By Hazel Friedman

To understand Robert Slingsby's exhibition 'CC - Unlimited power' one does not have to traverse the desolately beautiful spaces of the Richtersveld in the Northern Cape. But being there certainly illuminates and elucidates the pulling power of the place where the ancient Nama rock engravings or petroglyphs provide an indelible reminder of a once united, spiritually anointed community. Today, throughout the Richtersveld - the polarities of ruin and renewal are present in equal force.

...We are standing among the scorched slopes of  Rooiwal, in the Richtersveld. Where a modest Roman Catholic Church once stood, there remain only its fractured foundations and dung-strewn floor. Marking what its threshold was once, are a rusted padlock and a chain. And behind it, corroding in a sun that stabs with splinter bolts, is an abandoned bus that once ferried expectant mothers to the church for succour, whether spiritual, perinatal - or both.

I have journeyed to this parched earth with Slingsby, on one of his scores of pilgrimages to the jagged lunar-like landscape that lures him like a "rusted blade to magnetite" and which serves as the chief source of his inspiration. The Garies Orange River snaking through the Richtersveld and into the pyramidal mountains of Namibia is Slingsby's River Jordan , his site of baptism and spiritual crossing. It is a space where earth, sky and spirit align. And its kloofs serve as Slingsby’s dictionary, the rocks as his syntax, while the geometric signs and symbols engraved into their skins have become the personal alphabet of his visual dialect.  For over thirty years he has made it his mission to record and transcribe the shamanistic markings of the ancient Nama community who still inhabit this region.

"The Southern African tradition of ancient art-making - whether on cave walls or rocks - has provided us with a legacy that should be cherished," he explains, "a legacy driven as much by an empathy and interaction with the spirit world as with the desire to manifest and make, literally, their mark."

A profound humanism informs Slingsby's work. He remains committed to the welfare of the progeny of the ancient rock engravers who still inhabit the region, most of them in abject poverty. The legacy Slingsby wishes to impart is to preserve and celebrate  an ancient art form in danger of extinction, as well as to assist a community marginalised by the greed of the multinational gem industry and the vagaries of apartheid racial politics - the residue of which remain  in the Richtersveld...

...At its highest point, just outside Springbok and 340 km from Keetmanshoop the landscape suddenly provides 21st century credence to the pre-Columbian belief that the world is indeed flat. But just when you think you are about to topple into the vortex, the rigid outlines of the surrounding landscape morph into an undulating, shifting locus that seem at once prehistoric and post-nuclear -  a jagged megalithic landscape of dolomite, quartz and sandstone, unspeakably desolate and beautiful.

 As we are sucked into the canyon, we leave the last of the grazing, arable land. This rocky terrain is good only for the hardiest of souls, goats and the Kokerboom. The Quiver Tree or Garas' as the Nama call the Kokerboom (which means "to scratch lines") resemble disjointed candelabra and lean at impossibly oblique angles off the rock-face.

It is the surreality of the Richtersveld, its swift bursts of lilac, green and orange pigment  amid jagged monotones amid fields of quartz, its bounty and barrenness - its  ability to morph before our eyes - that inspire epithets usually associate with the effects of a potent hallucinogenic. It is utterly impossible to remain detached from this shamanistic space. Slingsby describes it as an "art gallery curated by the cosmos."

 As a South African artist Slingsby feels an overwhelming responsibility to understand the geography, history and alchemy that informs not only the art of the petroglyphs but all aspects of Nama culture - both material and spiritual. To Slingsby, magic still resides in the misshapen sometimes makeshift relics of this ancient community.

 "I have needed to take these discarded masterpieces, to document them, sleep next to them and revisit their shamanistic sites,” he says.

In the process, Slingsby has acquired an intimate and extensive knowledge of the petroglyphs' geometric markings. Since the 1980s he has obsessively incorporated them into his iconography in an effort to uphold their alchemic properties, pay homage to their makers and advocate for the restoration of these ancestral lands into the hands of the Nama, whose forefathers the Khoisan first inhabited this part of the world.. 

’CC - Unlimited power’ follows this quest. The derivations of the exhibition title are numerous and unavoidably current within the lexicon of a world recession, global warming and the ubiquitous presence of economics-speak: credit crunch, closed corporations, climate change, carbon copy, conspicuous consumption; continuity check, credit card, cubic capacity, critical condition... the list continues.

