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Boer War letters from Belmont and Kimberley

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Additions - Dungamanzi Exhibition Opening, 2008

Dungamanzi – Stirring Waters  Exhibition Opening at Oliewenhuis Museum, Bloemfontein, 3 July 2008  As an archaeologist, ladies and gentlemen, my specialist interest is in rock art of South Africa’s west central interior, specifically Later Stone Age rock engravings, and as such the art galleries to which I am more accustomed are typically on hill tops. That said, it is good to be here – not least to be indoors and not on the hilltops on a Free State winter’s evening! – and I am grateful to the Curator, Sharon Crampton, and staff of the Oliewenhuis Art Museum for this opportunity and privilege to be saying a few words on this most important and auspicious occasion.  Rock engravings being my forte in terms of research focus, my acquaintance with Tsonga-Shangaan art is but slight – its been rewarding to learn more about it - yet as a museum worker, I am greatly interested and concerned with matters of representation, which also have relevance to my work in public archaeology at the Wildebeest Kuil Rock Art Centre near Kimberley. And these issues constitute a key feature of this particular exhibition and its accompanying literature.   What must impress one about this Dungamanzi – stirring waters exhibition is the cross-section of individuals who have contributed to its being assembled and interpreted. I had had some initial thoughts when preparing these remarks, which dwelt upon the divisions of academic labour, the way our knowledge has come to be constructed from within different disciplines, our resultant understandings developing along separate trajectories. Here one might have the inputs of anthropology, of history, art history, religion, and so on. Benign enough, one would think, even common sense and manageable, yet these disciplinary divisions had, in our history, become complicit in larger political processes and, in exhibitions, quite plainly they were a part of the museological practices of apartheid. European and African cultures and histories came to be separated not only by discipline but also by physical location: fine art in the gallery, the minor arts, namely craftwork and the like, in the ethnology hall, sometimes, as in the case, particularly, of San art, alongside nature displays, often making not very subtle statements about evolution and progress towards culture and civilization.  Opportunities for a convergence of disciplines and of the art traditions themselves are to be welcomed and have been embraced in this country, with ever greater sophistication, for some years now. The coming together of different scholarly perspectives around a given corpus of art, moreover, can make for a timely underscoring of complexity. When these are then combined still further, as they are here, with the so-called unofficial voices, not simply consulted but becoming central in a curatorial role – with the indigenous or insider insights and comments of ordinary people for whom the given meaning system forms part of everyday life or particular life situations  - then one has a veritable stirring of waters – which is the wonderful title attached to this particular exhibition.  This exhibition richly reflects and responds to the debates of the last two decades and more when the art world has been grappling with the issues of accommodating a much wider canon, a broader spectrum than previously, of South African art, of visual meaning-making. What is found today inside art museums – and outside of them (one should add) - is clearly challenging the old certainties – and classifications – that surrounded high art but a few decades ago.  Some of the early efforts at accommodation came to be criticized for presenting a kind of Neo-primitivist discourse, which ended up merely perpetuating rather than breaking with the colonial stereotypes about Africa – there was a certain privileging of paintings and prints, which most resembled the western canon, over what was classed as craft, for instance. And individual artists tended often to be subsumed within a collective ahistorical, hence timeless, often romanticized, ethnic or tribal identity – as if they were the mere vectors of a somehow innate cultural template. Importantly, this exhibition brings in people and history, at a whole number of scales, with a very significant dialogue being set up between the micro level of individual lives and works, of the Makhubele family, and of the individual diviners who were interviewed, and in the works of Jackson Hlungwani, over against that larger macro construct, referred to “in the grand narrative of official history,” as Nessa Leibhammer puts it, as Tsonga-Shangaan, which turns out to be anything but the kind of static primordialist “culture” one tends to have heard about in the old stereotypes. Here we witness a genealogy of evolving understandings, a very dynamic process – one author describes a sense of “wild hybridity” - as people have engaged in day-to-day living and making images as part of meaning-making, identity-making – even money-making – in various contexts from traditional healing, to celebrations of freedom and political commentary in beads, to tourism and through different spatial and historical frames. And the focus is turned in on itself even, so that one catches glimpses of the chains of connections into the art and museum world that have resulted in objects ending up in spaces such as this, and in gatherings such as this, from other kinds of spaces and gatherings of people that are distinctly unlike art galleries and opening events. In fact we, the privileged, educated gallery-going public, Nessa Leibhammer has pointed out, may be singularly disadvantaged as we approach some, indeed most, of these works for lack of an understanding of the particular and often complex situations that have given rise to their creation in the first instance. Where some of the earlier exhibitions that introduced neglected art traditions in South Africa went for the purely visual impact, without explanatory texts or even sensitivity to the associations of the displayed objects, we now benefit by a wealth of material that delves through the multivocal complexities of any given class of artwork in the exhibition, and faces up to the sometimes intensely problematic, often alienating and silencing ways in which objects now considered to be art have entered our museums.   