I am in the Kalahari today. The Kalahari is actually a green desert – considered to be so because of the minimal rain fall in the area. We are here to visit the Kuru Art Center in D’kar, Ghanzi, an art studio where contemporary San artists make their work. D’kar is a San settlement. Their paintings have been exhibited in museums and galleries all over the world. The story of my arrival to D’kar is interesting. I am ashamed to say that when I arrived in Botswana I was interested in every culture except for the San’s. The museum displays of them in Natural History Museums have historically been used to reinforced the stereotype of ‘primitive’ Africa. I am ashamed to say that I wanted to stay as far away from anything having to do with them as possible. This was the so-called Africa that I came to disprove. It even bothered me that they live in Botswana. Little did I know that I had believed a lie.
|Typical display of the San, also known as 'Bushman in Natural History Museusms|
My first Thursday here I ventured to a place called BotswanaCraft with my colleague. Anything having to do with crafts I wanted to check out. BotswanaCraft did not disappoint. It is an entire showroom with instruments, sculptures, woven baskets, tee shirts, tote bags, dolls (just reminded myself to be sure to purchase one before I leave), music recordings and candles!
There were also quite a few San crafts. The San make beautiful jewelry using ostrich shell beads. These I avoided. In my mind, San culture was not the Botswana I was here for. I wondered into a back room with these beautiful mahogany chairs (one of these I also plan to get) and the most beautiful baskets I have ever seen. They are large with all kinds of patterns. They are like sculptures. (Hopefully I will be able to get one on this journey in the village where they are made.)
|Contemporary Oil Painting by a San Artist|
As I strolled through the show room, I spotted on the back wall the most brightly colored and unique painting of a giraffe. This was not a foreign impression of Africa represented by a misguided focus on its animals. It was a contemporary painting done by a San artist who has an authentic relationship with Africa’s animals. The Giraffe is a part of the artist’s life experience and holds special meaning in his culture. Immediately I inquired about the cost – it had been sold long ago. It was done by one of the Kuru Artists. I went to the second level to find a calendar done by these same artists – a calendar that I saw but purposefully had not looked at it. As I thumbed through the months, I took in one big colorful painting after the other. Actually…this was the Botswana I came for! I came to this country for the truth about Africa and here it was. I realized that I had been influenced by those museums to believe a lie. The San were not a ‘missing link’ primate people supposedly a part of Africa’s near past. And this evolutionary narrative assigned to them is a distortion. They are a vibrant, contemporary people with an extraordinary connection to the land who were making beautiful art work that I had to see for myself. Their work and the place that it comes from is much like Aboriginal Australian art. I visited their website once I got back to my apartment. The Kuru Art Center that produced that calendar was hundreds of miles from Gaborone in the Ghanzi district. How in the world would I get there? Then God came through. The social studies officer at the Ministry of Education offered to take my colleague and I on this cultural tour we are on. When we planned the itinerary, the Kuru Arts Center was the first stop I requested.
The San have much in common with Aboriginal Australians and Native Americans. They have a special connection with their land that is reflected in their art work. Even though their style of painting is different from native Australians, it is still very similar. Both make large scaled paintings bursting with color that tell stories about the land. Their wood block prints done by the Kuru artists are slightly similar in style to the bark paintings of Arnhem Land artists who live in Northern Australia.
The San also suffer from the social ills of a displaced people. Something happens to the souls of those who have been displaced from their land through colonialism and forced removals. Consider this. The forced removal of Native Americans and loss of land. Reference the Trail of Tears and reservations. The forced removal and loss of land rights of Aboriginal Australians by English colonists…oh excuse me…English prisoners (Australia started as a penal colony). The actually call Aboriginal Australians ‘black fellows.’ And also with the San. They lost
their land twice over. I am sorry to have to report that when Batswana ethnic groups, and others who first migrated down into Southern Africa, arrived, they forced the San out of eastern part of the country. Once this happened the San were driven into the Kalahari region in what is now known as the Ghanzi district. The Bakgalagadi and the BaTawana ethnic groups actually enslaved them. Then once Botswana was colonized by the British in 1885, the Ghanzi district was designated as ‘Crown land.’ This meant the British could do whatever they wanted to with the land. I even read that the region was being preserved to be a ‘game reserve’ later. Well, that seems noble. But the telling of history and historiography is tricky. When I visited the slave castle in Keta in the summer of 2016, etched on
