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Three Phases in the Unique Development of South African Art

Because of South Africa’s colonial past, South African artists have had an avalanche of influences from which to draw inspiration. And yet, the work produced in the country can roughly fit into three general categories: art of peace, art of war, as well as the art of cultural and social enlightenment.

Art of Peace

Three Phases in the Unique Development of South African Art | San People Cave Paintings and Rock Art

From the time of inter-tribal disputes to South Africa’s colonial occupation and the resultant apartheid, it’s difficult to pinpoint a period of prolonged “peace.” However, some of the art that emerged early on in its history may fit within this parameter.

The art of the San, who are also known as the Bushmen and are thought to be the oldest inhabitants of South Africa, was created as far back as 20,000 years ago. The migratory hunter-gatherers tended to live in caves; therefore, much of their work consisted of paintings and rock art that often depicted their daily lives, religious rituals, as well as who and what the San came into contact with, like other people, animals, and traditions.

Found all over southern Africa, few examples are more beautiful than the art in the Ukhahlamba Drakensberg Park. “The rock art of the Maloti-Drakensberg Park is the largest and most concentrated group of rock paintings in Africa south of the Sahara and is outstanding both in quality and diversity of subject.”

Art of War

War seems to have been a consistent part of South Africa’s history. However, for the sake of this article, we are going to focus on colonial slavery, which primarily lasted between 1653 and 1856 - as many as 71,000 slaves where brought to Cape Town during this time.

Three Phases in the Unique Development of South African Art | "Jan van Riebeeck arrives in Table Bay in April 1652" by Charles Davidson Bell (1813 - 1882)

Jan van Riebeeck (1619 - 1677), who founded the first colony at Cape Town in 1652, was an official of the Dutch East India Company. Soon after his arrival, he realized that in order to supply the passing ships with fresh food and water, which was his mission, he needed additional labor. “The local population, consisting of various Khoisan tribes, was not interested in working for the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and Van Riebeeck was not allowed to force them to do so… In 1654 he received permission to import slaves.” Most of these arrived from India, Indonesia, Mozambique and Madagascar, as there was an agreement not to trade slaves from the West Coast.

The now famous Iziko Slave Lodge was completed in 1679. “It is estimated that between 7000 and 9000 slaves lived in the Slave Lodge over a period of 132 years. It was the largest slaveholding at the Cape throughout the slave period.” David Prior, a Cape Town photographer, took black-and-white photos of the descendants of these slaves, paying homage to the men, women, and children whose memories are kept alive. Prior’s work captures how this egregious practice added to the complex cultural mix of South Africa.

Art of Cultural and Social Enlightenment

Three Phases in the Unique Development of South African Art | Flag of South Africa

Enlightenment came to the fore in the early 1990s. There are many examples of boundary-pushing artwork, but the message coming from the female African art community is notable. Black women in South Africa are traditionally a part of society that suffers from extreme discrimination. Thus, to see a strong emergence of feminist art in South Africa is refreshing. One notable artist is Billie Zangewa who has a strong focus on how women use their bodies to negotiate ideals of beauty in South African cities.

She now celebrates the idea that a woman has a distinct right to view herself as beautiful in her own eyes, instead of looking for affirmation from men. She recreates this theme in several different depictions of the female form in silk tapestries. Her “Rebirth of a Black Venus” (2010) shows a black woman rising naked, but wrapped in a ribbon from the city skyline. The way this image captures how woman are “rising” in urban culture appropriately hooks into third wave feminist movements and depicts the evolving roles of women in modern society.


From ancient rock art to contemporary feminist art, South African artists have much to add to the global art collective, as well as celebrate ideas from numerous voices from this culturally complex land.

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