THE ART of a nation
At the recent opening of SA: The Art of the Nation at the British Museum, Njabulo S Ndebele talked about how his sense of being a South African was accentuated in a special way
I, as do many South Africans, often wonder if the idea of being a nation measures up to the reality of actually being one. I remember how, soon after we adopted our four language national anthem, we began to sing it with hesitation and a large measure of embarrassment, particularly when it came to having to sing in languages we either didn’t know or didn’t like. Now, 22 years later, when we sing the anthem, our lips have been trained not to betray us as we look around discretely, making sure that anyone watching as we take on each language will see confident lips shaping our song. A seemingly small sign of togetherness is nevertheless an emotional building block I have come to appreciate.
At the South Africa: The Art of the Nation exhibition, I have been able to glean a more profound aspect of this togetherness. The exhibition has made me experience the real possibility of South Africa experiencing nationhood from a perspective that may not be easily accessible to most South Africans. This perspective promises a sense of nationhood that can profoundly take South Africans beyond the nightmare of racism that has been a dominant feature of South African history, particularly in the past 150 years or so. Hopefully, as with the national anthem, we will achieve a more grounded sense of identity as we increasingly share a broader perspective of it.
Few things other than the passage of time can offer a salutary perspective to our understanding of the present against its precedent history. Equally so is the ability to look for and appreciate detail that offers an immediate sense of not only how history came to be, but also how detail constitutes the present continuously. The detail of history is in what people actually do. Most remarkable about this exhibition is how the perspective of history and the emerging present come together in most illuminating ways.
To begin with, to be in the presence of an object made by people and said to be about 3 million years old, is to begin in earnest the journey of perspective. I am of course referring to the Makapansgat Pebble of Many Faces. This small object is the bearer of a message of profound significance. It tells us that people in my part of the world – presumably from whom I and South Africans present at the exhibition may be descendent – have been creating culture and art for at least 3 million years.
In the course of doing so, they have created various kinds of social formations that have come and gone, leaving behind evidence of their efforts, examples of which have been carefully and lovingly profiled in this exhibition. I have in mind the Kathu Pan hand axe, the San rock paintings, the Lydenburg Heads and the Mapungubwe gold sculptures displayed here against a fascinating river of time.
The long perspective of time and the detail of artefacts come together to underscore an important historic reality that underscores a critical message of selfhood and identity. They tell us that the vast majority of South Africa’s people, otherwise known as “black”, have been the human norm in this part of the world for millions of years. Through that river of time, their contacts with other peoples in the world who have come from the Arab Middle East, India, China and Europe are revealingly on display at this exhibition.
But it is the contact with Europeans that has left deep scars on the selfhood and identity of inhabitants who have lived in South Africa for millenniums. At first intermittent through early sea voyages of discovery. Then aggressively in the 19th century through wars of conquest, land dispossessions, dismemberment of the social order of conquered peoples and their reduction to being human tools of labour. Relationships with Europe continued to evolve until April 27 1994, when the spell of the nightmare of European racism was at least formally broken.
But as we know, the lingering effects of an intensive 150 years or so of often horrendous oppression of Africans by Europeans are far from residual. They retain a resilient presence that requires the greatest wisdom and resourcefulness to overcome.
It is also during that very moment of European colonial incursion and settlement that the exhibition accentuates another drama of South African history: human movement. We learn that the Makapansgat Pebble of Many Faces was found at a place of some distance from where it was in all likelihood made. This tells us that human movements across the southern African subcontinent have had a long history. When European colonisation of that part of Africa began to consolidate, it found a subcontinent still reeling from the expansions and displacements of the Zulu empire that had been spreading across the subcontinent. Any movements of people fleeing in domino effect northwards were reversed somewhat significantly by the sudden and massive demand for mining and industrial labour in the south. The resulting human movements were so massive that this period can be considered profoundly formative of human configurations that characterise South Africa today.
People from as far north as modern-day Zambia and Malawi, as well as Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland, Namibia and Mozambique – and across the entire landscape of South Africa itself – gravitated towards Johannesburg, Kimberley and other emerging industrial cities of the country. In the process they became new people who shared languages, intermarried and experienced increasingly blurred cultural boundaries. The establishment of the African National Congress in 1912 gave that coming together a cohesive political orientation that was to last for close to a century.
