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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Arts of the San People in Nomansland

In a remote area of South Africa lies one of the last places San people painted. Situated just south and east of Lesotho, Nomansland was so called by the colonial authorities because virtually no settlers and very few Bantu-speaking people lived there. From a colonial perspective, the many San people who lived there were propertyless nomads because they lived by hunting and gathering and followed the movements of the game. Despite the presence of San people, then, the area was, in a colonial mindset, effectively a No Man’s Land. Ironically, because the area was settled so late in colonial history, the San managed to sustain their way of life in the face of increasing hostility before they were, as all over South Africa, slain or forced to amalgamate with their more powerful Bantu-speaking neighbors.

Some of the last paintings made by the San come from this area. These include many intriguing images of grotesque figures, enigmatic thin red lines fringed by white dots, and numerous, complexly shaded eland. None of the images, however, are more intriguing than those with large heads. At many sites, scholars have discovered anthropomorphic images with heads that are exaggerated in size. Typically, these heads are greatly detailed; they are painted in profile with chin, upper and lower lips, nose, eye, and ear. Moreover, the images often have a characteristic headdress. Below the head, less detail is evident—figures have no legs, or they have arms without hands; in some sites, there are heads without any bodies whatsoever. Each head is unique to a particular site, making them especially significant.

Their uniqueness raises interesting questions about what they represent. Many of the figures have features, such as blood from the nose or divining switches, that indicate they are depictions of San shamans. It is possible that these images are portraits of individual, powerful shamans. If so, they are not portraits in the Western sense of the word; many of them have unrealistic features that point to their transformation into animal form. If these are portraits of San shamans, then they represent what those shamans look like in the spirit world.