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Arts & Culture

Celebrating South Africa’s heritage through its diverse art

Editor's note: Our guest piece is by Mathabo Kunene, Executive Trustee of the Mazisi Kunene Foundation. She writes about the "I Am Because You Are: A Celebration of South African Creativity" initiative, done in partnership with Google Arts & Culture to highlight South Africa’s rich heritage through art seeped in meaning and cultural value.

In the early 90s I met Paul Mikula for the first time. I was taken in by his deep respect and love for traditional African art which he described as a true embodiment of Ubuntu. This African concept can be roughly translated as ‘I Am Because You Are’ and it epitomizes deep respect and understanding of our fellow human beings. On 24 September, we officially celebrate Heritage Day in South Africa, a time when we honor each other’s cultures and salute our diverse traditions and beliefs in a nation which belongs to all its people.

It is a great honor for me to unveil I Am Because You Are: A Celebration of South African Creativity, an online hub on Google Arts & Culture which showcases South Africa’s rich heritage through art seeped in meaning and cultural value. The hub is home to the largest digitisation effort from Google Arts & Culture in South Africa to-date. A key component of the project is the large-scale digitisation of Phansi Museum’s vast archive which is now available online for the first time. Over 5000 artworks and cultural artifacts have been photographed in high resolution, allowing visitors to zoom into the intricate beadwork, meticulous carving and detailed weaving used in traditional southern African art. Viewers can also dive into stories from some of the country’s most prominent museums including Johannesburg Art Gallery and Origins Centre. Read on to learn more about the journeys available through this remarkable project.

1. Stories of Ubuntu

Celebrating South Africa’s heritage through its diverse art

Discover the meaning of Ubuntu and its influence in the Phansi Museum and listen to an audio interview with Paul Mikula who describes how the concept inspires him. Take in a 360 virtual tour of each of Phansi Museum’s themed galleries or learn about South African culture through five traditional art works.

2. Celebrate South African Women

Celebrating South Africa’s heritage through its diverse art

In a series of curated exhibits, University of Pretoria shines light on a set  of works which honor cultural attire and practices of South African women. The works were made in  the ‘80s  by illustrator Barbara Eleanor Harcourt Tyrrell who captured her subjects with great sensitivity and respect for their lived experience.  Tyrrell created the paintings for her book African Heritage and while the book may be difficult to find, the works are now available as part of the beautifully curated online project. Learn about women from Mpumalanga, Limpopo and KwaZulu Natal.

3. Traditional Healing

Celebrating South Africa’s heritage through its diverse art

Learn about indigenous healing practices in southern Africa through stories which introduce medicinal and healing rituals belonging to different South African cultures.Throwing Bones: Divination in Southern Africa takes viewers through the complex system of bone throwing performed by Sangomas, so that the ritual way in which objects are selected and the significance of how they fall is brought to light. The exhibit Magic, Metamorphosis and Medicine allows viewers to enter into San belief systems and to learn about Therianthropes and the beauty of San rock art.

4. Museums in 360
Using Google technology, Google Arts & Culture has worked with South African institutions to capture their spaces in 360 allowing visitors to the platform to tour Johannesburg Art Gallery’s vast and beautifully installed exhibits, enter into San Rock art at the Origins Centre and discover the life of artist Helen Martin at the Owl House.

5. Contemporary Art
In addition to the beautiful traditional art that is now available on the platform, this project also profiles contemporary South African artists who explore identity and ideas of the self through their works. In Journeys Into Textile and Identity five South African artists who work with textiles are profiled and the diverse rand of media they work in as well as their unique approach to fabric and fashion is explored. Artist Lohla Amira also claims space on the platform where her installation from 2020’s Sydney Biennale is shown, In the work spaces for rejuvenation and memory are created through beaded curtains placed above a ceremonial healing bed of salt while sounds of singing specifically made for healing and transforming the body into a space of wellness, ancestral connection and self care.