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South African art is the visual art produced by the people inhabiting the geographical location of 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 BC 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 They were superseded by Bantu/Nguni peoples with their own vocabularies of art forms.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 pre-Bantu peoples migrating southwards from around the year 30,000 BC were nomadic hunters who favoured caves as dwellings. Before the rise of the Nguni peoples along the east and southern coasts and central areas of Africa these nomadic hunters were widely distributed. It is thought they entered South Africa at least 10 years ago. They have left lots of signs of life, people toilets and rocks ('Bushman' paintings) depicting hunting, domestic and magic-related art. There is a stylistic unity across the region and even with more ancient art in the Tassili n'Ajjer region of northern Africa, and also in what is now desert Chad but was once a lush landscape.
The figures are dynamic and elongate, and the colours (derived probably from earthen 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 favoured preservation from the elements.
The contemporary art scene in South Africa is as diverse and vibrant as the population and cultures in the country. Contemporary artists in South Africa have adopted new media technologies to produce varied and creative bodies of work. Their art gives insight into the pressing issues of South African society. On a global scale, contemporary South African art is relevant and sought-after. A charcoal and oil on canvas work by leading South African contemporary artist William Kentridge was sold on auction for R3,5 million in London in 2012.