Posts Tagged With: South African rock art

The Making of an Artwork

I’ve been thinking recently about life experience, and what we choose to do with it. Some write books and others start businesses, but most of us use it without thinking about it. As an artist, I realise that all of my work has a direct link to my past. Either I am drawing landscapes that remind me of where I have been, or I’m sewing textile artworks, (a skill taught to me by my mother many years ago), that speak of the earth and the textures of Africa. The content of the artwork is inevitably inspired by my view of the world, which in turn has been moulded by the life I have lived and the environment that has surrounded me.

To rewind a bit, I was born into a large, pioneering family, and raised on a remote cattle ranch in the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe. I was fortunate to have a mother, a gentle, artistic spirit, who opened my eyes to the beauty of the natural world, and a father, a larger- than- life adventurer, who encouraged me to explore it. This idyllic childhood, free of technology and distraction, developed my connection to the wilderness of our continent and taught me not only to appreciate its mystery, but to find the wilderness within me.

Growing up on our farm ‘Nyangui’, in the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe

When, in my teens, we moved to Botswana, my passion for the land was sealed, for my father, an airline pilot by profession, regularly took us with him on trips into the Okavango Delta, a lush, marshy expanse of inland water that supports some of Africa’s most stunning wildlife.

A view of the Okavango Delta from the air

Beyond the edges of this delta lay the hot, dry Kalahari Desert, home to the few remaining San, a hardy, nomadic people, whose respect for the land inspired me. My brief encounter with these people was to have a lasting effect upon my work, for they convinced me at a tender age, that it is wise and possible to live harmoniously within our environment.

Bushmen (San) in the Tsodilo Hills 1970. Photo credit: Anthony Stidolph

Since then, I have lived in the ferociously hot veld of Limpopo, the humid, grassy hills of Kwazulu Natal, and more recently the arid, but beautiful Eastern Cape of South Africa. Each has brought with it its own unique brand of mystery and left its mark on my soul.

For those who follow this blog, you may be aware that I was fairly quiet last year and did not reveal much of what I was up to. This is because for the first nine months of 2018, I was incubating and giving birth to a major artwork that demanded every moment of my time and head space. But now, as I sit in this liminal space between what’s gone and what’s to come, I reflect upon my recent work and see that it too gives visual form to an accumulation of my life experiences.

The Challenge

 At the end of 2017, I received a commission to make some original artwork for the chalets of Lentaba Lodge, a luxury establishment that nestles in thick valley bush veld within the Lalibela Game Reserve, 40kms outside Grahamstown. Part of this commission included a brief to make 5 framed dance skirts, that were to be earthy and African in feel and have a story to tell.  Being a lover of Nature, textiles and all things African, this was a dream come true and turned out to be an exhilarating, but challenging project that pushed me to my limits.

The Concept for the Skirts

I was given free reign to make the skirts in whatever way I wished, but I realised that the theme for the skirts needed to be suitable for a game lodge and fulfil my needs as an artist. I reflected on my life and my relationship with the natural environment and settled on the idea of the skirts representing something that we can all relate to: the Cycle of Life, with special reference to the connection between Nature and Humanity. I decided that each skirt would represent an aspect of the cycle, with the one flowing fluidly into the next as the circle rotates.

The Inspiration

With my concept loosely in tact, I then began the exciting phase of researching the subject,  drawing largely from my experience of living in Africa, and shifting between images of nature, places I have been and stories of the indigenous people who have lived here.

Much of my inspiration came from the San, who, as I mentioned above, have fascinated me since childhood. I have always been greatly inspired by their minimal material culture, particularly their bead work, pouches, loincloths and aprons, and still own a beaded necklace and pouch made by the San that I bought in Botswana in the late 1960’s.

