By Stephen Coan
Beneath the blank-windowed office block cliffs of downtown Johannesburg an unusual exhibition offers a rare opportunity to consider the echoes of a series of conversations held between two men in the remote high Maloti-Drakensberg nearly 150 years ago.
In 1873 Joseph Orpen, a colonial administrator, was commissioned to track down the Hlubi chief Langalibalele kaMthimkhulu who had fled into Basutoland to escape the Natal authorities. Orpen recruited local scouts, among them a man named Qing, a Bushman who lived in the Maloti mountains. Orpen was impressed by Qing and interviewed him about his people’s stories and rituals. The two also discussed the rock art they encountered at several sites.
Orpen later published an account of these interviews in the Cape Monthly Magazine and this article has since come to be regarded as “one of the most thrilling documents in the archive of Bushman ethnography,” according to Jeremy Hollmann, a specialist in southern African hunter-gatherer rock art.
“The meeting between Qing and Orpen in the Maloti-Drakensberg in what is now Lesotho, is widely agreed to be a unique moment,” exhibition curator Justine Wintjes says, “and the only recorded instance in which the meanings of certain rock art scenes were discussed between an outsider, Orpen, and Qing, a man whose community may have still been making rock art.”
The meeting of Qing and Orpen, which occurred during a key episode of colonial oppression in the late nineteenth century, and its outcome forms the subject of the exhibition On the trail of Qing and Orpen: from the colonial era to the present, currently showing at the Standard Bank Art Gallery.
Although there are no pictures of Qing, this figure on horseback painted on the wall of Melikane Shelter stands in for Qing in both book and exhibition. It may have been painted during Qing’s lifetime. Source: Jeremy Hollman.
The exhibition coincides with the publication of On the trail of Qing and Orpen, authored by a multidisciplinary team of scholars: José Manuel de Prada-Samper, Menán du Plessis, Jeremy Hollmann, Jill Weintroub, Justine Wintjes and John Wright, who are also the contributors to the exhibition which was curated by Wintjes, assisted by Wright and Weintroub.
“Six people worked on six different issues,” Wintjes says. “Our approach has been even-handed. Qing and Orpen have equal status.”
Despite such statements the exhibition and the book are not without an element of controversy – notably in the use of the term “bushman”. Some “San” groups use the term “San” as a self-designation while others reject the term and prefer “Bushmen”. Some descendants of Bushmen accept the generic label “Khoisan” which Khoisan activists are fostering; others say this marginalises them.
As is pointed out in the book and in the brief texts accompanying the exhibits, the word “San” was adopted by academics in the 1960s to describe southern Africa’s hunter-gatherer peoples, an all-embracing term incorporating both the present and, crucially, the past. It was seen as a suitable replacement for “bushman” which had come to have a pejorative meaning, denoting not only difference but inferiority. But, as it turns out, “San” is also a contested word, and in certain contexts probably just as disparaging.
Quite apart from scholarly usage, “San” has come to be used as an expression of identity among certain groups seeking their rights as southern Africa’s “first nation”. “In this sense the word ‘San’ equates and strengthens a sense of ethnicity,” Weintroub says. “It symbolises a way of fighting for resources, but to project it back into the past is an anachronism.”
Accordingly, since the 1980s some scholars have gradually returned to using the word “bushman” though rock art specialists still use the term “San”.
“It’s not just the word that is contested, but the whole idea of making it a category of people,” says Wright, a historian who has been working on the history of the bushmen of the Maloti-Drakensberg since 1965. “It is used as a blanket description for a whole range of peoples with different languages. San is a 20th century term; to use it now is an anachronism. Just as it makes no sense to talk of Zulus 500 years ago; Zulu was a term that only began to be widely used after the emergence of the Zulu kingdom in the 1820s.”
Wintjes says the term is used in the exhibition and the book to denote a specific identity. “We simply didn’t have a better term in this context than ‘bushman’. There is no replacement for that word – but we have worked towards using it in more nuanced ways. We also use this term for its continuity with eighteenth and nineteenth-century sources, and to connect back to a time of searching for categories. We use it in a non-ethnic, non-tribal sense.”
Wright agrees: “San is a modern ethnic term – echoing an imagined tribal past. It’s part of the whole tribal paradigm that South Africa is currently caught up in, which in itself is highly problematic.”
Over the years Bushmen have also accrued a layer of romanticism, seen by some as living fossils from some Edenic golden age when human beings lived in harmony with their natural environment. Wright is having none of that: “The whole notion of ‘ancientism’ is rubbish, they are as much a part of modern history as we are.”
