Wilhelm Bleek and Lucy Lloyd both recognised the importance of San rock art. They realised that, even as they were working with their |xam teachers (their word) in Cape Town, the southern San were making the final images of a very long tradition. Unable to visit the sites themselves because of Bleek’s ill health and the fraught frontier conditions where the remaining |xam lived, they had to depend on copies of the images made by others.
Perhaps most significantly for the future of their work, they found that Joseph Millerd Orpen’s copies of four groups of images in the south-eastern mountains, some 700 km to the east of where the |xam lived, were eye-openers. Seen together with the explanations of them that Qing (the San man who guided Orpen to the sites) gave, the copies threw ‘light upon many things hitherto unintelligible’. Today, it is hard to imagine how Bleek and Lloyd must have struggled to understand so many of the ‘unintelligible’ (Bleek 1875: 20; Orpen 1874) |xam concepts with which we are now familiar — the Mantis, rain animals, the notion of !gi and so forth. They must have been greatly encouraged to find that the paintings were not just more objects to be explained: reciprocally, the images helped to clarify the texts that they were recording and with which they were wrestling.
An initial point in that two-way process of understanding should not be overlooked. Qing did not link any of the paintings to, or interpret them in terms of, the numerous myths he was recounting and in which Orpen seems to have been primarily interested. For Qing, the mythical narratives and their protagonists were largely, if not entirely, different from the imagery. For instance, even though he spoke much about the trickster-deity Cagn (|kaggen in Bleek’s orthography, the Mantis), the major protagonist of the myths, Qing neither guided Orpen to, nor spoke about any images of, that figure. Nor, as significantly, did he see the images as merely pictures of quotidian activities. Instead, he referred to ritual, a ‘circular dance’, rain-making, San healing and people becoming ‘as if mad and sick; blood runs from the noses of others whose charms are weak’ (Orpen 1874: 10).
In addition, Bleek and Lloyd were able to compare Qing’s comments and myths with their own |xam teachers’ responses to the same copies and the myths that they narrated. They thus had two independent sources. Bleek (1874: 11) concluded that, despite none of the more easterly myths that Qing narrated being ‘exactly identical with any of ours’, ‘the general character of the myths recorded by Mr. Orpen is mainly the same as that collected by us’. Bleek’s insight has stood the test of time.
Orpen’s copies set Bleek longing to see the magnificent and far more numerous copies that the geologist George William Stow was making (Young 1908; Stow and Bleek 1930; Skotnes 2008). He hoped that publication of those striking copies could not ‘but effect a radical change in the ideas generally entertained with regard to the Bushmen and their mental condition’ (Bleek 1875: 20). Shortly before his untimely death in 1875, and having eventually seen some of Stow’s complex copies, he came to a conclusion that openly challenged the demeaning colonial stereotypes of the San: the images were an attempt ‘at a truly artistic conception of the ideas which most deeply moved the Bushman mind, and filled it with religious feelings’ (Bleek 1874: 13). With these now comparatively well known but still insufficiently appreciated words, Bleek struck a resounding blow to the colonial view of the San as irredeemably primitive: they, too, had a religion and an art. In this way, San imagery deepened his and Lloyd’s understanding of the |xam people with whom they daily conversed.
Using both Orpen’s and Stow’s copies, Bleek and Lloyd elicited information from their |xam teachers that helped them to understand portions of the often puzzling texts. What, for instance, was a !khwa-ka xorro (rain animal)? Now they could see images of these non-real creatures and know what they looked like to at least some |xam people. In this way, the copies also enabled Bleek and Lloyd to pose questions to their |xam teachers that they themselves were not in a position to formulate. The copies broke – at least to some extent – the constricting effect of nineteenth-century Western categories of thought.
Sadly, and like Louis Anthing’s (1863) earlier report on the atrocities being committed on the frontier, Bleek and Lloyd’s work had little or no impact on colonial attitudes to the San. None the less, Lloyd persevered in the face of colonial indifference, and she continued the work after Bleek’s death in 1875. She found that
[i]t is impossible adequately to acknowledge the enormous help in the Bushman researches which has been afforded by the copies of Bushman drawings and paintings. …[S]ome very curious ideas, possessed by the Bushmen … which would probably otherwise not have come to light at all, have become known to us in the course of their endeavours to explain the pictures submitted to them. (Lloyd 1889: 28; emphasis added)
These words were written right at the beginning of rock art research, yet it took some decades for researchers to appreciate the value of the Bleek and Lloyd Archive. Those two early workers realised that there was an intimate, though not always obvious, connection between the images and the diverse oral material they were recording in the |xam language. Today, some researchers fail to see that connection, partly because some quite brief San comments on specific images can seem to modern readers hopelessly laconic and cryptic, or even indicative of the |xam teacher’s ignorance. But that is to miss an important point. Those seemingly shallow comments sometimes direct us to other parts of the more than 12,000 pages of texts. There we find the terms in which the comments are couched enlarged and further exemplified; we can see them as part of the pattern of San thought. Thus enriched, we can return to the images about which the comments were made – and to many other images –and spot features that had hitherto escaped our notice. This point can hardly be overemphasised: it was the San themselves who initially guided researchers to the areas of belief and practice that most illuminate their imagery.
