Let’s start as we mean to go on with the Archaic Visions reboot, and open the first strand with which this blog will continue – Rock Art of Southern Africa. Here I present rather a long article, the first in this series, which provides an introduction to Bushman Rock Art and Culture. It is rather academic in style in places, and the intention is to present to my readers a style of art and painting which shares next to nothing with familiar Western or Oriental art traditions in its method, approach, interconnection with religious and ritual practices, and even how it interacts with the environment in which it is found. If at times this series of articles seems to go into excessive detail, then this only reflects my genuine enthusiasm for Bushman rock art and engravings, and my deeply-held desire to understand, and to see these remarkable painted images through the eyes of the remarkable people who painted them. In this spirit, let’s begin this long, winding and hopefully fascinating journey into the world of the Southern African hunter-gatherer…
Southern Africa is home to one of the most fascinating, and yet least well-known, art traditions in the world. Running in a near continuous line of rock shelters from the Cederberg in the West to the Drakensberg-uKhahlamba mountain range in the east, as well as across other sites in the subcontinent, the rock paintings and engravings of the indigenous hunter gatherer peoples of South Africa and beyond – the Bushman, San, or Khoi-San peoples and their cultural ancestors – represents one of humanity’s most distinctive art styles and, until its extinction some 150 to 200 years ago, one of the longest running.
I have suffered – if that is the right word – from migraines since I was a child, and I am lucky – again, if that is the right word – enough to be one of the twenty percent of migraineurs who experience both the visual aura that precedes the migraine as well as the visionary aspects during. Some of my most powerful childhood memories are of sudden dysphoria and immanent sensations of fractured consciousness which are the hallmarks of visionary experience engendered by migraines, and in a sense, I view them now as part of a natural feature of my neurology. This essay takes in a personal and prehistoric view of this important but challenging aspect of my life.
In his Manifesto of Visionary Art, artist and author Laurence Caruana elucidates a near-exhaustive list of the sources and inspirations from which Visionary Art can spring. It is worth quoting:
“...the sources of Visionary Experience are many and varied: dreams, lucid dreams, nightmares, hypnogogic images, waking dreams, trance states... hypnotic states, illness, near-death experiences, shamanic vision-quests, meditation... madness... day-dreaming, fantasy, the imagination, inspiration, visitation, revelation, spontaneous visions, psychedelics, reading and... the metanoic experiences brought on by Visionary Art itself.”
It seems reasonable, at the beginning of this Archaic Visions adventure, to recede back to a time when human symbolic culture was just dawning. Contrary to popular opinion, this was not the European Upper Palaeolithic: palaeoarchaeology has since the 1980s steadily been revealing a wealth of artefacts disclosing the emergence of symbolism, ritual and vision in Southern Africa in the Middle Palaeolithic. One such site is Tsodilo, a sacred locale in continuous usage for perhaps 24,000 years and possibly the site of the world's oldest known ritual. This essay has been adapted for an article originally written for a Ugandan arts magazine, and was more of a meditation on the age of the site than an in-depth study.
In the northwest of Botswana’s Kalahari Desert, beyond the famous Okavango Delta, lies a small range of parched hills called Tsodilo, a UNESCO World Heritage site and perhaps one of the oldest sacred places in the world. For it is here, and in a few other sites dotted around Southern Africa, that we can come to know ourselves as human beings, through our shared origins in the soils of Africa.