Some conversations are always going to be difficult, especially when different levels of discourse – popular, activist, and academic – intersect but are talking at cross-purposes. Qing and Orpen relied on interpreters and Orpen’s article arose out of that problematic process. Now comes the book and the exhibition.
“Both are primarily on the backstory, production, and afterlife of a particular text – Orpen’s crucial article on the stories that Qing told him,” Wright says. “We are trying to open up historical questions.”
And both go further than previously in looking at the text, Weintroub says. “The published text is taken as authoritative. But there are differences between the published text and Orpen’s original manuscript.”
These discrepancies have been scrutinised by folklorist De Prada-Samper. His findings, drawn from both the manuscript and the published text, feature in what is the largest section of the book and present much new information. Of particular note are his interpretations regarding beliefs surrounding snakes, the nature of the rain-creature, and another dimension that relates to a complex of beliefs “very widespread in southern Africa and beyond, about an underwater world that very often, though not always, is connected with the world of the spirits of the dead”.
“José’s work is the central element of the book,” Wright says. “José’s rethinking will attract attention.”
According to Wintjes the book and exhibition serve to fill a gap in scholarship, as few of the studies on Orpen’s article place it within a wider historical context.
The book came first. “It existed as a project five years ago,” Wintjes says. “When Barbara Freemantle, curator of the Standard Bank Art Gallery, heard about it she said it would make for a great exhibition. So, in part, the exhibition facilitated publication of the book – but it also extended the content of the book into a different mode of exposition. The book is illustrated in service of the text, but with the exhibition we move out of a textual mode.”
The exhibition features rarely seen examples of rock engravings, paintings and bushman artefacts, as well as activist T-shirts side by side with nineteenth-century artworks by Thomas Baines, Andrew Anderson, George Angas and others, some especially restored by Standard Bank for the exhibition.
Also on display are a variety of manuscripts, including a reproduction of Orpen’s original, books, and some spectacular photographs by Hollmann of the rock art sites where Qing and Orpen held their conversations.
A digitally enhanced photograph of an image from Sehonghong Shelter identified by Qing as depicting “men … under water” catching a “snake” with “charms” and a “long reim” (sic). Another nineteenth century informant said the paintings depict “rainmaking”. Source: Jeremy Hollman.
Objects and artworks are placed in interesting juxtapositions, adding further layers to Qing and Orpen’s interaction. “There are objects from the Wits Art Museum and these are in a cabinet that is an echo of the nineteenth-century ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’. Next to them is a display of a selection of the many the books that have come out of their encounter. So this library display situated next to a museum storage mode of display generates new meanings, for example turning books into objects of material culture. We are asking questions in that kind of way.”
The exhibits are interspersed with short texts, often inconclusive and open-ended. “They throw questions back to the engaged viewer,” Wintjes says.
Exhibition and book explore the encounter of Qing and Orpen from various perspectives: history, archaeology, folklore and ethnography, linguistics, art and art history.
Both book and exhibition pivot on Orpen’s text and the agreement among the scholars involved that there was far more to be mined from it.
Linguist Du Plessis teased out the linguistic evidence “while attempting occasionally to ‘walk the text back’ in an effort to uncover particular words that may have been used either by Qing or the interpreters”.
“The information that Orpen transmitted for us includes around two dozen words from Qing’s ‘own language’,” Du Plessis says, and from these “small shards” she was able to ascertain that Qing’s language “was suffused with elements from both Khoekhoe and southern Bantu languages … while others must have been present from the outset in the broader !Ui family to which his language probably belonged”.
Weintroub sifted the history of the text and its place in knowledge production. “Scholars tend to use it as a repository of information to back up certain interpretative material,” she says. “But I wanted to look at its history as an archival object with a trajectory of its own in relation to epochs or paradigms of thought at different times.”
“This text came out of a brief, ephemeral encounter between two people long ago, but look at what it has given. The scholarly work on it is massive. That encounter was very short but it has inspired so much.”
Doubtless it will inspire more. Wright says: “This book and exhibition are not the final word on the subject. This is not a closed account.”
The exhibition is showing at the Standard Bank Art Gallery until the end of the year. The book On the Trail of Qing and On the trail of Qing and Orpen – From the Colonial Era to the Present Orpen is published by Standard Bank.
- On the Trail of Qing and Orpen by José Manuel de Prada-Samper, Menán du Plessis, Jeremy Hollmann, Jill Weintroub, Justine Wintjes, John Wright
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