the wall in one of the lower dungeons was this: Until the lion has his historian, the Hunter will always be a ‘hero.’ And so it is with the story of the San in Ghanzi. The British, in the person of Cecil Rhodes, used this ‘crown land’ to resettle the boers, the racist Dutch farmers, from the east. They actually gave them huge pieces of land and told them that they now owned everything on their ‘farm’ – the plants, the wild animals and …the San! The San, living on their ancestral lands, were legally determined to be ‘squatters.’ The boers turned these chunks of land into large cattle farms and forced the San to work on them. They actually enslaved them. Once Botswana gained independence in 1966, they did nothing to stop enslavement of the San. Then in recent years, in the early 2000s, the Botswanan government again sold out the San who were living freely in the Kalahari. They contracted a private company to turn the Kalahari into a large game reserve. The government gave the San living there the equivalent of between twenty and forty dollars as a ‘compensation package’ and forced them to move. So instead of living from the land as they preferred, they were forced to find employment in the most barren, non-industrialized area of the country. It completely disrupted their way of life. They work for those same boers who displaced them and enslaved their brothers, who have now become ‘cattle barons.’ These cattle barons, who own up to three million cows, have become the primary suppliers of beef to Britain. They control the local economy, which after diamonds, is based on cattle. The San who work for them are at their mercy. Before I found out all of this background I suspected it just by looking at groups of women gathered in various places in D’kar once we arrived. Some of them had the facial features of the San, but were curiously much lighter skinned and had straight hair. Hmmm…you guessed it. The boer cattle barons exploit and take advantage of San woman working on their ranches. Most of the women have no choice but to work for them. The result is a forced bi-racialiality in D’kar’s San community. Like many Native Americans and Aboriginal Australians, there is a lot of drinking and chaos in much of San society now. I think this is a specific alcoholism that results in First Nation peoples who have lost their land and thus their traditional way of life. Eventually, I would like to do more to help the San. Thank the Lord for the Kuru Art Center, which shines the creative genius of these people.
Nineteen San artists are making work at Kuru. Many of them older ladies. This is also similar to Aboriginal Australian painters. The Australian Embassy in Washington DC recently exhibited the work of a woman painter who is over one hundred years old. There are also younger men and women who are a part of the collective as well. As I walked through the gates it was wonderful. The studios are filled with boldly colored paintings, textile pieces and colorful prints. They smelled like art studios smell – like paint, turpentine (they work in oils) and ingenuity. Everything at the center has been touched by the artists – the rubbish bin (we call this the trash can), the outdoor atrium in the center, the signs leading to the center. An artist makes the bags for holding products.
The artists make oil paintings, block prints and dyed textile pieces. The same older ladies that I saw on the website were in their studio painting. They were dressed in colorful patterned clothes, beautiful earrings and their heads were wrapped. A picture is worth a thousand words. Please see the photos below. The work depicts different stories about the land, animals and plants. The San have expert knowledge about the plants and animals of their traditional land. They know the ways of the animals and have proverbial stories about them. They also know the medicinal value of all of their plants. Which are good for cleaning the kidneys, herbs for women, reducing high blood pressure – everything. Their paintings depict these stories of the land. I was fortunate to be able to buy three prints and a textile piece.
The same painters from the art center performed three traditional dances for us. This is when I saw the essence ‘soul.’ I cannot explain it, but the way the men were dancing and making exclamations showed me the essence of soul that Black American music is so well known for. In their tradition, men and women do not dance together. Women sing and make an ostinato clapping rhythm while the men dance in a circle. A woman is only permitted to come into the circle to briefly dance to encourage the men. (I was a little dismayed when our Batswana transport specialist, who I call Mama Edna or Ms. Edna, who is from the eastern area of the country, jumped into the circle to dance. The San women did not look amused. The traditional etiquette of the dance explains their somber reaction to Mama Edna’s misguided enthusiasm.) Once the music started, the older lady painters came out from the studio and started dancing on the side. The artist who made the textile piece that I bought was also a part of chorus of singers. This is another reason why I am so excited about the Kuru artists. They are visual artists and musicians at the same time. I also am a visual artist and musician. (So is Joni Mitchell, Janis Joplin, the jazz singer Carmen Lundy and many other professional performers.) The Kuru Artists inspire me.
The dance group performed in front of the Kuru museum where we ended our time. The museum told the story of the San of D’kar through the narrative of a little boy. Museums are powerful because they are a platform on which to tell the definitive truth. The museum told the truth of their story – even if it offends the Batswana and the boers who have exploited them. Even though the San are looked down upon by the Batswana, they are also claimed. A San dance, Tsu Tsube, is actually a symbol of national identity which I saw performed more than once as ‘traditional’ Botswanan dance/music. The San that I met today are proud of who they are. I relate to them. We Black Americans have a paralleled history to the San. We also have a vibrant visual art and music tradition that has come to represent the national character of our country. Just like the San, we Black Americans tell the truth about our story even if the ‘hunters’ in our narrative don’t like it. More than that, it is the spirit of resistance and self-determination that I connected with. They know what they have. They know their value. They are not giving their art or music away for pennies. The paintings are sold for hundreds of dollars and guess what? We had to pay for the music – and it was a short performance. They intended to do two songs (15 minutes) and our guides had to convince them to do three. They refuse to be taken advantage of and that it a good thing. No problem with that. They know that their culture and creativity is worth it, and I agree.