Through the dominance of their political, economic and institutional infrastructure, South Africa’s white people remained firmly in charge of a human evolution towards which they chose to be attitudinally aloof. Therefore, when they came to lose power in 1994, they were significantly ignorant of the human world they had suppressed and oppressed. In the singing of the national anthem they have had, in part, to confront the imperative of having to shed that ignorance. Indeed, driven underground, the black presence of millions of years may have been suppressed by their white coinhabitants in a comparatively short span of history, but it was never eliminated. Thus, what the exhibition also displays quietly, yet profoundly, is the irreversible resurgence of a human presence that has always been there, but now faces the challenge to rediscover and understand itself far more purposefully and more urgently than ever before as they begin another journey in their millenniums of presence.
Conquests always involve the submergence of the personhood and identity of the conquered. The conquered are then made to become what the conqueror wishes them to be. Then they live the life of seeming to be what they are not. They have a representative in this exhibition. He is Amos Ntuli, who led a life of seeming to be a night watchman. Yet, in his real life, he was an artist who, according to the exhibition catalogue, made baskets out of “coloured wire used in telephone junction boxes”. You may easily miss him if you don’t look out for him.
I have known of others like him who, as religious leaders, some even bishops, commanded huge authority over hundreds of their followers. During the day, they were anonymous cleaners, called “tea boys” in white people’s shops or “garden boys” in white people’s homes. April 27 1994 affirmed them all. Many have emerged to have their works displayed in this exhibition. Yet, they were always there, waiting for a time they would re-emerge into who they really were and had always been in the shadows they were forced to live in. Now they are in the open.
Now they have names: Esther Mahlangu, Johannes Phokela, Jackson Hlungwane, Santu Mofokeng, Owen and Goldwin Ndou, Helen Mmakgabo Sebidi, John Muafangejo, Sam Nhlangethwa, Willie Bester, Lionel Davis, Noxolo Dyobiso and Marry Sibande. They are accompanied by those also forced to belong to the dominant white population, but who never accepted the artificial boundaries of racism, and have always felt and responded to the human essence in the oppressed other, an essence they felt had powerful implications for their own humanity: Penny Siopis, Anton Momberg, William Kendridge, Helena Hugo, Jonathan Shapiro, Jane Alexander, David Goldblatt, Willem Boshoff, and Candice Breitz. Together in this exhibition, all these artists make a profound human statement: the aspiration to be human is irrepressible.
In a huge leap of the imagination they return us through this exhibition to the human base that would never be extinguished by 150 years of intensive racial oppression. Suddenly that period looks like a drop in the ocean of time. Suddenly, a greater significance of being in the world re-emerges as far more formative of human character than the 150 years or so of driven human pain.
This month’s cover story of National Geographic carries the title: The New Europeans: How Waves of Immigrants are Reshaping a Continent. Well, Africa and other so-called “Third World” countries, which constitute some two-thirds of the world’s population, were significantly reshaped by Europe. But such reshaping in some parts of the world could never be perfect. It is such imperfections that rear their heads to haunt Europe today. Moving in waves, they are “here” in Europe because Europeans were “over there” where the immigrants come from. But as we have learnt in South Africa, there is no longer any room in the world for “them over there” and “us over here”.
The exhibition concentrates the mind and challenges the imagination. Where are the avenues of global awareness and coherence that celebrate the resilience of timeless world civilisations and the extraordinary inventiveness of modern ones?
The implications of such seismic population shifts in world history will be faced, discussed and negotiated for a long period of time. Hopefully, they will yield accommodations what will enable modern humanity to agree on and work towards a more inclusive and cohesive global order of ethics and morality that build on the gift of the legacy of human rights now firmly at the heart of our global order since the end of World War 2.
And so, we end with South Africa. I have come all the way to be reminded of these understandings and be confronted by them by the power of an exhibition that tells a story of South Africa that I believe still carries deep meanings for world history at this time. Against the history of time, we are confronted in South African right now by the activism of the moment. The young people of South Africa desperately want to enhance their chances in the world, as they should. They are calling on the constitutional order that was agreed to after 1994 to be enacted by a democracy that proclaimed its commitments. But 22 years after 1994, the demands on the state have become far too many and complex. This situation carries important learnings for young people on how best to proceed.
The desire for total victory in any major disagreement or conflict is an impossible one to meet. Against the river of time, victories of principle always come before their practical effects. Otherwise, as we could see leading to South Africa’s negotiated settlement, everyone stands to lose. It is this realisation that got Nelson Mandela to observe that once you have reached the summit of a mountain, you see other summits over there in the distant vista that call on you to climb up to them.
This is an edited version of Ndebele’s speech at the exhibition
POWERFUL A sculptural installation by Mary Sibande at SA: The Art of a Nation
HISTORIC The famous golden rhino of Mapungubwe