Art is the expression of the unspeakable or inexplicable. It allows greater freedom of speech as many of the arguments raised or points made are done through interpretation, rather than straightforward statements. This was an especially vital means of expression for a politically volatile area like South Africa.
Earliest art in this country was, like many other regions, defined by the rock art that existed in South Africa, at least 1,500 years ago mountain ranges like the Drakensberg, Cederberg and Magaliesberg. These pieces revealed much about the lives and customs of the local tribes. They also advanced over time, becoming more complex, using colours (from plants and other rocks) and etchings to create a more visually appealing experience. At this time, art was not only for aesthetic purposes, but also for religious worship and healing rituals. Naturally occurring clay was used to sculpt 3-dimensional figures. Remnants of such ceramic art have been dated back to about the 6th century of our Common Era (CE).
During the 17th to 19th centuries, South Africa was being colonised by the Dutch, French and English, These ones were going through their own art movements, not least of all the French Renaissance. As they settled and interacted with the native South Africans, they introduced these ones to a more classic style of realism, as opposed to their cultural, often abstract, approach to art. However, while the colonialists tried to anglicise the Africans, they themselves were being influenced by the local tribes. Gradually, even the European art began to explore the African approach of using clays and rock, wood and beads, depicting human and animal forms out of proportion, and including a somewhat spiritual element to art pieces (e.g. wooden African masks, etc…).
During the 1900’s, the Apartheid regime came into power. This was an oppressive form of rulership, denying non-white South Africans many of the basic rights that human beings enjoy today. This was executed in a ruthless and often violent way. Such oppression evoked an anger and sadness in many of the local artists. But, it also forced them to examine what made a human being just that, what dynamics existed between races and languages, and why certain societies were able to gain dominance over others, however unjustly. The art of this era either began to be used to make strong political statements, or to distract its viewers from the turmoil surrounding them. By transporting art enthusiasts to another world, a surreal or fantasy one, artists attempted to change their perspective, if just for a while, and remind them of the natural and physical beauty of this world.
South African art remains as diverse, complicated and exquisite as the nation it represents.