San pouch and clay beads

The San are recognised as being the earliest inhabitants on this continent, and were possibly the forbears of modern homo sapiens. The earliest signs of artistic expression, symbolic behavior and human culture have been found in caves and rock overhangs along the Eastern seaboard of South Africa. Much of what we know of San culture has been learned through their paintings and artefacts found at such sites and whilst there may still be some debate as to the exact meaning of the paintings, it is clear that these rock shelters were powerful, sacred spaces that represented the interface between the physical and spiritual worlds. It is for this reason, that for this series of skirts, I dug into my archives to find images of rock paintings that would inform and inspire my decision to make the rock face the backdrop to the story.

San paintings on a rock overhang on the Makgabeng Plateau, Limpopo

Having spent many years living in Kwazulu Natal, I also found myself drawn to the Zulu concept of Nomkhubulwane, the heavenly princess, the daughter of God, who as maiden, mother and crone, is believed to be the goddess who maintains the balance between the physical and spiritual realms. In Nature she appears in various forms, but most often as a rainbow that brings the promise of new life after the fury of a tropical thunderstorm. Often associated with sacred pools, she is seen as the creator, the life force and the one who brings fertility. Throughout the making of these skirts, I felt her strong feminine energy permeating the atmosphere.

Rainbow over the sacred pool on the Baviaans River. Photo credit: Roddy Fox

Water, the yin (feminine) energy of our planet, so vital for our survival on Earth, was foremost in my mind as I entered the flow of this project. It is through the pollution of our rivers and oceans that I see just how disconnected humanity has become from Nature. What I see in the world around us today, is a disrespect for the Mother that has born, protected and fed us. My hope is that through this series of artworks, the energy I invest, will go some way to restoring the balance.

I also hold firm to the African concept of Ubuntu, which is a philosophy of ‘Oneness’, that all life is interconnected and that a thread of goodness connects us all, from the smallest creature to the largest. This thread of Ubuntu, that has love and respect as core values, holds societies together and ensures the sustainability of the planet.

With my intention now clear, I turned to my interest in recycling, and eagerly set about gathering materials, dyeing cloth, and sorting through a mass of beads, bones, and rusty metal in preparation for work to begin. I had a story to tell and needed to tell it in a way that felt authentic.

Hand dyeing cloth in preparation for work to begin

A collection of beads, bones, metal and string. The ingredients for the artwork

What was so interesting to me was that in the beginning, I thought that I was in control, but it didn’t take long for me to realise that in fact I was the conduit and that the skirts were directing me.

In the posts that follow, I will be sharing the five artworks with you and including some of the stages of my creative process.

Please stay tuned and enjoy this journey with me…



Categories: Background, Fibre Art, Inspiration, Projects | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 22 Comments

Marks from the Past at Makgabeng: Part 2

If you would like to read Part 1 of this series, click here

It’s Saturday 7th December 2013 and Petra and I have left the Makgabeng Lodge en route to our meeting on the mountain. We are heading in the general direction of the plateau, when Petra confesses that she is not absolutely sure where to go, but knowing that she is strongly intuitive, I spur her on, trusting that we will find our way. As we get closer to the sandstone cliffs, the red sand on the track is getting a whole lot softer and deeper, and Petra engages low gear, puts her foot down and we swerve and grind our way to higher, firmer ground. After taking a couple of wrong turns, we are confident that we are now on the right track, and as we make our way up through a gap in the hillside, we leave the valley behind.

Approaching the Makgabeng Plateau

Approaching the Makgabeng Plateau

As we reach the level of the top of the ridge, the landscape opens up to a completely different scene. Hidden beyond the rest of the world are small farm plots, scattered amongst the most spectacular, imposing domes of layered sandstone rocks. I feel that we have entered a sacred space, a place only known to the few who live here, and maybe a few lucky researchers who have been up this way to view the jewels that it holds.

An agricultural Eden on top of the Makgabeng Plateau

The Makgabeng Plateau

In every direction there are incredible mounds of rock

In every direction there are sculptured rock massifs

Not sure which way we are going, we make a stop at a homestead, situated at the foot of an impressive mountain peak. Fortunately we have found Jonas’s relatives who soon show us the way to his house at the base of the Thabananthlana peak. He is ready and waiting, eager to show us his playground amongst these spectacular rocks.

