Whatever we aim to do at the British Museum something else seems to catch our attention. This doesn’t detract from the plan but rather enhances it.
We had decided to begin with ‘Sunken Cities’, the exhibition of materials retrieved from the sea bed in what had been the city of Thonis-Heracleion, having both Egyptian and Greek names. It sank into the Mediterranean more than 2000 years ago after the land beneath its buildings became unstable. Thanks to underwater archaeology an amazing microcosm of Ptolemaic life has now been reclaimed.
On our way there, however, our attention was caught by a display of work done by children on the theme of a journey by Osiris which, as it happened, was central to a late part of the exhibition. Moreover, as ‘Sunken Cities’ could not be photographed, it must serve as illustration for much that we did see. There were ships, models of houses, shrines and temples just as in the exhibition. The children had done really well.
Some of the sculptures in the exhibition were among the finest I have ever seen. A third century BC statue of Arsinoe rivals the head of Nefertiti in Berlin for beauty. Not only the front of the figure, draped in folds that come as close as stone can to silk, but also the rear view that in some respects is more alluring, demand close attention. To have been a diver finding it, as one of the several accompanying film sequences shows, must have been astounding. At almost the opposite extreme is a statue of Tawaret, 300-400 years older, with the all the features of a hippopotamus but human arms and standing upright.
As well as the monumental figures – and two are huge – there are shrines no larger than a refrigerator and smaller objects down to personal jewellery and cult items. The exhibits were being given careful scrutiny by all visitors, which made for slow but rewarding progress. As culmination there was the amazing discovery of a ritual boat of Osiris with all the cult objects and figures that had been sailed along the Nile to the god’s temple as the river floods receded leaving the fertile mud covering fields. With previous displays of the Osiris myth including recovery of his scattered body parts by Isis and the birth of Horus to avenge him, this was a fitting conclusion to a fine exhibition.
A necessary coffee followed before South Africa: Art of a Nation which, again, could not be photographed. Exhibition posters and a BMW stunningly decorated in South African mural art are the best that can be offered.
The exhibition begins with wonderful ancient rock art and artefacts then progresses through the early European arrivals, contrasting their view with Africans’ visions of themselves. This reaches its extreme with the firstly romantic portraits by British artists then patronising and denigrating attitudes leading to apartheid. Twentieth century aspects make clear the British introduction of concentration camps, the cruelty of how the land was divided between British and Boer interests leaving the Africans with unsustaining scraps before the ultimate Bantustans.
As might be expected, the art of protest looms large in the era before the end of apartheid, with a chilling painting of the dead Steve Biko taking attention prior to the ‘Mandela for President’ poster. An outstandingly positive image is ‘A Reversed Retrogress’ by Mary Sibende, which shows two sculptural figures, one dressed in the servant girl role of Sibande’s mother and grandmother and the other a positive but challenging woman in dramatic purple. More ambivalent is ‘Reclamation’ by Lionel Davis, a screen print illustrating his feelings during house arrest. As South Africa struggles with its legacy, including the corruption of people who have betrayed the vision of Mandela, this exhibition is a provocation to think – both here and there – rather than a finished statement. It is well worth seeing.