Landscapes open doors to life and times of Bushmen

By Time of article published Feb 23, 2012

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A HEART found in an unlikely place carries a dark omen – that this story will end in sorrow.

A cut-out heart appears on the cover of a prisoners’ register from Breakwater prison, dated 1867 to 1875. Inside are names of captured Bushmen – viewed as fair game by the colonialists.

By the end of the 19th century, their way of life would be wiped out, their languages dead.

The irony of the heart on the register is not lost on Professor Pippa Skotnes, artist, author and director of the Centre for Curating the Archive at UCT.

Skotnes’s exhibition, Landscape to Literature, has as an entry point the contrasting photographs of the register cover next to a photo of a heart formed by the imprint of a gemsbok’s hoof. It’s a juxtaposition of life behind bars alongside emblems of freedom found in wide open spaces.

Landscape to Literature was shown in Cape Town last year and is now on at the Wits Origins Centre. It’s a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the publication of Specimens of Bushman Folklore by Lucy Lloyd and Wilhelm Bleek. The book stands for their lifetime of study of the Bushmen and the xam and !kun languages.

The multimedia exhibition shows the scope and detail of Bleek and Lloyd’s archive. It also maps the archive’s journey to digitisation, an affirmation of its modern relevance and the lasting gravity of oral histories and memory.

It is all framed by the relationships between Bleek, his sister-in-law Lloyd and groups of Bushmen released into their custody to live in their Mowbray home in Cape Town in 1870.

“Bleek was a linguist and concentrated on recording everything about the languages; Lloyd had a natural aptitude to speak the languages. She was able to record stories about their everyday lives and folklore,” says Skotnes.

One former prisoner, Kabbo, returned to the Bleek home even after fulfilling his release conditions. He risked personal safety to keep telling his stories. He recognised that Bleek and Lloyd’s archives would be a form of immortality for his people’s vanishing lifestyles.

Years later, Bleek and Lloyd would amass more than 14 000 pages of notes, interviews and records to make up the archive. Lloyd’s work earned her an honorary doctorate from UCT in 1913, making her the first woman in SA to receive this honour.

“This exhibition is about what remains – the archive, the stories and the Bushmen’s descendants,” says Skotnes. “People think the Bushmen have disappeared, but while the xam and !kun languages are dead, the Bushmen still live in places such as Namibia and Botswana.”

What also remains are the landscapes.

For the exhibition she collaborated with Stephen Inggs, Richard Mason (who designed the exhibition) and Joe Manuel de Prada-Samper. Photos of the landscapes hold their own narrative and become humanised as they reveal sites of gathering, ritual and life in the times of the Bushmen.

One specific landscape is the probable escape route of a man called Dia!kwain. He lived in the Bleek home after being released on a sheep theft charge in 1873. At the same time Dia!kwain was on the run from men wanting him to answer for the 1869 murder of a trekboer called Jacob Kruger. He left the Bleeks in 1875, hoping to reunite with his family near Kenhardt. It is believed he was then hunted down by Kruger’s friends and killed.

The adjoining “Anything room” details atrocities exacted on the Bushmen, on men like Dia!kwain, whose family members, including his wife, were executed as part of a campaign to exterminate the Bushmen.

l Landscape to Literature is on at the Wits Origin Centre from tomorrow until April 10. A walkabout will take place on March 17.

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