Speech by Minister Nathi Mthethwa at the British Museum, London, United Kingdom.

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26 Oct 2016

Let me begin by commending the British Museum for taking on what must have a been a challenging task, with much thought, deliberation and careful consideration.

An exhibition of this extensive nature that sweeps through 100, 000 years of art and takes on these huge epochs of time can only begin with a vision and a dream. It is the dream of many people - not unlike the dream of the Mantis in South African folklore.

The Xam people tell the story that the Mantis, a powerful figure in this folklore, a legend in his own right, once had a dream. It was a beautiful dream. Every night the Mantis had the same dream. But in the morning the dream was gone. And all he wanted was for the dream to come true. Day after day he waited. But nothing happened. He decided to embark upon a different strategy. He went around asking everyone he met to dream the same dream that he dreamt.

That night everyone went to sleep and dreamt the same dream. The next morning, much to everyone’s surprise, the dream had come true. This brings us to the realisation that a dream cannot be dreamt by one person alone, but a dream must be dreamt by all people.

In some ways this is also the story of the Southern African people, an ancient people, far older than any other on the earth.

San cosmology suggests that this cultural system was one of embracing the sky and the underworld, the camp and hunting grounds. All connected to the central thrust and power of water. The rock paintings in caves and shelters across Southern Africa demonstrate the intricate worldviews of South Africa’s earliest people.

This is only one example of the multi-faceted and nuanced narratives of a country and continent whose human activity has spanned many millennia. Historians assert that South African clans and kinship groups were in the final throes of nation-building as the region became ravaged by colonial plunder and advancement, and the entrenchment of colonialism, segregation and apartheid.

The South African story is a story where victory only emerged where people worked together as a movement to overthrow their oppressors and to declare the triumph of freedom and democracy over servitude.

The difficulties of telling this expansive story should be acknowledged as it starts with archaeological records, prehistory, precolonial and colonial periods, as well as covering the art of the country in transition, the advent of democracy up until the present.

Clearly African art captures a sense of people, space and time, long before recorded history.

The shell beads fashioned for a necklace that have been recovered in the Blombos cave in the furthest reach of the southern peninsula of South Africa dating back to 75 000 years ago is one such example.

Highlights of the exhibition must include the golden artefacts from Mapungubwe, a kingdom that flourished 800 years ago, and the much revered Golden Rhino in particular that takes pride of place in South African history and culture.

Museums as curators of the memory of society.  

The exhibition demonstrates that art has the ability to transport us to a different time and place and that museums are truly curators of the memory and consciousness of society. It allows us to gain historical perspective and understanding and appreciate different periods in history and their impact and significance in our world.

Artists create a visual record and interpretation of life experiences - commemorating the memorable and asserting freedom through challenging social injustices, such as slavery and abuse.

Art acts within the context of its own time, yet can transcend the parameters of the present by seeking deeper truths and being forward-looking.

Museums are also a significant factor in attracting visitors to an area and can therefore be instrumental in boosting local economies.

Kevin Spacey, in a recent speech at the Old Vic, makes the profound point that: “We can do better by recognising how much our cultural life contributes to the health of communities across our nation and, indeed, around the world. Those who enjoy culture should be more aware of the financial contribution arts institutions make to their communities.”

He continues to say that,

“Relationships between business and the arts offer a real chance to achieve financial success – not only for each other, but also to generate income for the hotels, restaurants and countless other businesses that populate the neighbourhoods where cultural centres operate. I for one do not want to see another regeneration plan that does not have arts and culture at the heart of its offer. Without it, we are not building rounded communities, but ignoring the fabric and soul of society.”

Closer to our home, our beloved Madiba, speaking of the importance of the arts in general and language in particular, said that:

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

I believe that this exhibition will go a long way in showing how art can bring people closer and make of us one world.

Programme director, let us use the power we have at our disposal to extend the South African dream of equality, non-racialism and non-sexism, to make the world a better place for humanity, a place where future generations will not know what war is, a place where poverty will only exist as part of historical records that indicate a passing phase in human history.

It is within our power, let us put a shoulder to the wheel.

The dream of the Mantis is also our dream.

It is a dream that must have inspired the sponsors of this exhibition, Betsy and Jack Ryan, whom we thank profusely, as well as the Director, Hartwig Fischer, and curators of this museum, the artists, the logistics teams and representatives of museums and agencies in South Africa.

You have all worked together meticulously for making this dream exhibition of “South Africa: the art of a nation” come true!

I thank you.