Farmers as art gallery curators

Stephen Townley Bassett has dedicated his life to studying and reproducing bushman paintings. He says farmers should consider themselves curators of these unique art galleries. Orrock Robertsen reports.
Issue date : 08 May 2009

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Stephen Townley Bassett has dedicated his life to studying and reproducing bushman paintings. He says farmers  should consider themselves curators of these unique art galleries. Orrock Robertsen reports.

It takes one to appreciate one, and like the bushmen before him, Stephen Townley Bassett is also an artist. Based in Queenstown in the Eastern Cape, the 51-year-old has spent the past 20 years exploring gorges, mountains and valleys, finding and then faithfully reproducing bushmen paintings to within millimetres of the original. Today his work is sought-after by overseas collectors and when the Mexican government celebrates its 200-year anniversary later this year, our ambassador will present them with one of Stephen’s meticulous rock art paintings.

A lifelong passion
When four-year-old Stephen’s dad passed away, his uncle, Ginger Townley Johnson, who had a great interest in rock art, became Stephen’s surrogate father. Stephen spent his youth trekking through the Cederberg Mountains with his uncle, searching for rock art sites. Ginger would then trace them and let the authorities know where they were.The adult Stephen took a regular marketing job in Cape Town, gave it his best shot, but, “I felt a part of my soul was missing,” he says. He resigned and headed off to the mountains of the Eastern Cape, an area renowned for rock art sites.
Unlike his uncle, who traced the bushman art and painted them with conventional oils, Stephen wanted to recreate them with the same paints and tools as the bushmen had done.

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But with no bushmen around, where to start? That’s when he discovered the writings of Wilhelm Bleek, a German linguist and renowned San researcher who’d interviewed many bushmen imprisoned for stock theft in the Breakwater Prison in the Cape in the late 1870s. “Bleek and his assistant Lucy Lloyd were the greatest contributors of information on bushman culture, even to today,” Stephen says. “They compiled over 18 000 pages about bushman life.”

Armed with Bleek’s research, Stephen discarded all his modern painting equipment and started developing tools from what nature had to offer (see box: Thinking like a bushmen artist). “I created my own paints, binding liquids, brushes and containers,” Stephen says. “I’ve gone as far as using snake venom and my own blood in my paintings. Some of my pieces have taken more than 10 years to finish because of my obsession with detail. The final product must be the next best thing to the original on the rock.”

Significance of rock art
Stephen is interested in rock art for its artistic value, but says the drawings represent much more. “They have a very strong religious and spiritual underpinning. They’re not mere doodles because the bushmen had nothing better to do! Art was an integral part of their social fabric.” Cave walls were hugely symbolic for them – they were seen as the “veil” between this world and the next. Artists used to travel through it to the spirit world, enter an altered state of consciousness and draw what they’d “seen” on the other side. “This significance can often be seen in the art, where an eland might be painted as if it’s disappearing into a crack in the cave wall, or dotted lines lead to cracks in the cave wall,” says Stephen. “All straining towards the afterlife.”

Only about half the men became igixa or artists, while a third of the women painted. Interestingly, the Xhosa would eventually adopt the bushman word igixa to refer to a healer or doctor. The characteristic clicks in the Xhosa language also have their origins in San language. A popular misconception is that all bushmen painted. Instead, they were divided into two groups – the San and the Khoikhoi. “The San painted the beautiful rock paintings in caves while the Khoikhoi engraved rocks,” Stephen explains. “The Nguni people, who intermarried with the bushmen, also attempted rock painting, but in a more primitive style, using their fingers to paint and mostly in white.”

Bushman lore and rock art
As for the praying mantis, the insect popularly associated with bushmen, they didn’t actually worship them. Instead the trickster deity Kaggen was worshipped. Able to fly and take on many shapes, the mischievous Kaggen delighted in tricking men, especially those hunting his beloved eland.“Eland were the cornerstone of the three rites of San passage. A boy became a man after killing his first eland. When a girl reached puberty, the community performed the eland bull dance so she, like the eland, would be fat and healthy, and rain would fall in the desert. New brides were also anointed with eland fat so they would be fertile.”
Red ochre was mixed with eland blood when the San wanted to paint an eland. They believed this was an avenue for them to enter the images themselves, Stephen explains.

