Abusing the Bushman’s canvas

Retired farmer Victor Briggs began studying rock art almost 40 years ago. He told Mike Burgess about the pitiful state of many of South Africa’s rock art shelters, and what can be done to save the Bushman’s canvas.

A stunning panel of rock art depicting a herd of eland in the upper Tsitsana area near Mount Fletcher in the Eastern Cape.
Photo: Victor Briggs

Bushmen communities in South Africa have been treated with disdain since the mid-1600s. As white and black communities moved into Bushmen (also known as San or Khoisan) hunting grounds, they were met by an almost fanatical resistance that elicited a response of systematic genocide. It is maybe not surprising, therefore, that with the exception of some early recorders of their art, such as geologist and trader George William Stow, their paintings were regarded with contempt by most – the graffiti of a once vicious, but broken enemy.

In the Barkly East area of the Eastern Cape, one of the first settler families to establish themselves along the Witteberg Mountains built their first home in a rock art shelter. Today the original cottage still defines the cave while circular blotches across many Bushmen paintings bear witness to the historical habit of splattering animal dung onto the cave walls to dry before using it as fuel.

However, the most apparent disregard for Bushmen paintings has possibly been the graffiti in rock art shelters by pioneers, farmers, soldiers, political icons or just a group of women and children out on a picnic in the Cathcart area of the Eastern Cape in 1901. While farming in the Ongeluksnek and Kei Road areas of the Eastern Cape, Victor Biggs (69) spent countless hours studying and photographing Bushmen paintings.

Victor firmly believes that certain Bushmen painters were some of Africa’s greatest artists; an admiration that has driven an almost 40-year obsession to document and photograph as many paintings as possible. “These painting are irreplaceable,” he says, clicking through his extensive photographic library on his laptop. “First it was an interest, then a passion, then an obsession.’’


Victor in one of his favourite rock art shelters near the Great Kei River in the Eastern Cape. He has been documenting and photographing rock art for the past 40 years, mainly in KwaZulu- Natal and the Eastern and Western Cape.

Vandalism
Now retired in East London, he continues to document rock art – from the Berg in KwaZulu-Natal to the Cederberg in the Western Cape. But Victor has become deeply disturbed by the desecration and destruction of possibly South Africa’s greatest artistic treasure. He says a large proportion of South Africa’s rock art has, or is in the process of being destroyed by the disregard of ignorant people.

“I don’t know what it is that triggers the desire for someone to want to write their name on a rock,” says Victor. In 2002 a teacher even supervised the destruction of paintings in the Cedarville area of KwaZulu-Natal by scratching her name and the name of every student in her class in a rock art shelter. In the same year, a student scratched his name on the cave wall of a Cathcart shelter while Victor was relaying the need to protect rock art to a group of his peers!

Also in 2002, an academic that Victor had escorted to a shelter in the Cathcart area had surreptitiously scrawled his name below a ledge; an indiscretion that Victor only discovered years later. Although Victor concedes that such graffiti could be respected as historical sources in their own right, he points out that this graffiti almost always exists at the expense of the Bushman’s canvas.


This scene confronted Victor when visiting a cave in 1991 that once belonged to ‘Africa’s Michelangelo’ near the Seeta River in the Queen’s Mercy area of the former Transkei. The man who lived in the cave clearly had a penchant for horse meat as illustrated by the clearly visible horse biltong and the severed horse legs in the top left hand corner of this photograph.

Other graffiti has been aimed purely at the malicious destruction of rock art and includes scribbles, scratches and charcoal smudges. Examples of this indiscriminate desecration of rock art includes damage to paintings of extinct quagga in the Tarkastad area, a destroyed panel of art in the Cathcart district, and scribbled charcoal across intricately detailed eland near Barkly East.

This trend of destruction is best illustrated by what Victor believes to have been one of the greatest panels of eland ever painted in a rock shelter along the Seeta River in the Queens Mercy area of the former Transkei. First discovered by Victor in the early 1970s, the paintings once described by the late rock art expert, Bert Woodhouse, as the work of “Africa’s Michelangelo” had by 2002 been deliberately scratched from the walls of the shelter. “They were exceptional – some of the best I have ever seen,” he says.

It is thought that the paintings were destroyed by a resident in the cave. Victor never met the resident, but managed to photograph the occupied cave in 1991, many years before the, cave dweller was eventually evicted by the local chief Jeremiah Moshesh. Another assault on Bushman paintings has been the actual removal and attempted removal of paintings from shelters. Although Victor believes the professional removal of paintings by museums has played a role in the preservation of rock art, he insists that there is no need for more to be removed.

He points out that despite the effort and time it took trained stonemasons to remove the Linton Stone (currently in the Iziko Museums of Cape Town) from the farm Linton in the Maclear district in 1917, significant damage was still inflicted on the rock art in the shelter anyway. Therefore it is not surprising that the damage wrought by amateurs going to the shelters with drills, chisels and hammers has proved catastrophic. Examples of terrible damage can be seen in the Bolo, Cathcart and Maclear districts in the Eastern Cape.

The tragedy
Victor says rock art in the former Transkei is under the greatest threat by virtue of the dense population of people and uncontrolled livestock in the area. Shelters are often used by large numbers of livestock as a natural barrier from the elements. Farmers with minimum resources often transform rock art sites into kraals as is the case in a well-known rock shelter in the Xolobe area near Tsomo.

Some Xhosas use shelters as initiation sites and others live in shelters permanently. Shelters in the former Transkei are also often visited by igqirhas (traditional healers) who chip the red ochre from Bushmen paintings for use in traditional medicine.  “To see that is the most heartbreaking; all of the red paint has been gouged out of the paintings,” says Victor.

Farmers and rock art
According to Victor there are farmers who genuinely appreciate Bushmen art and attempt to protect rock art shelters on their properties. On the farm Buffelsfontein near Molteno in the Eastern Cape, a rock art shelter has been fenced off to control access by livestock. In areas such as Maclear and Barkly East, rock art forms an important part of rural tourism initiatives.

However, Victor is adamant that the vast majority of farmers are not concerned about rock art on their properties. “There is a lack of appreciation by farmers,” he says. “A lot of them don’t even know they have rock art on their farms.” This general disinterest often breeds disregard for paintings, as illustrated by the timeless habit of farmers converting shelters into livestock kraals, garages, general storage areas and even shearing sheds.

A cave on the farm Burley in the Barkly East district is home to a large panel of paintings, some of which have been scribbled over with charcoal.

In a rock art shelter in the Indwe area of the Eastern Cape, a farmer built pens for lambs and ewes while in the Barkly East area a shelter was used to give licks to livestock. Another shelter has been used for decades to shear sheep. In all three cases the rock art has been compromised through continuous contact with livestock. In the case of the ‘shearing cave’, paintings of domestic cattle have been smudged beyond recognition by the oily wool of thousands of sheep.

A role to play
Victor says farmers have a key role to play in protecting rock art. They can do this by simply controlling access to shelters.
Also, the trimming of vegetation in and around shelters can go a long way in protecting rock art from possible fire damage as inflicted on paintings near Tylden in the Queenstown area. Legislation (see box) aimed at protecting rock art is essential, says Victor, but if it cannot be enforced it’s useless. “Who is going to enforce it, who is going to patrol these areas [where rock art is found]?”

It is only vigilant tribal authorities and landowners who, in the end, can save the integrity of our Bushmen paintings. “The landowner and the tribal authorities are the custodians of the rock art,” says Victor. “They are the key to the protection of the art – that is what it amounts to.”

Sources: www.nasmus.co.za and www.sahra.org.za
Contact Victor Biggs on 082 728 1245.