IZIKO: Symbols of SA Cultures

10 Symbols of SA Culture

Iziko Museums of South Africa is hosting a World Design Capital Exhibition - Symbols of South African Cultures.

On display at the Iziko South African National Gallery (ISANG), is a series of commemorative stamps depicting local cultural artefacts, as captured by local photographer Hein Botha.  The exhibition is in collaboration with the South African Post Office’s Philately Services.

The objects depicted on the stamps were selected by Dr Johnny van Schalkwyk, anthropologist at the Ditsong National Museum of Cultural History in Pretoria. Each symbol was chosen to represent an ancient South African culture.  “All the objects are decorated with colours and patterns, which add very much to their meaning,” says Dr Van Schalkwyk.

Two of the artefacts drawn from Iziko’s Permanent Collections represent South Africa’s oldest cultural symbols - 75 000-year-old engraved ochre and marine shell beads discovered at the Blombos Cave in the Blombosfontein Nature Reserve outside Cape Town.

In celebration of Heritage Day, these and other historical artefacts have been displayed alongside the philately collection of stamps for the first time.

South Africa has a rich and diverse cultural history that goes back thousands of years. Throughout the years, the different cultural groups have communicated their traditions, beliefs and social customs in a variety of forms such as religious objects, utensils, artefacts, clothing and accessories. Many of these have remained intact to tell their stories to this day. Every object created by one of South Africa’s cultural groups conveys a message that tells us something about the culture they represent. All of the featured objects on exhibit are decorated with certain patterns and colours, which have a specific meaning and are unique to South Africa.

The Stamps

10 Symbols of South African Culture
10 Symbols of South African Culture

•    The first stamp features the Blombos ochre, the oldest symbol in South Africa at nearly 75 000 years old, was found in Blombos Cave on the South Cape Coast. Its cross-hatched engraving is evidence of some of the earliest symbolic behaviour of human beings.

•    Rhino engravings occur all over rock art sites in South Africa. For early hunter-gatherers, the rhino was associated with rain-making.  Appropriately, a rhino engraving from Wildebeestkuil near Kimberley is featured on a stamp.

•    The McGregor Museum near Kimberley displays a rock with a starburst engraving, a symbol of womanhood.  It dates from the Stone Age and is also featured on a stamp.

•    The oldest symbolic ornaments found in South Africa is a set of marine shell beads. Ancient people drilled neat holes through the beads to make a string of them, and at 75 000 years they are the oldest of their kind. They are featured on a stamp.

•    Since at least the early 19th century, raised geometric patterns were used in the Zulu Kingdom to decorate items that symbolise wealth.  A headrest decorated with these patterns is featured on a stamp.

•    Also featured on a stamp is a child figure, used mainly by young women before marriage to confirm her preparation for her role.

•    To the Venda people, the crocodile in its pool symbolises the power of the chief in his court.  Divining bowls made up to the end of the 19th century feature these engravings, and an example is depicted on a stamp.

•    Beer forms an essential part of offerings and sacrifices to ancestral spirits, and an Ukhamba, a ceremonial beer container decorated with engraved patterns, is featured on a stamp.

•    The ritual white-coloured whisk was used by ritual specialists in the Eastern Cape. White, the colour of divine illumination, identified their special status in the community.  An example of a whisk is featured on a stamp.

•    The horn remains a symbol of communication to this day, and was used on special occasions such as when the chief announced a tribal meeting.  Again, it is featured on a stamp.

•    The artefact on the commemorative envelopes illustrates the transition from traditional items to modern technology: still using beautiful traditional beadwork, a Ndebele dancing mace – symbolising a mother’s power – was adapted into a symbol of mid-20th century communication, the telephone pole.

WHERE & WHEN: Iziko South African National Gallery, Government Ave, Cape Town 8001.   24 September 2014 until March 2015

INFO: contact Carol Kauffman on Tel. +27 (0) 21 481 3958 or Email: ckaufmann@iziko.org.za.