Jonas's family live at the base of the peak of Thabananthlana

Jonas’s family live close to the peak of Thabananthlana

Twenty minutes later, squatting on my haunches under a rock overhang, I am completely immersed in a world of trance dances, shamans and n/om (understood to be similar to chi or the life force).  For the first time, I am getting a fuller, clearer understanding of what these finely executed paintings on the rock wall above me, are all about. Suddenly it all makes sense, and as our guide, Jonas Tlouamma, describes the transfer of power from the dying eland to the one who drinks the blood, I am with him and can imagine this power he speaks of. He is mesmerizing to listen to, and speaks of these trance events with a passionate and eloquent  conviction. I realize how fortunate I am to be sitting here with him, as Jonas knows these hills intimately, having explored every inch of them on foot, and being largely responsible for finding and documenting most of the many hundreds of San, Khoekhoe and Northern Sotho sites that remain in this area. He worked for many years alongside Ed and Cathelijne Eastwood as they gathered information that culminated in the writing of their book Capturing the Spoor. Jonas is a master storyteller, but it is his vast knowledge of the area and it’s previous inhabitants that is the most impressive. He is passionate about his work and clearly enjoys sharing what he knows. I am enthralled and so grateful to him for making this such an adventure.

Jonas explains the meaning behind the beautifully executed San rock art

Jonas explains the meaning behind the beautifully executed San rock art

San rock art in the Makgabeng Plateau

San rock art in the Makgabeng Plateau

The animal on the left emerges from a crack in the rock, which according to Jonas suggests that it comes from the spirit world.

The animal on the left emerges from a crack in the rock, which according to Jonas suggests that it comes from the spirit world.

What makes Makgabeng such a remarkable rock art site, is that it has good examples of three clearly identifiable layers of history, with visual documents from the San, the Khoekhoe and the Northern Sotho all in the same area. In many cases they overlap and interlock, making it all the more fascinating. When inquiring about who came first to this area, I am told that the San arrived first, then the Khoekhoe, but that there was a long period of overlap and interraction, shown by the fact that in some cases the San art appears below the Khoekhoe and in other places it’s on top. The Northern Sotho arrived some time later.

This is the terrain in which these hundreds of rock art sites are hidden

This is the terrain in which these hundreds of rock art sites are hidden

After listening to Jonas’s account of the San, whose delicately painted works are fairly well known and recognized, I am eager to see what other sites there are and whether there is any variation to this theme and style. We walk a short distance over flat expanses of rocks and descend into a shady stream bed, before climbing up a steep and overgrown pathway to a well hidden overhang. As I push past the last bush, I gasp not only for breath, of which I am extremely short, but from amazement at the scene that lies before me. A rock overhang covered with white drawings. This I am told, is a Northern Sotho female initiation site. The drawings are predominantly white and have obviously been executed with fingers, as the lines are much thicker than those fine line brush paintings of the San.  Much of the imagery in this and other sites appears to connect to female fertility, with the women’s aprons in various forms featuring very strongly.

Jonas explains the meaning of the symbols at this predominantly Khoekhoe rock art site

Jonas explains the meaning of the symbols at this predominantly Northern Sotho rock art site

This rock overhang contains clear finger painted images of women's aprons

This rock overhang contains clear finger painted images of women’s aprons

Making our way down through thick bush after viewing the viewing the Khoekhoe artwork

Making our way down through thick bush en route to the next site

We return to the car and after a short drive, park in the bush and follow Jonas through the dense undergrowth. I am entranced by the beauty around and above me, particularly the towering rock face that looms overhead, and am completely unaware that we are within metres of a major South African rock art site.

