Cultures develop and die, stories are passed through languages and time, and it seems that only the stars survive. For thousands of years and over generations, people have looked to the night sky and tried to understand the curtain of stars and the glowing moon. Countless creation myths and stories have been born of this curiosity. They have come to represent the ideas of cultures long since extinct, such as the |Xam-speaking San people.
Most recently, the desire to understand the stars has led to international telescope projects and advanced scientific inquiry, specifically the phenomenal Square Kilometer Array (SKA) radio telescope project. The Shared Sky art exhibition, in the Iziko South African National Gallery, merged this scientific advancement with the oral traditions of the San people in a timeless celebration of art, creation and common humanity.
Based on the archives of Wilhelm Bleek and Lucy Lloyd, and created by descendants of |Xam-speaking San people, the artworks in this exhibition were visual interpretations of the stories that were central to San culture and beliefs. In this way, the oral tradition of the San people has survived – that is, through translation and interpretation, and despite near extinction in the modern world.
The Shared Sky exhibition consisted of art from both South Africa and Australia – countries to which some of the oldest known artwork can be attributed, and both sites of the SKA project. The South African artworks are brilliantly coloured quilts that not only celebrate San culture and creation myths, but also represent a revival of a culture that has otherwise perished. The quilts were produced by a collaboration of artists who are descendants of |Xam-speaking San people and others from the central Karoo, who together formed The First People Artists at the Bethesda Arts Centre in Nieu Bethedsa, Eastern Cape.
The stories visualised by the quilts are printed in English alongside the artworks, and represent a compelling amalgamation of interpretation, translation and documentation. Through remembering the creation myths and traditions of their ancestors, the artists recreate San culture in a modern context, using accessible mediums. One such example is the remarkable quilt depicting flashing orange flames and a crumbling white form, which illustrates the traditional |Xam story of Sun Spare My Children.
The story was told to Wilhelm Bleek by ||kabbo and recorded is the online archives as follows:
The story continues about the Moon and how it is stabbed by the Sun. The angry Sun follows the spoor of the Moon as it (the Moon) travels in the sky. The Sun intends to fight the Moon. The Moon is pierced by the knife or rays of the Sun. In pain, the Moon sets slowly and dies but is reborn the next night when it lights up the darkness. A part of the Moon remains in the sky and lives while its decayed and wounded part dies away. The part of the Moon that lives is joined to its head, its face and its thinking strings. As the Moon grows, so does its stomach which becomes full and gives light for the people on the ground.
(The Digital Bleek and Lloyd)
A photograph of the artwork and the story, as it is printed alongside, appears below:
Sun Spare My Children
The exhibition ascription and version of the story reads:
First People Artists, Bethesda Arts Centre
Collaborative art quilt 193 by 104 cm
This is how it happens: the sun comes, the day breaks, the darkness goes away. The sun sets, the darkness comes out, the moon rises. Moon brightens the darkness, taking away the darkness. The darkness departs.
Moon goes along brightening the darkness. Moon sets. Sun is following close behind. Sun slices at Moon with his knife, each day break, a little more. Painfully Moon goes along decaying away. He cries out to Sun, “O Sun! leave for my children the backbone!” Sun hears, and leaves alive for the children the backbone of the moon. A sliver. Painfully Moon goes home to become a new moon. He puts on a new stomach. He’s alive! He becomes large, he becomes whole. And so it goes on.
Essentially, the narrative of Sun Spare My Child imaginatively explains the lunar cycle and illustrates the San people’s ideas about the cycle of life through its symbolic reference to celestial bodies and observed patterns in the natural world. Thus the beliefs and oral traditions of the artists’ ancestors are recalled in a beautiful amalgamation of mediums and material that is more accessible to a wider public than was previously possible.
Nevertheless, in their original form, the creation myths of the |Xam-speaking San people are entirely inaccessible. In addition to requiring that the narrator and listener share a specific spatial and temporal setting, the oral traditions of the |Xam-speaking San people are also dependent on a shared language and culture. Tragically, the cultural suppression – or ethnocide – experienced by the San populations of the Karoo throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries led to the extinction of the |Xam language and, with it, their oral tradition.
However, a precious relic remains in the form of the Bleek and Lloyd Collection. Formed by German linguist, Wilhelm Bleek, and his sister-in-law, Lucy Lloyd, the archive is a collection of verbatim accounts of traditional |Xam stories that have been translated into English, and afford the First People artists access to the story-telling traditions of their ancestors.
But, as Bhekizizwe Peterson points out in his paper, “The Archives and the Political Imaginary”, “archives cannot be naively approached as spaces or custodians of documents and information […] we have to be critical of the methods that have gone into the acquisition, cataloguing and interpretation of material” (28). A critical approach is especially necessary when examining the testimonies recorded by Bleek and Lloyd, since these oral narratives were divorced from their original context and translated across language, medium and time.
Bleek and Lloyd built up their collection from verbal interviews they conducted between 1870 and 1884 with |Xam-speaking men who had been imprisoned in Cape Town’s Breakwater prison (Wessels). The men, including ||kabbo, were released into Bleek’s custody at a time when the |Xam language was perishing and cultural devastation was an imminent threat. But this is not to say they were captive subjects coerced into contributing to Bleek’s linguistic studies. In fact, as Pippa Skotnes argues in her book Claim to the Country: The Archive of Wilhelm Bleek and Lucy Lloyd, the context at the time motivated the informants’ “sense of urgency and willingness to record their lives and preserve their language, […] goes way beyond the possibility of coercion or pressure brought to bear on captive subjects” (73).
