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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

San Ethnography

For most of the twentieth century, people followed a “gaze and guess” approach to interpreting southern African San rock art. They would simply look at the art and feel confident enough to pronounce on its meaning. Of course, such pronouncements made by missionaries, explorers, and colonialists were heavily prejudiced against San people. The San were seen to be simple and crude, and therefore their art was simple and crude. At best, the art was seen as a sort of menu—they painted and engraved what they ate. During the 1960s, scholars began to approach the art more systematically; in particular, they undertook quantitative studies of the images. This revealed a marked patterning in certain parts of southern Africa. The eland, the largest of all antelope, was the most commonly depicted animal in most areas, in stark contrast to archaeological evidence that San people ate mainly small antelope and wildebeest, which were rarely depicted. Clearly, the San were not painting a menu; they were choosing to paint eland for other reasons.

To understand what these reasons might be, scholars began to read about San beliefs and practices. They were fortunate in that a German linguist, Wilhelm Bleek, and his sister-in-law Lucy Lloyd had collected some 12,000 pages of /Xam San beliefs, folklore, and ritual practices in the 1870s. These were written down in the /Xam language in the orthography developed by Bleek and translated verbatim. Today these notebooks are stored in the Jagger Library at the University of Cape Town, where one can see the San text on one side of a notebook and the English translation, line for line, on the opposite page. In addition to this invaluable resource, anthropologists living among San groups of the Kalahari Desert of Namibia and Botswana from the 1950s onward provided detailed material on San practices and beliefs. These San did not paint or engrave on stone but still practiced the rituals that were integral to the art.

Central to these rituals is an invisible energy, said by the San to be found in almost all animals but in great quantities in the eland. San shamans harness this supernatural energy in order to undertake the dangerous journey to the world of spirits, where they must perform various tasks such as rainmaking, fighting off evil spirits, and curing the sick. This potent energy was to be found, particularly, in the eland’s blood, fat, and sweat. Oral testimony from a man who painted with San people in the nineteenth century as well as chemical tests show that many of the images of eland are made with blood; the art itself is redolent with this supernatural energy.

As scholars came to understand San beliefs in greater detail, more and more of the art could be related to San religious beliefs concerning the world of the spirits and the ritual by means of which they contacted that world—the healing or trance dance. This dance was, and still is in the Kalahari, the central mechanism for harnessing the supernatural power residing in eland and other animals. Often performed around the carcass of a recently killed animal, the trance dance is circular in movement; men and older women shamans dance in a circle, while young women sit, clap, and sing songs (themselves thought to carry supernatural energy). The rhythmic singing and clapping and the intense dancing for hours on end produce altered states of consciousness in which the shamans experience, first, visual imagery, and later, more complex multisensory hallucinations.

To call these experiences “hallucinations” is, of course, to look at them from a detached Western academic perspective; for the San, these experiences are deeply moving and profound revelations of a religious reality beyond this world. In order to experience these revelations, they believe that one must harness the supernatural energy from the dead animal. This energy enters the body, where it “boils” in the stomach, forcing it to rise into the heads of the dancers, where it explodes, catapulting them into the other world.

Alongside the numerous images of eland are ubiquitous depictions of healing or trance dances and the various experiences that the shaman-dancers have when they enter the other world, such as transformation into animal form. These images often interact with the rock surface; they appear to enter or leave cracks, steps, and other openings in the rock surface. For this reason, scholars believe that, for the San, the rock surface functioned as a veil between this world and the spiritual one. Filled with supernatural energy, the images are depicted on this veil, on the very liminal space between two worlds. It is now thought by some scholars that, for the San, these images were more than just representational—they were the actual inhabitants of the spirit world.