And indeed Slingsby's iconography, although rooted in the petroglyphs produced by the ancient Nama, is utterly contemporary in its literal and semiological referencing. ‘CC – Unlimited power’, like its predecessors, evokes the sense both of an archaeological and burial site, where the residue - bones, stones and skeletons - of an ancient community - are constantly being unearthed. Simultaneously it serves as the locus for a convergence between the past present and future. The past is evoked through Slingsby's  arduous documentation of the Richtersveld's neglected history in works such as Blind Rage at Rooiwal; the present through the grandiosity of 2010 soccer stadiums, as evoked through Conspicuous Consumption; and the future through his depiction of carbon footprint-free modes of transport and alternative energy sources in “Give a dog a bone”.

It is a huge show in scale and ambition, rendered in his characteristically psychedelic palette with meticulous detail to minutia. And it speaks as eloquently of a planet irreparably compromised by gluttonous consumption, as it does about an ancient community displaced and dissipated by multinational avarice and political indifference.

“Conspicuous Consumption”, for example, derives its title from the Theory of the Leisure Class, the book written in 1899 by Thorstein Veblen, an American sociologist, in which he developed the term conspicuous consumption. Through the phrase conspicuous consumption Veblen was referring to the nouveau riche, who went out of their way to make large expenditures in order to purchase their way into an elevated social status. Conspicuous consumption by its very nature - overt consumerism and expenditure - is antagonistic to sustainability because it greatly increases resource use and environmental impact.

In Conspicuous Consumption Slingsby has diligently replicated the edifice of the recently constructed Cape Town Soccer Stadium, replete with emerald-green pitch and sweeping silhouette resembling a rose-coloured bowl floating on a base. But under Slingsby's eye, the stadium exudes a laager-like insularity. On closer inspection the grass is comprised of crushed glass, and the pristine flow of the stadium's contours is disrupted by scratches and geometric motifs. These markings denote the visual language of the petroglyphs. Slingsby seems to be suggesting that even the most contemporary of structures should not be erected without acknowledgement of and obeisance to the history and presence of those who inhabited these spaces before. It should not be forgotten, after all, that the first communities known to have lived close to Table Mountain were the nomadic predecessors of the Khoisan. Their presence, as indicated by the remains of their rock art, has been dated back 27 000 years. (3) And along the coastline, evidence of human existence can be traced back 100 000 years. In fact in the 1980s Slingsby himself unearthed an ancient gravesite along Milnerton Beach. Today however, the remains of that burial site - whether a Khoisan cemetery or a colonial execution site - remain submerged under high density housing and tourist developments. This form of consumption is not only conspicuous in its indifference to the historicity of these sites buried and desecrated in obeisance to the gods of progress; it is also invidious in its championing of commercial development  over the heritage of this ancient people.

Conspicuous consumption also issues a contemporary environmental warning that is as prescient as it is current. Instead of floodlights, the stadium is framed by wind turbines. In the wake of global warming, carbon emissions and electricity outages, - not to mention the fact that South Africa emits more carbon dioxide per unit of GDP than any other country in the world - we should be assessing alternative, renewable and sustainable forms of power, he suggests.  With an abundance of wind resources - and coupled with its vast tracks of land and infrastructure - the country in general and the Cape, specifically, has the potential to utilise "intelligent energy" and become a wind "powerhouse".

As British Prime Minister Gordon Brown observed during President Jacob Zuma's recent state visit to the United Kingdom:

"There can be little doubt that the economy of the 21st century will be low carbon... the push towards decarbonisation will be one of the major drivers of global and national economic growth over the next decade. And the economies that embrace the green revolution earliest will reap the greatest economic rewards... Just as the revolution in information and communication technologies provided a major motor of growth over the past 30 years, the transformation to low carbon technologies will do so over the next."

Like most of Slingsby's structures, Conspicuous Consumption is bereft of people - only the tracings thereof. Its surrounding wall assumes the role of a skeletal covering and its cavernous interior transmutes into a burial ground.

Motifs of skeletons and bones recur in his sculpture 'Carbon(e)' which resembles the fossilised remains of a Jurassic beast, and in paintings such as 'Apathy of entitlement' where ghoulish forms, spirals, wheels and mitochondria -like motifs seem to perform a frenzied syncopated dance. In ‘CC - Unlimited power’ Slingsby also utilises the motor car (CC in this context refers to the term describing the volume of a cylinder in a vehicle engine.) But through Slingsby's  characteristic sleight of hand, it becomes a macro-metaphor representing the damage caused by humanity onto this planet, evoked through his depiction of cars being scooped up by the gargantuan claw of a bulldozer, about to be disposed of, or chewed up and spat out - 'Mechanical factor'. This image evokes a doomsday scenario.  But there also exists an inchoate playfulness in his depiction of motorcars that harks back to much earlier work executed in Holland during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Works such as Pink Cadillac (1980) executed in Slingsby's cartoon palette, depict a perfect replica of the 1959 Cadillac Series 62 Convertible, immortalised by Elvis Presley, who owned one. 