Although living in Bleek’s backyard in Mowbray was preferable to the Breakwater prison cells, the men’s situation could not be compared to the freedom in the landscape from which their oral traditions originated. However, Bleek and Lloyd’s interviewees seem to have embraced the opportunity to have their traditions documented and their narratives preserved, as if they realised that the meaning of their stories would be passed on to their descendants long after their language had died.
Yet the fact remains, however, that in order for their testimonies to be preserved, their oral tradition had to be translated across both medium and language – often on multiple occasions and through various channels.
More precisely, the archive was undoubtedly affected on a foundational level by the difficulties of documenting the |Xam language – as is evident in the notebooks of Bleek and Lloyd, which are awash with frantic scribbles, scratches and empty parentheses.
In order to transfer the |Xam language from spoken sounds to intelligible text, Bleek and Lloyd had to devise an entirely new linguistic system and then translate the verbatim account into English. This material is then further translated and interpreted by the reader, who occupies an entirely different context and may extend the project by translating the testimony into new mediums, such the artwork produced by The First People Centre. In his paper, “!Khwa-ka Hhouiten Hhouiten ‘The Rush Of The Storm’”, Anthony Traill recognises the complex nature of returning to the Bleek and Lloyd Collection, and re-examining the narratives in a context that is divorced from the original performance:
Our readings are our interpretations of Bleek and Lloyd’s work; Bleek and Lloyd’s readings are interpretations of what the |Xam narrators tried so hard to convey; and even the |Xam testimonies are the informants’ interpretations, moulded by individual and collective experience, of their own traditions.
This is particularly evident in the Shared Sky story of Sun Spare My Children, where the words printed alongside the quilt differ from those recorded in Bleek’s notebook – both in language and diction.
The quilt itself represents a radical translation of |kabbo’s words to Bleek in the period of 1871-73 (The Digital Bleek and Lloyd), since meaning of his performance has since passed through languages, materials, mediums and time to be translated by the descendants of |Xam-speaking San people into a colourful collage of fabric and forms. Ironically, however, the quilt, created by a collaboration of artists in a small village in the Eastern Cape, now hangs on the wall of a museum in Cape Town – a short distance from the place where Bleek first recorded ||kabbo’s words.
Arguably, too, multiple translations across a variety of mediums and contexts have not only preserved something of the essence of the traditional |Xam story, but also aspects of the performance: a audio recording of one of the artists explaining the concept behind the artwork can be found on the Mail & Guardian online site, and provides an accessible but less personal platform for the continuation of the |Xam oral traditions.
Podcast: Sun Spare My Children Explanation
Moreover, the First People Centre’s interpretation of Sun Spare My Child has been subject to further translation and interpretation by my photograph and brief written analysis of the work, as well as your response to this material. Without even considering how the First People artists initially experienced the story, it is clear that Sun Spare My Child has evolved in many ways until this point – and yet, something of its essence has remained as constant as the stars in the sky.
Just as the sun “slices” away at the moon every night, so have the oral traditions of the |Xam-speaking San people been subject to countless translations, interpretations and alterations in every encounter outside of the original performance. But, just as the moon’s backbone is spared for its children, so has the essence of the |Xam-speaking San people’s oral tradition been carefully passed from one generation to the next. Every interpretation and production of new art forms inspired by this story represents a revival of the San people’s beliefs about life in an infinite cosmos.
The oral traditions of the |Xam-speaking San people survive in a cycle of new mediums, languages and materials, much in the same way that the moon “puts on a new stomach” to become large, whole and alive every night.
This essay was originally submitted to the Rhodes University English Department, 7 May 2015.
First People Artists, Bethesda Arts Centre. Sun Spare My Children. Cape Town: Iziko South African National Gallery. Collaborative quilt.
Mail and Guardian. “Sun Spare My Children Explanation.” M&G Online. N.p., 2014. Web. 5 May 2015.
Peterson, Bhekizizwe. “The Archives And The Political Imaginary.” Refiguring The Archive. Ed. Carolyn Hamilton. 1st ed. Cape Town: David Philip, 2002. 20-38. Print.
Shared Sky exhibition catalogue. 13 February – 26 May 2015. Cape Town: Iziko South African National Gallery. Art exhibition.
Skotnes, Pippa. Claim To The Country. Johannesburg: Jacana, 2007. Print.
The Digital Bleek and Lloyd. “Notebooks / Story Index / |Kaggen (The Mantis) And The Moon (Version 1).” Lloydbleekcollection.cs.uct.ac.za. Web. 5 May 2015.
Traills, Anthony.”!Khwa-Ka Hhouiten Hhouiten ‘The Rush Of The Storm’: The Linguistic Death Of |Xam.” Claim To The Country: The Archive Of Wilhelm Bleek And Lucy Lloyd. Pippa Skotnes. Johannesburg: Jacana, 2007. 56-57. Print.
Wessels, Michael. “Bleek and Lloyd Collection – ESAACH”. Esaach.org.za. Web. 5 May 2015.