The cost of being an artist
Stephen’s life-long quest to document the art of the bushmen has come at a cost. “It’s not easy spending 20 years of your life alone in the mountains and penniless. There were often times I really doubted what I was doing. Many a lonely Sunday evening was spent on the stoep pondering the life decisions I’d made and also wondering whether I’d find anyone to share my life with,” says Stephen. But he needn’t have worried. Today his paintings are in great demand, he’s married to Karen and they have a five-year-old daughter. “I have lived my truth. Many men live lives of quiet desperation. We don’t think we have the power to live our truths – I’m proof that it’s possible.”    
Contact Stephen Townley Bassett
on 083 774 9565 or e-mail
[email protected]     |fw

Rock art’s legal status

“South African rock art is protected by the National Heritage Resources Act 1999 in terms of which no rock art may be defaced. “A landowner who has rock art on his property is regarded by law as the custodian of that art and is therefore responsible for it. This makes these farmers curators of the rock art galleries,” explains Stephen.
A big problem is graffiti, which Stephen is qualified to remove (see below). “I estimate 25% of all sites I’ve visited have been defaced with some form of graffiti. It’s the equivalent to writing your name on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel,” he fumes. “It just makes no sense.” The South African Heritage Resources Agency has registered 15 000 bushmen painting sites in the country. “But they reckon there are at least another 15 000 to be found,” Stephen says. “I was doing a government-sponsored project in the Cederberg and Wilderness areas, where there were only 16 registered sites. Two-and-a-half years later, we’ve discovered a further 90 sites.”

Thinking like a bushman artist
Developing techniques to document rock art as authentically as possible was more difficult than Stephen initially thought. While there was a smattering of research to draw from, Stephen ultimately “had to learn to think like a bushman”.
Stephen discovered they used four basic pigments. Red and yellow ochre was found in iron-rich clay and soft to semi-hard rock. The rock was ground into very fine powder and formed a durable paint base. Black came from charcoal.
“This may seem easy,” Stephen points out, “but it took years to get the texture and quality right. The secret was to soak the charcoal in water for days until it was completely saturated.” White was harder to source from nature. White clay seems the obvious choice, but Stephen explains it was too difficult to do fine work with as it’s almost transparent when first applied. “Then I started noticing that the only white to be found was the white streaks of raptor faeces on cliffs. Raptors, like black eagles, prey on dassies and what comes out the other end is processed calcium! Heating and crushing eggshells, especially ostrich eggs was also done to create white paint.”
Red ochre is the strongest colour of the four as it can be ground extremely finely and it literally sticks to the rock face. Yellow is the next most permanent colour, then white, then black. “Today we see only a very faded version of what must have been extremely bright paintings thousands of years ago.”

Stephen soon realised binding and carrying agents were needed to give paints longevity. “Fat, eggs, animal and human blood, as well as sap from certain plants, like the Euphorbia species, make great paint binders. Saliva, water and animal gall make good carrying agents, which hold finely ground pigment in suspension, allowing the paint to be drawn onto a rock surface. Eland blood is of particular importance as a binder.”

But good artists also need good tools. “I would assume that a bushman painter must have had a minimum of 15 different types of brushes in his set.” Stephen says. “To be able to paint on uneven rock surfaces, instruments need flexibility. Feather brushes worked, especially the smaller down feathers of some birds. But they lacked longevity and didn’t hold paint as well as brushes made of hair.

Springhare tail hair and the hind hair of a springbok make fantastic fine brushes. The back hair of a blesbok can be used for coarse-haired brushes, while certain quills of a porcupine, when cut at an angle, expose an inner sponge, which is useful when painting dotted lines.”

But how to transport all of this? “Bushmen had containers to carry their brushes and transport paint, without having to make new paint every time,” Stephen says.
“They used a dried-out, hollowed-out springbok horn as a paint brush carrier, sealed at the one end with the scrotum sac of a grey rhebok and a wooden stopper in the other.

“To transport the paint, they heated it together with animal fat, then allowed it to cool into transportable paint balls. When needed again, they simply added gall fat and blood. “Saliva is also a great way to liquefy the paint balls, because of the natural enzymes in it,” explains Stephen.