CONSUMPTION AND CONSEQUENCE
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
have needed to take these discarded masterpieces, to document them, sleep next
to them and revisit their shamanistic sites,” he says.
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..
- 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
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown observed during President Jacob Zuma's
recent state visit to the United Kingdom:
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."
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.
of skeletons and bones recur in his sculpture 'Carbon(e)'
which resembles the fossilised remains of a Jurassic beast, and
in paintings such as
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.
‘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.
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."
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."
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,"
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.
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
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.`'
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.
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.
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.
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.
calls this space an open wound.
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. "
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.
UPDATED 2nd July 2016