive’, demeaning and debasing their traditions and achievements. Thus told off, I felt a little scared about ‘liking’ any of the pre-colonial art in case I was displaying an ‘ethnocentric’ and patronising taste for ‘the exotic’.

Xhosa snuffbox in the shape of an ox, South Africa (Late 19th Century) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Xhosa snuffbox in the shape of an ox, South Africa (late 19th Century) © The Trustees of the British Museum

This unnerved me because some of my favourite objects in the whole British Museum are the wonderful bronzes of Benin, among the most complete and finished works of art I know of from anywhere – as well as the whole range of weird and wonderful and powerful fetishes, images and carvings in the Museum’s Africa galleries.

Contemporary art 2

Anyway, the main thing about this exhibition is that interwoven among the pre-colonial artefacts which you would normally associate with the British Museum, are the works of a large number of modern and contemporary South African artists, black and white, men and women. Hopefully we are freer to express an opinion about these without running the risk of being considered ethnocentric or Eurocentric.

Apparently, the Museum has been collecting contemporary South African art for some 20 years, since – in other words – the collapse of apartheid, the first free elections and the coming to power of Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress. This explains why so many contemporary artworks are threaded through the show right from the first room and why the later rooms are entirely full of what you’d call modern art.

Artists and works

  • The Watchers by Francki Burger (2014) a photo montage of the site of the Battle of Spion Kop in the Boer War.
  • Oxford Man by Owen Ndou
  • Pantomime Act and Trilogy by Johannes Phokela
  • The Battle of Rorke’s Drift by John Muafangejo
  • Butcher Boys by Jane Alexander (1986) not actually physically in the show, there is a vivid photo of it here.
  • It left him cold – the death of Steve Biko (1990) by Sam Nhlengethwa
  • The Black Photo Album/Look at Me by Santu Mofokeng, who has spent years researching and retouching hundreds of b&w photographs commissioned by urban black working and middle-class families in South Africa between 1890 and 1950.
  • Christ playing football by Jackson Hlungwani (1983)
  • Candice Breitz’s extended video ‘Extras’, filmed on the set of a popular black soap opera, in which all the actors play out straight soap opera scenes except with the artist herself, blonde Candice, placed in bizarre stationary positions around the set. I laughed out loud when I read that it explores ‘an absent presence or a present absence’ – it’s good to know that Artbollocks is a truly international language.

Willie Bester’s Transition (1994) commemorates seven children killed when security forces stormed a house supposedly occupied by terrorists. (See a video of the artist talking about it)

Transition (1994) by Willie Bester (born 1956). Private collection © the artist

Transition (1994) by Willie Bester (born 1956). Private collection © the artist

South African Timeline

It was difficult to grasp the ancientness of the earliest exhibits here, which wasn’t helped by their interspersion with bang up-to-date contemporary art. Apart from the gold animal statues from Mapungubwe (which I’d like to have learned more about), you got little sense of the region’s pre-colonial history. Many artefacts (carvings, weapons, figurines), yes; but a clear chronology with maps? Less so.

Purely from the point of view of being able to orient oneself in time and space, it was in many ways a relief to enter recorded, written history with the arrival of the Europeans and the (all-too-familiar) story of colonisation. The Portuguese made the first contacts in the 1490s, but it was the Dutch who built a settlement at Table Bay in the 1650s, as a stopover on the long sea voyages to their trading colonies in the East Indies. The British seized Cape Town from the Dutch during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815). It was this dual colonisation which explains why the country is English-speaking but with a large Dutch or Afrikaans minority, a minority the British went to war with twice, in the First Boer War (1880-81) and the more famous second Boer War (1899-1902).

It was informative to learn how in the 19th century the British Empire imported labour from elsewhere in Africa and Asians from Indonesia and India, to work in South Africa. The exhibition includes one of the distinctive pointed hats worn by Chinese immigrants, as well as a pair of sandals the most famous Indian immigrant – Mahatma Gandhi – made for the country’s leader, General Jan Smuts, while he was in prison in 1913. Gandhi was to formulate many of the ideas in racist South Africa which he then took back to India to use in his campaign for independence.

As a language student I learned:

  • That ‘Hottentot’ was a Dutch nonsense word meaning ‘one who stutters’, insultingly applied to the native blacks because of the use of click sounds in the San language. Hence it is a derogatory word which is not now used.
  • That ‘Kaffir’, another derogatory term for blacks widely used in colonial times, derives from the Arabic for ‘unbeliever’.
  • That ‘Boer’ derives from the Dutch word for ‘farmer’.

