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The Evolution of Indigenous Art


lkharalkhara sigu !hûnuma khoen kuris !an

Die Evolusie van Inheemse Kuns

Indaleko yoBugcisa beMveli

by Annelize Kotze, Curator: Social History, Iziko Museums of South Africa.

On 28 February 2023, the exhibition, The Evolution of Indigenous Art, launched at the Iziko South African Museum. The exhibition was done in collaboration with Lukretia Booysen, CEO of the Koena Art Institute which focuses on the interpretation of indigeneity, spirituality and identity of indigenous people by indigenous artists. The purpose of the exhibition, as explained by curators Annelize Kotze and Lukretia Booysen, is to explore art by contemporary indigenous descendants to show how their ancient practices have continued through time, showcasing how they are using their skills, indigenous knowledge systems and spirituality to inform and engage contemporary society.

Visitors interact with The Evolution of Indigenous Art exhibit

The most important purpose of this exhibition was to allow indigenous peoples to have their voices heard in the space, to have the expressions of self seen in the space and to have engagement with difficult histories and narratives of indigenous peoples in museums, but especially the Iziko South African Museum (ISAM).

ISAM will celebrate its 200th year of existence in 2025. During this time, the museum has seen many visitors and many exhibitions, representing indigenous peoples of South Africa, their culture and their rock art in different formats. The earliest acquisition of rock art was noted as coming to the museum in 1888. One of the most well-known exhibits of the Iziko South African Museum was the Bushmen Diorama which opened to the public in 1960. The first step to taking down the diorama was due to objections from indigenous communities who argued that the display represented a time where their people were seen as nothing more than artefacts and specimens for scientific research, displayed in the same space as plants, insects and animals. “In 1975, Kenneth Hudson (1975:157) suggested that there was no essential difference between the presentation of butterflies and Bushmen at the SAM – both, he asserted, ‘are the white man’s specimens, symbols of his power and freedom to collect what he pleases’. (Davison,  2004). People wanted to see the other and were fascinated by it and by them.

This voyeuristic phenomenon of seeing the Khoe as other, was made (in)famous in the painful story of Sarah Baartman, a woman of Khoe decent who was taken to Europe to be displayed, mocked and othered due to her ‘different’ appearance. Baartman died in France in 1815, poor and far from her people. As part of righting the wrongs of the past, Iziko Museums was instrumental in the campaign to bring her remains back to South Africa in 2002.

The diorama was taken down in 2001 after 42 years on display. However, until today, visitors still come to the museum specifically to see this exhibit. When explained why it was taken down, they still maintain that the museum should have kept the display because, as one visitor pointed out, “Where am I going to see a Bushman now?”

Taking down of the Bushmen diorama was done as a result of not only complaints received from the indigenous communities, but also through lengthy and thorough community consultation processes to ensure that the wishes of these communities were treated with the dignity and respect they were not afforded in the past. The exhibition IQe:The Power of Rock Art, currently on display in the space, opened in 2003 by the then CEO, Professor Henry (Jattie) Bredenkamp. This exhibition was an opportunity for the museum to give respect to this artform and its creators. Respect which was denied to them for years. Subsequent to this, the entire ethnographic gallery was also deinstalled and cleansed at the request of communities who felt it important that, in an era where we are decolonising our spaces, a new representative space should be created.

In this exhibition, visitors can experience the previous exhibition, juxtaposed with the current ‘evolutionary’ pieces. Paintings, engravings ,sculptures and objects relating to the artworks are on display for all to interact with.

Also in the gallery is the rock art display which is referred to as the Linton Panel. This rock art piece is from the farm Linton in the Eastern Cape and arrived at the museum in August 1918. Interestingly enough, and what not many visitors know, is that the figure from the coat of arms was taken from the Linton Panel. The inclusion of this ancient art form in such an important emblem of our country, shows how this ancient artform, and its artists, are being acknowledged and represented.

Iziko is cognisant of the impact colonialism had, and continues to have, on indigenous communities. As society changes, the museum, as a reflection of society, also has to change. For Iziko Museums, this is reflective in its change in displays, management, policies and programs.

Museums have the important task of shaping perceptions and ways of seeing the world around them. We would encourage visitors to experience, engage with and contemplate the exhibition, The Evolution of Indigenous Art.

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