Academic journal article Critical Arts

Painting Our Portraits: The State of Contemporary San Art in South Africa and Its Development Potential, Using !Xun and Khwe Art as a Case Study

Academic journal article Critical Arts

Painting Our Portraits: The State of Contemporary San Art in South Africa and Its Development Potential, Using !Xun and Khwe Art as a Case Study

Article excerpt


This research presents an overview of the state of San art in South Africa, using The !Xun and Khwe Art Project as a case study. Issues relating to primitivity, representation and the San's encounter with modernity are integrated into an analysis of how, and for whom, contemporary San art functions. Examples are drawn from Australian indigenous art to illustrate how the creation of a cede of conduct could serve to protect San artists, art dealers and NGOs, and mobilise self-sustaining art projects for the communities involved.

Keywords: development, modernity, Plaffontein, primitivity, rock art, San art, !Xun and Khwe


The San (1) population of South Africa has received much media attention over the years--from Jamie Uys' international film series The gods must be crazy to the successful ([not equal to]) Khomani land claim in 1999. The San have faced the task of (re)negotiating, structuring and popularising an identity which offers them the status of a bona fide cultural minority, politically mobilised and deserving of access to resources. This identity also acts as a means of income generation, yet their needs are often difficult to reconcile, as the mythical 'Bushman' image often perpetuated and played out for tourists tends to downplay issues of poverty, underdevelopment and alcoholism plaguing San communities today (see McLennan-Dodd 2003; Tomaselli 2003b). The San again have been thrust into the international limelight, this time via the production of contemporary San art. Today, there are several local and international projects that offer skills development--printmaking and painting--to these communities. Due to international demand, these works are sold for thousands of rand. This article aims to explain how The !Xun and Khwe Art Project (based in Platfontein, a San settlement just outside the Northern Cape city of Kimberley) functioned as a development project, as well as how contemporary San art is an exemplar of the San's entrance into modernity. Lastly, it will explore whether or not there is a need to incorporate greater measures of regulation, using the Code of Conduct of Australian aboriginal art as an example. The article begins, however, with a discussion of the socio-political link between ancient rock art and contemporary San art.

Rock art and contemporary San art

Rock art, in the form of paintings and engravings made onto rock surfaces, forms part of South Africa's cultural heritage, with some sites dating as far back as 30 000 years (Solomon 1999: l; see also Dowson 1992; Lewis-Williams 1983). However, while rock art is the most well known, it is not the only form of San art. There are many forms, from larger fixed pieces (as found in rock art) to smaller mobile forms (such as crafts and functional objects). While areas such as the Kalahari lack any notable form of rock art, (2) this does not exclude the possibility of other forms of art, either drawn onto objects which later decomposed, painted onto the human body, or drawn in the sand. Sand itself has proved important in Kalahari San culture. The [not equal to]Khomani artist, Vetkat Kruiper, had this to say: 'My art is focused on the earth, the sand, the ground. So you draw on the ground, the wind comes past, it's gone and you have to just draw it again' (Kruiper, interview, 2007). Thus, while his art is not directly linked to rock art, it maintains a connection to an ancient tradition of making images in the sand (see also Dyll 2003; Tomaselli 2003b).

During the 1990s, the San were constructed in the media as a site of cultural recuperation (Tomaselli 1995), and as offering a way of negotiating destructive competing nationalisms (Masilela 1987). Symbolic of this view was the inclusion of rock art and contemporary !Xun and Khwe art in an exhibition at the Johannesburg Art Gallery as part of the 1994 'People, Politics and Power' conference (Stephenson 2006: 17). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.