What I’ve never really understood and didn’t get any enlightenment about here, is the period between the First World War – when South Africa sent troops to fight alongside the British – and the end of the Second World War, when the foundations were laid by Nationalist governments for the system which would become apartheid. There were several rooms about the evils of apartheid and one about the end of apartheid, but I was left as ignorant as before about the origins of apartheid – about the economic, social and cultural forces which led to its creation, with the main milestones clearly marked out and explained.

Modern South Africa

The room full of images of the horror, violence and oppression of 1960s and 70s and 80s apartheid, with records of the Sharpeville Massacre (1960), the murder of Steve Biko (1977), a display case full of ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ badges and so on, felt very familiar to me from my school days in the 1970s and student days in the 1980s, when we all protested against apartheid, signed petitions, boycotted South African goods and so on.

As I viewed photos and artworks depicting the humiliations, poverty, incredibly long hours forced to work in menial jobs and the debasement and restrictions imposed on blacks by the apartheid state, I wondered whether the exhibition was going to dwell on the exploitation, the anger and the resistance of people during that era, and move on to cover the 25 years since Nelson Mandela was released, when things have got a lot less black and white.

For according to the newspapers, TV, documentaries and films which I consume, since liberation South Africa has developed into one of the most crime-ridden societies in the world, with just over 50 murders a day, and so many rapes that it has been called ‘the rape capital of the world, with one in four men admitting to having raped someone’.

At the same time South Africa is thought to have more people with HIV/AIDS than any other country in the world – 5.7 million, 12% of the population of 48 million. There was a small display case showing some dollies made in a traditional style which were a response to the AIDS epidemic by an artistic collective – but nothing about the era of ‘denialism’ under Thabo Mbeki (president from 1999 to 2008), who refused to accept the link between HIV and AIDS, and whose ban on antiretroviral drugs in public hospitals is estimated to be responsible for the premature deaths of between 330,000 and 365,000 people.

BMW Art Car 12 (1991( by Esther Mahlangu (b. 1935) © Esther Mahlangu. Photo © BMW Group Archives

BMW Art Car 12 (1991) by Esther Mahlangu (b. 1935) © Esther Mahlangu. Photo © BMW Group Archives

Contemporary South Africa today faces immense social, political, economic and medical challenges.

In the videos supporting the exhibition, the Museum curators make the point that this is quite a ‘political’ exhibition. That would have been the case if this was 1986 and voices could be found – in Mrs Thatcher’s Conservative Party, say, or the CIA – which defended the South African apartheid regime as a vital bulwark against Soviet-backed communism – but that was an era ago and it feels like they are fighting yesterday’s war.

Throughout the exhibition the curators criticise the Eurocentrism and racism of the colonists and the Imperialists and the founders of apartheid, who denied or denigrated black cultural achievements – as if this was still a battle being fought now; as if apartheid is still a flourishing regime which urgently needs challenging; as if unregenerate imperialist views about pre-colonial South African history are still widely held by lots of people.

In the exhibition, gold treasures of Mapungubwe will be displayed alongside a modern artwork by Penny Siopis and a sculpture by Owen Ndou that encourage the viewer to challenge the historic assumptions of the colonial and apartheid eras. (Press release)

Really? Does anyone even know what ‘the historic assumptions of the colonial and apartheid eras’ are, that are being challenged? In this respect it feels incredibly old-fashioned: the Us-versus-Them mindset made me nostalgic for my student days when international politics were so much clearer cut.

Meanwhile, back in 2017, the modern ‘struggle’ in South Africa is to formulate economic and social policies which will boost the economy and try to spread wealth and well-being out to the great bulk of the (black) population who have never seen the benefits of the end of apartheid and who are still mired in poverty and illness. A much harder ‘struggle’ because it is no longer so easy to identify the goodies and the baddies and, in fact, there may be no easy solutions.

Credit

Hats off to Betsy and Jack Ryan who sponsored the exhibition and to IAG Cargo who transported many of these objects from museums and galleries across South Africa. It’s a brilliant opportunity to see all kinds of works from South Africa, from the rarest prehistoric artefacts to bang up-to-date contemporary art. Maybe it’s my fault if I found so many complex histories and paradigms difficult to process in one visit.


The trailer

Museums and galleries are producing more and more videos to explain their exhibitions. The British Museum has set up a channel containing eight videos about this show.

I strongly recommend watching the videos before going to see the exhibition, as they explain the rationale for the layout, and prepare you for the emphasis on modern artworks, ahead of your arrival.

Related links

Reviews

Reviews of other British Museum shows

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