ArtSpoken & Reviews

Water, Stone and Legend

Moira de Swardt
11/05/2011 08:10:16

Moira de Swardt: A little book about South Africa's prehistoric art.

As a student in Cape Town in the mid-seventies I joined the mountain climbing club. It provided me with many opportunities to hike through some pretty scenery, learning about South African flora and, less often, its fauna. One lunch time we took shelter in the shade of a rocky overhang in the Swartberg. As we were sitting there the leader of the party pointed out a “Bushman” painting as we called San paintings back then. There it was, in somewhat less than Technicolor glory, faded and difficult to make out. Sitting there we experienced some peer education, or pooled ignorance more likely, about prehistoric African paintings, the San people and the conditions in which they lived and created their enigmatic art. A love affair was born.

I have been privileged to see some other San painting originals since then, in the Drakensberg, the Outeniqua, the Cederberg, in the Kruger National Park and in the Langeberg. I don't hike anymore. These days I access this art through exhibitions at Origins Centre, Witwatersrand University and through books, documentaries and articles. My latest exposure to this is through this book.

When one is moving about in the African veld at night, it takes one a while after having been exposed to artificial light to adjust and to get one's night vision working. The same is true of looking at San paintings, even in photographs (many of which I suspect, judging by what I have seen in the field, are digitally enhanced to bring out the best views). One has to allow one's eyes to adjust to the natural pigmentations after having been exposed to the artificial brights of clothing, furnishings and the trappings of “civilisation”. One has to allow the spiritual, emotional and physical calm to settle upon one before one can pick up the subtle images with all their delicate splendour.

This book is richly illustrated with both the scenery of the Klein Karoo and photographs of the works of art themselves. Some of this history, legend and speculative interpretation is included in the book. Stories of the “watermeid”, a mythical mermaid in a semi-arid desert. Legends of the eland. Prehistoric people and their lives, including the role of women as spiritual and physical beings, are examined.

Renee Rust is an archaeologist with a doctorate from the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at Stellenbosch University. She has been researching and documenting San paintings for more than twenty years. Jan van der Poll is a writer and photographer with the Western Cape's museum services, a keen mountaineer and a member of the South African Archaeological Society.

If one cannot get to see the originals for oneself, this book is a wonderful educational consolation prize. If one can get to see the originals, then this book comes alive with memories, awe and respect. I recommend it highly.

Title: Water, Stone and Legend
Sub-title: Rock Art of the Klein Karoo
Author: Renee Rust & Jan van der Poll
Publishers: Struik Travel and Heritage
Year: 2011
ISBN: 978-1-77007-945-8
Recommended Selling Price: Unknown

Moira de Swardt
Freelance Journalist
011 482 7320
082 553 2457