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San's Roots

week 7

by Andries Loots

A complete view of South African Art should include our earliest artists.The San ( Bushmen or Basarwa ) were the first known inhabitants of the subcontinent of Africa. Thanks to Archaeological excavations and rock paintings we can today attempt a better understanding of this complex society. Our rich heritage of rock art, gives us a glimpse into the daily lives of these early inhabitants. Even then some artists documented their surroundings through their paintings. They depicted animals known to them as well as people performing their daily activities. Each of these images used by the artists had a specific meaning. Some animals were depicted because of their beauty, strength or speed, others for religious reasons. The rock paintings were left behind, consciously or sub-consciously as a way of communication or cataloging of events for the next generation.
The artists utilized materials that were available from their immediate surroundings. Paints were mixed from tree gum, milk, animal fat, plant juices and body fluids of animals and insects. Their fingers and tools made out of sticks, feathers and bones served as brushes.
Rock engraving was also popular and had a graphical character. The fact that these paintings stood the test of the time can only be described as a scientific wonder. The last known rock paintings were executed during the colonial times as they depicted ox wagons and pioneer farmers.

The San's land was slowly invaded over the past 346 years. Tribes had to abandon their land and resettle elsewhere out of fear for war . The San moved into the desert areas and Botswana.

In 1986 at D'Kar, a small farming community, the people organized themselves into a development organization which would look into ways to better their lives. The Kuru Development Trust was founded and grew out of the consolidation of a number of grassroot projects started by the Reformed Churches in Botswana. Artists were given all the materials to create their different arts and crafts and textile-printing workshops were held. In 1990 the participating artists were taken on an inspirational field trip to see the works of their ancestors on the cave walls.
Today we see a new group of artists with an unique style which can only be described as Contemporary Bushman Art. The artists work in oil on canvas, do lithograph-and mono printing and drawings. Their exhibitions were viewed all over the world and some of their work have been acquired by major museums and institutions.

The style is characterized by honest, basic and naive symbols executed spontaneously and cataloging mystical and religious images. In contrast with the bleak Kalahari surroundings their bold and strong use of colour inspires.

Major Rock Paintings of South Africa, R. Townley Johnson, 1979, David Philip, Publisher, Cape Town, ISBN 0 86486 0773 ( Paperback )

Contemporary San Art, Kuru Art Project of D'Kar, Botswana, C Meyer, T Mason, P Brown.