We are about to enter one of the most amazing overhangs that I have ever seen

We are about to enter one of the most amazing overhangs that I have ever seen

Before I know it, we have entered a cool rock overhang and Jonas has seated himself at the base of a frieze of dramatic protest art. He is watching for my reaction, and all I can say is ‘Wow!!!’ I have never seen anything like this before and take a moment to let it sink in. The graphics are incredible, with trains, railway lines and station intersections, along with wagons, people on horses and men standing rigid with shoulders hunched. The lines are thick, suggesting they were painted with fingers and the white pigment stands out in stark contrast to the ochre red sandstone walls.

Jonas relaxes beneath a frieze of Northern Sotho protest art

Jonas relaxes beneath a frieze of Northern Sotho protest art

A detail of the train taking the captives to jail in Pretoria

A detail of the train that has taken the captives to jail in Pretoria

Petra listens to Jonas as he explains the meaning of the artwork

Petra listens to Jonas as he explains the meaning of the artwork

A depiction of Boers, with a woman and child

A depiction of Boers, with a woman and child in the mid section

The overhang viewed from the far side

The overhang viewed from the far side

So who painted these images and what are they all about?

Jonas tells us that this mural is the work of the Northern Sotho or the Hananwa and documents the story of the Maleboho war of 1894. During this period, the Boer republic under Paul Kruger was in need of land and cheap labour for the mines, so in order to force people off the land and into the mines to earn money, a hut tax was instituted. Chief Maleboho, leader of the Hananwa, refused to pay, and Kruger gathered his forces together and attacked the Hananwa.
For many months Maleboho was able to hold out against the Boer forces, despite increasingly vicious tactics, which included the seizing of Hananwa cattle and the burning of their houses.
When it became clear that it was necessary, Maleboho headed to the hills for safety, but eventually hunger and thirst forced him to surrender and Maleboho and his men were loaded onto a train and taken to Pretoria, found guilty in a military court and jailed. In 1900 the British forces took Pretoria and in recognition of Maleboho’s valiant fight, he and his men were released and their land returned.
The whole story is documented on these rocks, beginning with scenes of armed men on horseback firing their weapons, and ending with Maleboho and his men being locked up in a Pretoria jail and the train leaving them behind. Central to the scene are railway lines going off in various directions and a very impressive train, which has so much movement it’s quite riveting to observe.

The telling of the story is very powerful and I sit there in silence for a while trying to absorb it, when Jonas suggests I have a closer look to see if I can find something else of interest. I inspect the wall, feeling the pressure of trying to find something I cannot see, with Jonas smiling knowingly in the background. Then to my delight, I see it! Beyond the layer of strong white marks of the resistance art, lie the tell tale delicate lines of the San. Men with bow and arrows, domestic animals which look like sheep and cattle, and the unmistakable stripes of zebra.

Fine depictions of animals, painted by the San

Fine depictions of domestic animals, painted by the San

San drawings of men with bows and arrows

San drawings of men with bow and arrows

I am completely blown away by this mountaintop gallery, and feel so filled to capacity that I can understand why it’s not possible to visit any more sites today. With almost a thousand sites to see, there is plenty of reason to return here someday.

We bid a fond farewell to our guide and teacher, the one and only Jonas Tlouamma, and criss-cross our way back across the plateau before descending into the valley.

On our way home, before leaving the village of Senwabarwana (previously Bochum), Petra pulls up alongside some deserted houses. This place, she tells me, is the original leper colony, started by Lutheran missionary and nurse, Helene Franze, over a hundred years ago. The houses are all empty, but interestingly have all their doors and windows in tact. Nothing appears to have been tampered with, and as we walk around from house to house the atmosphere is so eery and full of sadness that it forces me to wonder about the poor souls who once lived here, locked away from the outer world. One wonders what stories they could tell upon their cold cement walls.

The deserted leper colony at Bochum

The deserted Helene Franze leper colony at Senwabarwana

So here we have one more layer of history. I have so much to think about as we wend our way home, but one thing is clear that these layers and layers of silence have left me wanting to know more.

Surely if we can access and acknowledge the past, we can appreciate and live more fully in the present and make better informed decisions in the future?

Categories: Inspiration | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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