Art of South Africa is a term used to denote creative output by human beings from South Africa.
The oldest art objects in the world were discovered in a South African cave. Dating from 75,000 years ago, these small drilled snail shells could have no other function than to have been strung on a string as a necklace. South Africa was one of the cradles of the human species. One of the defining characteristics of our species is the making of art (from Latin 'ars' meaning worked or formed from basic material). The scattered tribes of Khoisan/San/ Bushman peoples moving into South Africa from around 10000 BCE had their own fluent art styles seen today in a multitude of cave paintings. They were superseded by Bantu/Nguni peoples with their own vocabularies of art forms. Leap ahead to the present era, when traditional tribal forms of art were scattered and re-melded by the divisive policies of apartheid. New forms of art evolved in the mines and townships: a dynamic art using everything from plastic strips to bicycle spokes. Add to this the Dutch-influenced folk art of the hardy Afrikaner Trek Boers and the urban white artists earnestly following changing European traditions from the 1850s onwards, and you have an eclectic mix which continues to evolve today.
The figures are dynamic and elongate, and the colors (derived probably from earthern and plant pigments and possibly also from insects) combine ochreous red, white, grey, black, and many warm tones ranging from red through to primary yellow. Common subjects include hunting, often depicting with great accuracy large animals which no longer inhabit the same region in the modern era, as well as: warfare among humans, dancing, domestic scenes, multiple images of various animals, including giraffes, antelope of many kinds, and snakes. The last of these works are poignant in their representation of larger, darker people and even of white hunters on horseback, both of whom would supplant the 'Bushman' peoples. Many of the 'dancing' figures are decorated with unusual patterns and may be wearing masks and other festive clothing. Other paintings, depicting patterned quadrilaterals and other symbols, are obscure in their meaning, and may be non-representational. Similar symbols are seen in shamanistic art worldwide. This art form is distributed from Angola in the west to Mozambique and Kenya, throughout Zimbabwe and South Africa and throughout Botswana wherever cave conditions have favored preservation from the elements.
South Africa has a multiplicity of races and cultures. In addition, the recent political history has been divisive of societies across the sub-continent. It is inevitable that this socio-political maelstrom has produced a disparate variety of artforms. Very broadly speaking the art of South Africa can be seen, in terms of rough division into categories, as falling into a two by two matrix: traditional or modern, 'black' or 'other.'
African traditional tribal art typically has a range of recognisable forms within which the artisans work and which allows recognition of their tribal origin. A few examples include: the wall decorations of the northern Ndebele of South Africa (though some would argue these to be modern), the beaded aprons worn by Zulu and Xhosa girls (and other tribes) before marriage, the patterns on the Dhlo-dhlo headband, Sotho blanket designs and various other fairly rigid genres showing typical tribal influences.
On the other hand, the apartheid policies of the 20th century forced mass dislocation of peoples into rural 'bantustans' and urban areas or 'townships'. The mining culture in particular produced characteristic decorated travel trunks, decorated transistor radios, blankets with urban motifs, and the like. Art of this era represents a 'modern' black art form less easily recognized as belonging to a particular tribe. Carvings and paintings also recorded various urban difficulties, lifestyles and objects: queues, busing, drunkenness, urban poverty, vehicles, the 'dompas,' police activity, etc.
'Other' art in South Africa, both modern and traditional, has been essentially by white artists, though the Indian and the 'Cape Malay' or 'Coloured' traditions have certain recognizable clothing and musical art forms. Again, as with black art, the white art has tended to fall into: art based on traditional European/'white tribal' forms, that is, two-dimensional oil painting in the European realist mold (usually urban artists) and the folk art or rural art of the Boers, and secondly: modern art, (1910 onwards) which itself can be divided into two groupings: 'apolitical,' usually realist or influenced by European and American Modern movements; and distinctly local 'political' art produced through the apartheid years.
This 'political' art of the apartheid era often originated in the universities and large cities and was often ephemeral in the sense of being graffiti, protest cartoons or similar works published in university publications. These were often banned, and anyway not intended for deliberate preservation. Many white artists also exhibited works critical of the white apartheid regime. Several exhibitions were closed by government order for their political or 'obscene' content, or items within the exhibitions were ordered to be removed from display.