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San Art: “Communication through art that transcends cultural and educational boundaries”

01 Jul 2014

According to renowned artist, Pablo Picasso, painting is just another way of keeping a diary.

A diary is almost sacred to the one who has written it because of the precious memories and deep emotions attached to it. Such a ‘diary’ can be seen on Route 27 on the Cape West Coast close to Yzerfontein in the form of a beautiful San rock art display at !Khwa ttu.

The San left us their most precious possession, their diary – beautiful rock paintings through which their wisdom and traditions are transferred from generation to generation. The magical element lies in the fact that they were illiterate and created art by using the only tools to their exposure – tools from nature. Rocks became their pages; clay, ocher and charcoal their ink and their own lives their theme.

What other tools from nature were used in their rock art?

  • Rust to produce the colours, red and yellow
  • Stones to form soft rock powder mixed with water, blood, plant juices or egg whites
  • Hair from animals, feathers, thin sticks or their fingers to apply images onto the rocks.

Were rock art mainly created by skilled San with artistic talents?

Originally rock art was believed to be childlike efforts to conserve the daily experiences for eternity but the most recent belief is that it was created by the San-shamans during or after their trance dances. Their art is closely linked with their unique belief that power could be obtained from God through entering a trancelike state. As soon as this power was received, it was used to heal illnesses, make rain and control wild animals.

According to art-academic, Pippa Skotnes, the trancelike state includes the awareness of light in different patterns, the experience that the body becomes taller and thinner and that straight objects bend. Rock art contains all of these characteristics. While thinking about animals during trance dances, it was as if they took on the physical aspects of those animals.

According to Skotnes, researchers identified the rocks on which the drawings were made as a thin veil between reality and the spiritual world.

Modern outlooks believe they are intertwined - that the rock is a sacred place, not a porthole to the spiritual world. In other words, the artwork doesn’t describe a place, it is the place.

How does rock art transfer wisdom from people who were illiterate through the ages?

Just as with a diary, each inscription or rock painting, tells a different San story. These stories are conveyed through pictures which make rock art accessible to both young children as well as adults.

While standing in front of these sacred paintings the onlooker will be able to imagine a world in which the San flourished. Their rock art resembles their daily lives in which the animals of the veld played a central role.

The following information about elements displayed in their rock art will prove helpful as you turn the pages of their diary:

  • Human figures carried equipment, such as quivers, bows and arrows, bags and digging sticks, proving that they were hunter-gatherers.

  • Animals are skilfully depicted in a variety of postures and an understanding of the San’s beliefs and rituals concerning animals will be advantageous in understanding these depictions. Examples are:

    • The Eland, the largest of Southern African antelope, is the most spiritual animal and its importance is shown in the great variety of postures and perspectives. It appears in four important San rituals: the trance dance, a boy's first kill, a girl's puberty and marriage. It is believed that eland fat contains a lot of potency and in a trance dance shamans aspire to possess eland potency.

    • Rhebuck are depicted as men with rhebuck heads, the shamans.  It is known that they controlled eland and harnessed their power to enter trance and to perform thwir various tasks, including rain-making.
    • Lions were believed to have supernatural powers and could become invisible.  The San believe that shamans can turn themselves into lions.
    • Baboons are believed to draw supernatural powers from a small stick of a plant, which it kept in its left cheek.
    • Some Birds are shown swooping down on animals. In San mythology, flight is a wide spread metaphor for trance experience due to the sensations of rising up and floating that are part of some altered states of consciousness produced by the universal human nervous system. [Source: The African Rock Art Digital Archive]

Recently one of the most knowledgeable books on San rock art, titled Deciphering Ancient Minds: The Mystery of San Bushmen, saw the light. It was written by David Lewis-Williams and Sam Challis. They described San rock art as a passage leading us to the thoughts of people from ancient times.

Today, a few descendants of the San, continue the artistic tradition of their ancestors; relaying by way of modern materials and techniques their yearning for the past, their sorrows, joys and hopes for the future.

Originating in 1990 as part of the Kuru Development Trust, in D’Kar, western Botswana, the Kuru Art Project has produced contemporary art that is original and remarkable in character. With no formal art lessons to influence their own innate abilities, the Kuru artists create from the heart.

Since its inception, the artists of the Kuru Art Project have become well known internationally, exhibiting in galleries all over the world.

In the recent Kuru Art Project, Colours of Change, inspiring work from artists such as Thamae Kaashe, Ncaote Thama and Xgaiga Qhomatcã were displayed. Here are some inspirational quotes and examples of their work:

Thamae Kaashe

“The old people tell me where to go with my art and with everything I do.”

Blog 1             Blog 2

Ncaote Thama

“I do not really know what art is - I just do it and I find that I like it.”

Blog 3                         Blog 4

Xgaiga Qhomatcã

“Art starts with creation and will always be part of being human. As long as we live our art will be there. It is like when you come upon a dried up plant that contains an edible tumour … you have to really dig deep to see where it started its life.”

Blog 5



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