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The Pasts and Presence of Art in South Africa: Technologies, Ontologies and Agents

Global interest in South African art has concentrated on evidence of early human behaviour, as well as on the region’s rich rock art tradition. In the first case, the mere presence or absence of ‘art’ has been regarded as an important diagnostic of ‘modern’ forms of behaviour. In the second, rock ‘arts’ have been interpreted largely through a wealth of regionally derived ethnographies. However, contemporary South African art has long been explicitly political and engaged in projects of societal transformation.
When Oct 27, 2016 05:30 PM to
Oct 29, 2016 05:30 PM
Where McDonald Institute Seminar Room, Courtyard Building, Downing Street
Contact Name
Contact Phone +44 (0) 1223 764956
Attendees All welcome. Please book
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To coincide with the British Museum’s forthcoming exhibition, South Africa: the art of a nation, the University of Cambridge and the British Museum are hosting a two day conference, the Pasts and Presence of Art in South Africa: Technologies, Ontologies, and Agents.
The conference will take place at the University of Cambridge (28th of October) and at the British Museum (29th of October), and the conference fees include a private view of the exhibition on the morning of the 28th of October.
Speakers include: Michael Chazan, Martin Porr, Ceri Ashley, Per Ditlef Fredriksen, Jamie Hampson, Chris Wingfield, Sam Challis, Rachel King, Mark McGranaghan, J.A. van Schalkwyk, Catherine Namono, Mbongiseni Buthelezi, Wendy Black, David Morris, Miesha Hayden, Larissa Snow, Catherine Elliott Weinberg, Carolyn Hamilton, Nessa Leibhammer, Justine Wintjes, Annie Coombes, and Same Mduli
Please download the attached programme for the conference including titles and abstracts.
If you have any questions, please contact the convenors, Rachel King (, Chris Wingfield (, and John Giblin (  


Booking - Final date for registration 23rd October

Maps and Directions


Conference Aim and Scope

This conference will attempt to consider ‘art’ as part of a wider suite of technological practices. In making this move, we draw on the ideas developed by Alfred Gell in his important essay The Technology of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Technology, as well as his posthumously published Art and Agency. We seek to ask not only whether or not ‘art’ is present, nor whether artefacts illustrate particular aspects of behaviour, but rather how their presence and creation made a difference to the past.

The proposed conference will advance material culture theory within African Studies, taking a cue from Jeffrey Fleisher and Stephanie Wynne-Jones’ (2015) recent call to examine the recursive relationship between Africa and social theories. As a region of the world in which foragers have lived alongside pastoralists and agriculturalists for at least two millennia, where states and stateless societies have engaged with one another for at least a millennium, and in which economic exchanges have involved Europeans for half a millennium, we are interested in exploring co-occurrence and interchange between contrasting ontological systems. Descola (2013: 26) has suggested that the apparent “puzzling similarity of Africa to Europe” may “be a product of the intellectual habits that characterize all specialist studies in cultural areas”, and we hope to re-examine established frameworks for interpreting art in South Africa.

Arising from these premises are questions invoking linkages between the material, technological, and ontological domains:

  • How has art been implicated in stories of ‘origin’ and surrounding political claims?
  • How have art making traditions represented changing relationships between humans and the non-human environment?
  • Do we find evidence of new creative practices in the transformed cultural ecologies of urban and state societies?
  • Do uses of colour reflect fundamental ontological understandings?
  • To what degree have archival and curatorial practices shaped our understandings of South African art?
  • How have practices of display and performance shaped art practices?
  • How are self and society embodied in the context of colonial interactions, and how do these experiences inform conceptions of colonialism rooted in material cultures?
  • How have art and artefacts been mobilised differently in the political struggles that have characterised the region’s recent history?


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