In ‘CC - Unlimited power’ the real, hyper-real and surreal conflate. Such is the case with ‘Blind Rage at Rooiwal’ - the work that best encapsulates Slingsby's ongoing commitment to the Richtersveld. It comprises a flaming red canvas depicting the abovementioned, abandoned Roman Catholic church that once stood at Rooiwal . Built by Catholic missionaries in the 19th century, the church also served as a donkey stable. All that was absent from the apocryphal vignette would have been the manger. What remains is a broken baby doll and the dung-strewn church foundations. Slingsby's painting provides the only visual record of  these misshapen, abandoned shrines to innocence, faith and the erosion of one way of life for another, and yet another.

"Rooiwal represents the end of a 300-year genocide perpetrated against the Nama and their culture," explains Slingsby. "It is both a devastating part of our history and a horrific indictment of exploitation and decimation." He adds: "What was once an integral part of community life, like the church, is now the bounty of scrap-dealer."

He adds: "Like the materials used to build what was once the church, the Nama community constructed their houses from found objects. They were haphazard structures but they provided the community with a sense of individual creativity and stability. When government replaces these homes and puts people in undifferentiated grids of cement blocks, it is appropriating something essential away from the very essence of that which made them believe they had value."

This is the work that also exemplifies Slingsby's ongoing preoccupation with the fields of energy that the now-disappearing traditional Nama structures once exerted. “The Nama traditional dwellings - the matjies skerms - were living, breathing installations, and emblems of self and collective identity," Slingsby recalls. 

Fashioned from reeds their igloo-type form and function were inherently suited to their nomadic existence and the harsh climate. Gradually the matjies skerms were replaced by corrugated iron shacks, constructed in idiosyncratic design. For Slingsby, these architectural shifts did not reflect so much the degradation of living conditions but the community's efforts to reinvent and creatively inhabit the spaces that still exude the remnants of their spiritually-charged history.

Slingsby's most poignant homage to these iron structures and the metaphorical spaces they inhabited can be found in  an earlier exhibition, aptly entitled 'Powerhouse' - his 2005 solo show at the Bell-Roberts Gallery. The show revolved around the inexorable changes occurring in the Richtersveld -a region ostensibly frozen in the ethnocentric imagination. Slingsby’s iconography is the corrugated iron structures\ inhabited by the Nama, which are now being replaced – courtesy of increasing urbanisation and politics – by faceless brick and mortar RDP houses, and promises of running water.

Through installations of found objects - a rusty bed, corroding artifacts like old shoes, tins and battered kettles collected from the region - as well as meticulously cast bronze sculptures and epic monochromatic drawings, Slingsby evoked the residue of a mystically charged landscape in which the human structures once fed off and encapsulated the potency of the petroglyphs.

"Powerhouse was an exhibition that had a completeness to it, as a capsule of how I wanted to contain my vision of what the Richtersveld was before the inexorable changes that beset the area," he explains. "The show was imbued with a sense of ghostliness, of the spirits of the past." 

Depicting textured and embossed surfaces, Slingsby's shack paintings resembled the striations of the petroglyphs themselves. The signature exuberance of his palette uncharacteristically muted, evoking the sense of being stripped. Yet brilliant splashes of colour occasionally emerged in his paintings of the corrugated iron shacks, as though caught in a shaft of sunlight, as in paintings such as 'It won't be much longer'. The shack, itself, serves as more than an illustrative device or literal structure. It is the central metaphor of the show, evoking the nostalgia Slingsby feels for a dissipating way of life and his outrage over the Nama’s neglected history. But more than a passionate protest against the marginalisation of the Nama, as the exhibition title suggests, 'Powerhouse' also signifies a galvanising to empowerment. 

It is as much as witness and humanist that Slingsby produced 'Powerhouse''. Most of the Nama are, literally, grounded in the remotest, most arid parts of the region. While vegetable farms frame the Garies River and Diamond Pyramids flank the horizon, at least a third of the Nama population  lives below the minimum living level, subsisting on under R18 000 a year. Unemployment has increased to around 60% and those who earn an income do so as cheap wage labour for the remaining mines, and surrounding farms.