As an archaeologist concerned with contexts, and the way meanings or significance shift according to situation, and also engaging the uncomfortable histories of objectification and insensitivity in my discipline and in museums, I was particularly struck by that section of the catalogue featuring tinhlolo or divination dice (not included in the actual display here in Bloemfontein). I am currently curating a set that came from a decidedly different kind of space, quite possibly with Tsonga or Shangaan links though this we cannot really say. A team of archaeologists and our helpers were having to salvage something of a disaster some years back where the local municipality in Kimberley had accidentally disturbed a line of unmarked 1890s pauper graves. All indications are that those buried there, preponderantly young men, were migrant workers – two thirds of whom, in the late nineteenth century, are known to have come from the Limpopo valley area. Grave goods were minimal, but included copper earrings, copper and iron bangles and simple strings of mainly large blue and white beads – all bespeaking strong rural links and evidently limited access to contemporary commercial goods, a consequence, we suppose, of being confined in compounds on the mines. Explicitly religious objects were found with only two of the more than a hundred skeletons rescued. One was a small crucifix. The other, probably originally in a leather pouch, a clutch of what we, in the Tswana context of Kimberley, called ditoala – divination dice. Given their burial context, museum practice (now somewhat more reflexive and sensitive than in times past) would preclude our putting them on display: in earlier times they may well have formed part of some archaeological or ethnological exhibit, the objects quite possibly disassociated from their awkward burial derivation. The Kimberley burials consisted of a rather neat row of quite precisely rectangular pits for paupers into which bodies were literally dumped. We found up to 14 skeletons crammed into one of the holes. It was hard to imagine what, if any, burial rites might have occurred, which next of kin were ever notified, let alone being invited to be present for a ceremony. By what chance the pouch of divination dice came to be there one can only speculate. Tossed in with its owner? Perhaps they had been slung around his neck? In this instance any attempt to display, or any written or spoken account would need to reference the structural violence of the migrant labour system, of compound life and the final dehumanization that took place at that rather unrestful resting place. Stirring waters, indeed. Our curation of this material has included a traditional cleansing rite that took place at the museum.   This reference to the Kimberley mining compound context links back to this exhibition in another way. An Irishman with a penchant for photography, Alfred Duggan-Cronin, came to Kimberley in 1897 at the very time from which the burials date, and he secured a job in the compounds. There he exercised his photographic hobby by beginning to take portraits of migrant workers and later, encouraged by McGregor Museum director Maria Wilman, he undertook expeditions to their rural homes, building up an invaluable snapshot of an era and subject material not otherwise well covered in the photographic archive – not an unproblematic record in the sense that a lot of the documentation was posed. Nevertheless, Volume IV of his published series on The Bantu Tribes of South Africa, devoted to the VaThonga, and the associated collection, has provided one of the resources which Nessa Leibhammer and Natalie Knight have be able to draw upon in their interpretation of historical Tsonga and Shangaan identities and material culture.  To be sure, however, the curators of this exhibition are much less confident about the tribal taxonomies that had seemed so fixed and finite to an earlier generation and the exhibition and accompanying publication do their stirring work to disrupt the accepted labels.   This, finally, is what museums, many would say, ought best to be doing – to be moving away from being temples of wisdom, of fixity, to become forums for discussion and debate and new knowledge. There is much to celebrate in this exhibition, not least its good nudge in that particular direction – nay, more than that, its manifestation of such a trajectory – remembering indeed that the Johannesburg Art Gallery – the institution of origin for this exhibition – was breaking new ground from at least the early 1990s in such shows and catalogues as Art and Ambiguity and Evocations of the Child. The curators, Nessa Leibhammer, Billy Makhubele and Natalie Knight, are to be congratulated. We would wish a most fruitful show for the Oliewenhuis Art Museum, now hosting this supremely excellent exhibition – which I now have the greatest pleasure in declaring open.