This past Saturday a friend and I found ourselves at The British Museum; two black kids queuing up in a line full of middle aged white people for an exhibition on South African art. Strange right? As we walked into the exhibition, there were times where we almost felt out of place floating alongside the wave of people who were entering also. We often walked past the odd white women talking about her recent trip to “Kenya” or “the Congo” to our annoyance, but that’s a conversation for another day.
Contrary to our initial predictions, the exhibition wasn’t that large, well it didn’t appear that way. There were probably around 20/25 pieces of artwork on show but because they were packed so close together and the large number of people in attendance, the exhibition seemed quite cramped. The art on show, as expected was amazing, ranging from things like tribal cave paintings perfectly capturing a hunt; Zulu art, jewellery and weapons; and then also the art created by activists in the 20th century. What I personally found the most interesting was how large art played into literally everything in the Zulu culture, especially the weaponry. Nearly everything had some sort of ceremonial connection. At a time before things like guns were introduced into warfare, fighting was predominantly made up of a bloody melee of skirmishes and the weapons were usually created to reflect that or so one would think. The weapons on show at the exhibition, however, were beautiful, full of intricate details and all came with some sort of story. Two axes named the ‘mbada’, or the ‘tshirovha’ after being turned into sacred charms, were what stood out to me the most for some reason. Their base shape and design were pretty simple if you think about it, but the smooth black colour of the weapon and the little details etched into their handles echoed their importance and also their power. Not only were they weapons of murder, they were tools of protection and tools of good fortune in battle for you and your fellow soldiers.
When I look back on the exhibit as a whole, I think the idea or concept that shines most predominantly is the idea of art being in anything and everything; It having a place at the very core of the nation. As centuries pass, as the hands in power change, as the world becomes modernised, art is still at the centre of it all. Whether it be in the common objects used in a Zulu society, like pots or jewellery, or as political weapons to overthrow a nation governed by hate in a new modern era. The art of South Africa runs deep in the nation’s past, present and future.
Words by Michael Ukaegbu.