Ancient masterpiece: Former French president Francois Hollande visits a replica of France’s Lascaux caves. The replica will be on show in Johannesburg in May alongside prehistoric South African rock art. Picture: REUTERS
Ancient masterpiece: Former French president Francois Hollande visits a replica of France’s Lascaux caves. The replica will be on show in Johannesburg in May alongside prehistoric South African rock art. Picture: REUTERS

In a first for Africa, European history meets African history at an unprecedented exhibition celebrating the rock art of two continents.

The Sci-Bono Discovery Centre in Johannesburg, in collaboration with the French embassy in Pretoria and the French Institute of SA, is bringing a replica of the famous Lascaux cave and its paintings to SA.

"We’re all African," said French ambassador Christophe Farnaud at the announcement of the exhibition in Johannesburg.

The Palaeolithic cave paintings, found in 1940 in the Lascaux caves near the village of Montignac in Dordogne, southwestern France, are 17,000 years old and are mostly of large animals native to the region at the time.

They are regarded as masterpieces because of their outstanding quality and sophistication. The replica coming to SA is an exact reproduction of more than 2,000 figures painted on the walls of the caves.

They will go on show at the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre in May, alongside prehistoric South African rock art, offering an opportunity to engage with humanity’s earliest impulse for creative expression.

The world’s first examples of art and symbolism are found in Southern Africa (some are more than 100,000 years old), and Europe is home to some of the world’s most well-preserved prehistoric cave art sites.

Gauteng City Region Academy CEO Rufus Mmutlana says that the past is a treasure trove of learning. "The exhibition points to the creativity of our ancestors with storytelling and a particular narrative innately human," he says.

Sci-Bono Discovery Centre CEO More Chakane says the institution is a place of learning, discovery and wonder, but mostly fun because that is what learning is all about.

Ingenuity

"This exhibition is about the ingenuity of our ancestors, the way they started developing our first tools which were used for creativity and expression. It was all about making sense of and improving their worlds," Chakane says.

It is important to understand and experience how the world today was shaped by ancient ancestors and their art, he says.

While the rock art that will be displayed was executed on different continents and thousands of years apart, the Lascaux and African rock paintings have much in common and point to one essential truth: there is more that unites and binds people and cultures than there is that divides us.

The South African component of the exhibition, The Dawn of Art, is curated by the University of the Witwatersrand’s Rock Art Research Institute, the Origins Centre and IFAS-Recherche. It will include photographs of iconic South African rock art and a display of priceless authentic pieces.

The Lascaux cave replica was meticulously recreated to preserve the cave, using materials and tools identical to those that the original artists used about 17,000 years ago. The cave is a world heritage site that was closed in 1963 to protect the priceless artwork that was being damaged by the humidity and the body heat of visitors.

"We are excited, honoured and proud to host this remarkable, one-of-a-kind exhibition," says Chakane. "The combined exhibition will be seen nowhere else on earth. The masterpieces by our own African ancestors, viewed alongside those of the ancient Paleolithic Europeans, provide a unique opportunity to experience the very earliest dawn of human creativity."

Farnaud says art and symbolism originated in Southern Africa and the exhibition highlights France’s co-operation in the fields of culture, research and science in SA.

The Lascaux exhibition was created by the Departmental Council of Dordogne, with the support of the Regional Council of New Aquitaine, the French ministry of culture and communication and the EU. The exhibition’s worldwide tour is organised by the SPL Lascaux International Exhibition.

Pupils 

The Wonders of Rock Art sponsors include French banking group BNP Paribas and its South African subsidiary, RCS; global oil and gas company Total SA; and Bolloré Transport & Logistics SA.

The companies’ contributions will afford pupils from disadvantaged communities an opportunity to participate in workshops and to be hosted by Sic-Bono.

Work will start soon on assembling the exhibition, which opens at the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre at the corner of Miriam Makeba and Helen Joseph Streets in Newtown on May 17.

"The exhibition will be French, it will be South African and, most importantly, it will be human," says Farnaud.

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