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The pasts and presence of art in South Africa: Technologies, ontologies and agents

Edited by Chris Wingfield, John Giblin & Rachel King

In 2015, #RhodesMustFall generated the largest student protests in South Africa since the end of apartheid, subsequently inspiring protests and acts of decolonial iconoclasm across the globe. The performances that emerged in, through and around #RhodesMustFall make it clear how analytically fruitful Alfred Gell’s notion that art is ‘a system of social action, intended to change the world rather than encode symbolic propositions about it’ can be, even when attempting to account for South Africa’s very recent history.

What light can this approach shed on the region’s far longer history of artistic practices? Can we use any resulting insights to explore art’s role in the very long history of human life in the land now called South Africa? Can we find a common way of talking about ‘art’ that makes sense across South Africa’s long span of human history, whether considering engraved ochre, painted rock shelters or contemporary performance art?

This collection of essays has its origins in a conference with the same title, arranged to mark the opening of the British Museum’s major temporary exhibition South Africa: the art of a nation in October 2016. The volume represents an important step in developing a framework for engaging with South Africa’s artistic traditions that begins to transcend nineteenth-century frameworks associated with colonial power.

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