The fate of the Nama, and the history of cultural dispossession suffered by this ancient community, is of course, inextricably entwined with South Africa's racist colonial history and the exploitation of its gem-rich soil. The Richtersveld Community had exclusively occupied the area prior to its annexation by the British Crown in 1847. Until then the rights to the land (including minerals and precious stones) were akin to those held under common law or customary law ownership. But in the 1920s, when diamonds were discovered in the area, the rights of the Richtersveld Community were usurped by the South African government of the time in favour of Alexkor Mining Company, a wholly state-owned diamond company, on the grounds that any rights that the Richtersveld Community may have had to the land were terminated at the time of British annexation.

The ramifications of the gem frenzy are etched not only in the physical environment but in the collective psyche of its original inhabitants.  The rapacious open-cast mining  has literally chewed up much of the Richtersveld, spitting out the rind, with no attempt to rehabilitate the land In the process, the Nama have been victims of an insidious form of genocide, denied access to arable grazing, sacred sites and to the mineral wealth of their ancestral lands.

The consequences thereof are displayed in CC Unlimited, through works such as Blind Rage in Rooiwal. Unlike the muted hues characterising Powerhouse, the crimson palette of Rooiwal reflects  the searing heat of the rocky desert framing the church foundations and the emotions that the Nama's history of dispossession generates in the artist. But Slingsby has depicted the forsaken scene with an element of intellectual detachment, diligently replicating each detail of the abandoned site.

"This is the scene that greeted me when I went in search of the old church," he recalls, "The tangible evidence of displacement was there, from the abandoned, rusted bus and dung-strewn floor, to the chain, padlock and broken doll. The narrative is therefore as literal as it is symbolic."

He adds: ""The doll, tin cans, the little pieces of stone and bits of metal represent the spirits that don't rest in peace, that continue to exist in states of dis-ease.`'

He navigates me to a sloping rock-face worn down to a smooth, chalk-white. Children would have tobogganed down the slope, he says. At the base, spread across the crusty earth appears to be a field of diamonds and emeralds. But up close they are really beer and brandy bottle shards. Such poignant and paradoxical memento mori are commonplace in the Richtersveld.

...In nearby Kuboes, we approach a white stucco Catholic church erected by the Rhenish missionaries. It still stands intact, its bell-tower casting de Chirico-like shadows on the rocks. The ancient Nama belief systems subscribed both to the natural and the supernatural cycles of life. Their intermediaries were their ancestors and the shamans who, through altered states of consciousness, could step from the material into the spirit world. Yet since the arrival of the Missionaries in the 19th century most of the Nama had been converted either to Catholicism or Calvinism through the Dutch Reformed Church, which now serve as the socio-cultural and theological fulcrums of this marginalised community.

Further into Vioolsdrift another little church has been spruced up. It's emerald green door, immortalised by Slingsby in the 2005 'Power House' show, through paintings such as 'Inheritance from Rome' (2006) has since been painted a stolid brown. Slingsby insists out that the reason the door had been painted such a garish green was because green was the Nama ancestors' favourite colour. It provided an exhilarating contrast to the severe monotones of this inhospitable landscape. Now the threshold, with its brown door is indistinguishable from the bland structures surrounding it.

...Brick and cement ablution blocks with rickety doors squealing in the wind, have become another contemporary feature of the ancient landscape. Grizzled faces smile quizzically as we pass. Some of the men doff their caps. A cluster of elderly Nama women are wearing Victorian bonnets, again courtesy of the Missionaries. Amid the rubble of rusted metal containers strewn among the stones, one can still find a plethora of ancient artifacts. But the space has changed irrevocably. Among the fluted rocks that served for centuries as the canvases for ancient shamanistic engravings are names, dates, swastikas and expletives scrawled as defiantly as tenement graffiti.

Slingsby calls this space an open wound.

“There’s so much defacement of some of the most beautiful petroglyphs in the area," Slingsby ruminates, "A hundred years ago their ancestors would create a spiral or a constellation of motifs. Today they write their names as though trying to still lay claim to the space, as a form of ownership. But even this graffiti needs to be recorded because it is woven into the story of the Nama as told through their petroglyphs, from prehistory, to the early settlers with their ox wagons to the mining houses that have depleted the land. "

Together with the liquor bottle shards, the corroded bedsprings and abandoned shrines, these are the markings and remnants of a dissipated history. As much as the petroglyphs themselves, they continue to inspire Slingsby and augment the monumental contribution this artist has made to the legacy of the ancient Nama. He has done much, much more than diligently catalogue and transmute the debris of their history into the image archives that comprise his oeuvre. From ‘Power House’ to ‘CC - Unlimited power’, from the scraps of their history and material culture he has built an idiosyncratic treasure trove. His imagery offers both a warning of the consequences of rampant consumption and the disposability of value, while providing a vision of restoration, reclamation and the hope of healing.

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UPDATED 2nd July 2016