Academic journal article Critical Arts

Showcasing South African Rock Art on Postage Stamps

Academic journal article Critical Arts

Showcasing South African Rock Art on Postage Stamps

Article excerpt


The South African Post Office and its proxies have been issuing postage stamps and related postal materials featuring rock art since 1931, first in South West Africa, later in the Republic of Venda, and subsequently in South Africa. Rock art has also appeared on stamps issued by many other countries across the world. In this broader context, the stamps can be seen as showcasing the cultural heritage of the issuing countries, but rock art has also been co-opted and commodified for other purposes, such as political agendas or to promote philatelic sales. In the case of South Africa and its puppet states, the choice of image and the design of the postal materials have followed trends in the shifting status of the Bushman people and the way rock art has been viewed and understood.

Keywords: Bushman, postage stamps, rock art, San, South African national symbols


As a contribution to the ongoing scholarly interest in the role of the Bushmen in South African consciousness, in this article I consider the appearance of their rock art on postage stamps and other postal items such as first-day covers, as a case study in the place and function of South African rock art in the country's iconography. (1) The postal material illustrates the manner in which rock art has found its way into both popular and official imagery in South Africa. Many other countries have also featured rock art on postage stamps; this makes it possible to widen the analysis of the South African practice by placing it in the context of an international cultural practice. (2)

The democratic state that came into being in South Africa in 1994 had to create its own official symbols to replace those of the previous regime. They would have to serve the purposes of an 'invented tradition' which, according to Eric Hobsbawm (who coined the term), establishes or expresses social cohesion and identity, legitimises governing institutions, and inculcates beliefs, value systems and conventions of behaviour (Hobsbawm 1983: 263). For a new state, the choice of a national symbol is paramount, observes Hobsbawm. And what better medium to publicise the invented tradition than 'postage stamps, that most universal form of public imagery other than money' (ibid: 281).

In comparison with 'such national icons as the flag, coat of arms and independence monument', David Scott states (1995: 79, 13), '[d]espite its small size and relatively discreet support (letter or parcel), the stamp probably has a more concentrated ideological density per square centimetre than any other cultural form'. Since the earliest issues in the 19th century, stamps have been used for propaganda purposes (Altmann 1991). While the selection of the subject matter, and the way it is presented, are deliberate decisions by the governing authorities, one can also read into them underlying assumptions and messages that perhaps were not explicit in the minds of the designers (Altmann 1991; Scott 1995).

Rock art has been reproduced on postage stamps and other postal materials by countries around the world since the 1930s (Jenkins 1997). The countries range from ones respected for their responsible stamp issuing practices, such as Sweden, Norway, France, Spain and Australia, to dubious agencies blacklisted by reputable philatelic catalogues. All but Mozambique of South Africa's contiguous neighbours have issued stamps on the theme. The beauty of rock art images makes them ideal for the miniature format of the postage stamp. Countries have taken advantage of this to produce stamps, first day covers, miniature sheets, postcards, stamp booklets and other postal items that are attractive and celebrate the art. They are used primarily to publicise and honour a country's cultural heritage. Countries feature their most famous images, such as Peru's Nazca Lines (1351 and 1695/Bl. 16), and they choose rock art to mark great national or international occasions. …

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