To illustrate briefly how researchers oscillate between Bleek and Lloyd’s texts and the images, I turn to what the |xam teacher Diä!kwain said when he saw Stow’s copy of an Eastern Cape Province rock painting.
It shows a line of six human figures in rather ungainly postures; the leading figure carries a stick. They lack the elegance and animation of so many San rock paintings. In short, it is the sort of ‘simple’ image that rock art researchers and others have tended to ignore.
The actual |xam words that Diä!kwain used in his response to it are preserved in one of Lloyd’s notebooks.
Contrary to what one might expect, he did not provide a prosaic explanation for these simple images. He did not say that the copy merely shows a number of people walking in a line. Having been told that he was looking at a copy of rock art images, he offered a much more complex explanation. There is no such thing as a ‘simple’ San image. I reproduce his words here because they give a good idea of the flavour of the |xam teachers’ comments and Lloyd’s translations of them:
They seem to be dancing, for they stand stamping (?) with their legs. This man who stands in front (1st figure to the right of beholder) seems to be showing the people how to dance; that is why he holds a stick. He feels that he is a great man, so he holds the dancing stick, because he is the one who dances before the people, that they may dance after him. The people know that he is the one who always dances first, because he is a great sorcerer. That is why he dances first, because he wants the people who are learning sorcery to dance after him. For he is dancing, teaching sorcery to the people. That is why he dances first, for he wants the people who are learning sorcery to dance as he does. For when a sorcerer is teaching us, he first dances the ’ken dance, and those who are learning dance after him as he dances. (Stow & Bleek 1930; caption to pl. 2a; Bleek 1935: 11–14)
Clearly, these words open up a path into San belief and ritual — as did Qing’s comments on Orpen’s copies. From here, researchers can move to other parts of the Archive, where more details about ‘sorcerers’, ‘sorcery’ and ‘’ken’ (||ken) are recorded. Then, armed with this information, they can turn to other paintings, many of which are far more elaborate and detailed (e.g., Fig. 3, Stow and Bleek 1930: pl. 58). This is the dialectic of interpretation.
After a life of tireless and extraordinarily valuable research, Lloyd died in 1914, but that was not the end of the family’s contribution to our knowledge of the San and their art. She had purchased Stow’s copies from his widow, and Wilhelm and Jemima Bleek’s daughter Dorothea eventually saw to the publication of many of them in a magnificent volume: Rock paintings in South Africa, with an introduction and descriptive notes by Dorothea F. Bleek (Stow and Bleek 1930; Skotnes 2008; Lewis-Williams and Challis 2011). She placed the |xam comments that her father and aunt had recorded alongside the relevant images. This book remains one of the most significant southern African rock art publications. In recent times, the notebook that contained many of the |xam teachers’ comments on the images has been lost, but Dorothea fortunately placed at least significant parts of them next to the relevant plates. She published other comments in Bantu Studies (now African Studies; Hollmann 2004/in press). Four of the Bantu Studies selections from the notebooks are especially relevant; Dorothea titled them ‘The rain’, ‘Rain-making’, ‘Sorcerers’ and ‘More about sorcerers and charms’.
Dorothea carried her family’s work into the twentieth century by publishing these and other extracts from the Archive, undertaking fieldwork of her own (e.g. Bleek 1928) and, in practical ways, encouraging the publication of San images. In the early 1930s, she employed and worked with the van der Riet sisters, Mollie and Joyce, in a recording project (Bleek 1928; van der Riet, van der Riet and Bleek 1940; Weintroub 2015). They made tracings and took photographs of rock paintings in the Eastern Cape Province. The title of the eventual book, More rock paintings in South Africa, shows that it was intended to be a sequel to the book of Stow’s copies. The presentation of the illustrations in the new book follows that of the Stow volume, though this time there could be no comments by San people.
All in all, one wonders where San rock art research would be today were it not for the contributions of Wilhelm Bleek, Lucy Lloyd and Dorothea Bleek. Speaking personally, I can say that their influence on me has been massive. It was in the early 1970s that I first read all the actual notebooks, one after the other, from cover to cover. As I went along, I made a card index of points of interest. At that time, writers were not paying even the published parts sufficient attention, but I soon realised that there is no substitute for giving precedence to the manuscripts themselves, especially to those parts that deal with specific rock art images and then, as one necessarily moves on, to the enlargements of those comments elsewhere in the notebooks.
Today, despite the overwhelming emphasis of the nineteenth-century San comments, some researchers, tied to Western concepts of image-making, remain wary of the essentially ritual and social nature of the practice of San rock art. Why is this? One reason is that the imagery in all the thousands of rock shelters (and open-air rock engraving sites) demands equally close first-hand experience, as Wilhelm and Dorothea Bleek and Lucy Lloyd all realised. Wilhelm Bleek himself pleaded for ‘faithful copies’ and photographs of paintings (Bleek 1874: 13). As with the manuscripts, some researchers are too easily satisfied with only superficial and restricted study of a few images. Detailed and coordinated analyses of the images and the texts have demonstrated that San concepts, rituals and myths are interrelated in subtle rather than obviously depictive ways. Indeed, my own experience of the images and the manuscripts has shown me that there is far more still to be discovered than is often realised (e.g., Lewis-Williams 1981, 2015, 2019, 2020). In this continuing journey of discovery, it is to the Bleek and Lloyd Archive that we repeatedly turn.
Online from: 3 Apr 2020