Tradition & Modernity in Contemporary San Art

San art at D’Kar and Schmidtsdrift is produced in each village by about a dozen artists, men and women, under the auspices of the Kuru Development Trust and the !Xu and Khwe Trust, respectively. Displayed as “Bushman art,” sometimes in conjunction with rock art (to which the contemporary art has a superficial resemblance but no cultural connection), San art becomes a mechanism for self-representation. Two or three of the Kuru artists produce their pictures—of veld scenes, game animals and wild plant foods, beads, hunting and gathering, domestic and ritual scenes—with the awareness that they are producing images that influence outside perceptions of San culture and heritage. As noted by Thamae Setshogo in an interview at D’Kar in June 1995, “I like to paint because I like to show other people the customs and manners of life of my own people. I like to go forward and to show other people that [the San] might do something on their own.”

Coex’ae Bob, one of the women artists at Kuru, expressed the same idea in a conversation in July 1997:

The art tells people about San culture and helps to show who the people are and what they do to visitors who come from Ngamiland or Namibia to see what the San people here at D’Kar are like. The art helps in explaining that. I myself like to visit other places and other parts of the country to find out how they live there and what they do and what they want. Others come here with the same curiosity. The art is one way they can find out.

The identity-defining impact of these colorful, visually striking, and salient images is appreciated not only by cultural outsiders at urban public and private galleries, but also by the San people themselves, at home in the artists’ community. The Kuru Development Trust (KDT) operates a cultural center with a museum and gallery that keeps and displays a permanent collection of art works in and for the community. Some of the artists’ houses have discarded paintings hanging on their outside walls of courtyard fences and some artists work in the open, surrounded by family members or passers-by. The picture an artist works on may generate a story she can tell to her children and grandchildren. The community partakes of the art and its members are affected by its inherent elements of self-representation and identity.

While the majority of San pictures depict motifs from the past—what one artist spoke of as the "old days when there was more rain and more veld food and animals, and no Whites and Blacks; when the veld belonged only to the San and people didn’t have to work at the farms"--a number of pictures also deal with the present. Paintings may depict Western objects like helicopters, trucks and minivans, jeans, radios and guitars, cattle and goats, or, as in Schmidtsdrift’s case, the guns, bayonets, soldiers, military tents, and scenes of raids that reflect some of the village’s recent military past and its disturbing effect on the lives of the people there. Art might also depict the White and Black settlers, sometimes with wry, lampooning humor: two boorish-looking White farmers in a fistfight, or a Black man with a suitcase looking lost in the veld.

Other pictures show both traditional and modern scenes together in arresting juxtapositions: an antelope bounding over the front lawn of a person’s Western-style house, a helicopter in amongst magnified antelope hoof prints, or a trance dancer wearing European clothing with "entoptic" trance images (depicted by buttons) whirring around his head. The late X’goa Mangana (who signed himself as Qwaa) was a master of this sort of painting. His favorite work was an eland scene showing a herd of eight of the great antelopes--Qwaa’s favorite animal motif--grazing and lazing in the lush veld, looking fat and contented. Each animal bears the artist’s name branded on its flank. "Eland are the San’s cattle," said Qwaa. His painting lays claim to, and reclaims, the ecological resources the San lost to White and Black settlers in the region. It is also a powerful statement on San cultural resources; as the source of healing potency and "god’s favorite animal," the eland is, for the San, heavy with ritual and mythic portent.

Paintings that combine scenes from the past with those of the present, juxtaposing tradition and modernity, are especially meaningful to San artists and art viewers. In such works, the artists engage the new economic and social order while keeping in check its disruptive, culturally uprooting impact. By contrasting elements of modernity with those of tradition they refer the former back to the latter and embrace the new post-foraging order on their own terms. In balancing select elements from the present with those from the past, artists prevent modernity’s effects from overwhelming the San.

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