NEGOTIATING THE PRESENCE OF THE BUSHMEN. Pippa
Skotnes, ed. Cape Town: University
of Cape Town Press. 1996. Pp. 383. $ 49.95, paper. ©
Miscast is a unique production
on a number of levels. It was published to accompany a 1996 exhibition
of the same name at the South African National Gallery (SANG). Curator/editor
Pippa Skotnes set out specifically to challenge the boundaries of visual
representation as art and knowledge in both the exhibition as well as
the book. Yet the book far exceeds the realm of an exhibition catalogue.
Beautifully produced, with lavish photographic imagery, Miscast
is designed to capture the attention of both scholars and the more affluent
book buying public. The bulk of the book consists of twenty-eight essays
by academics in the fields of Anthropology, Archaeology, Art, Religion,
English, Ethnomusicology, History and Linguistics. Also included is
a photo-essay by the documentary photographer Paul Weinberg, and a "parallel
text" by Skotnes.
Miscast is introduced formally in three essays that frame the
context of the exhibition and the book. Marilyn Martin, Director of
the SANG, examines the controversy over the ownership of indigenous
remains and body casts. She uses the case of Saartje Baartman, the infamous
Hottentot Venus, who was displayed in the salons of Paris in the early
nineteenth century. In the late twentieth century, the rights to Saartje
Baartman's body are still contested by museums and people who claim
to be her direct descendents, demanding the right to bury her in a dignified
manner. Saartje Baartman has thus become a powerful symbol of racism,
oppression and resistance in South African colonial history. It is these
themes that Miscast explores in depth.
Patricia Davison's essay continues by discussing the role of galleries
and museums in creating and disseminating knowledge. She argues that
Miscast "sets out explicitly to challenge the stereotypes
and evoke respect for the /Xam and other Southern African hunter-gatherers."
Lastly, Skotnes own essay elaborates her aims in mounting the exhibition
and producing the book as part of the encounter between different peoples.
Skotnes describes her own difficulty in securing the cooperation and
participation of Bushmen or San representatives in the project, revealing
that these encounters are still fraught with difficulties. But on the
issue of process and production, Skotnes falls short of analyzing the
ambiguous position of Miscast itself in the contemporary identity
politics of South Africa. There is an absence of discussion about the
lack of participation by self-identifying aboriginal South Africans
in the project. This silence is only amplified by the eloquent attempts
of other authors in the book to retrieve these voices in the past.
The essays by Nigel Penn and Janette Deacon serve as lynchpins for the
book, examining the theme of ethnic identity and interactions between
Bushmen and Europeans. Penn's evocative historical narrative outlines
the destructive interaction with settler colonialism, but challenges
the notion that Bushmen/San were "fated to perish." Deacon
explores the complex relationships between the Bleek-Lloyd extended
family (the major ethnographers of the /Xam) and the extended family
of the patriarch //Kabbo (their main informants). Martin Hall also examines
the variety of encounters between European ethnographers and Bushmen
while arguing that the //Kabbo clan and the Bleek-Llyod family had a
mutual investment in recording /Xam history. Robert Ross uses one of
the few autobiographies available to explore the historical context
of debates concerning Bushmen identity and self-representation. Peter
Jolly's essay is a welcome discussion of the confusion and ambiguity
of ethnic classifications associated with "Bushmen", a theme
that runs throughout the book.
The two essays by David Chidester and Stephen Greenblatt engage debates
on the "language of the body" and how bodily mutilation can
be misinterpreted by those unfamiliar with the symbolic meanings of
the gesture. Alan Morris argues that bodily mutilation also occurs between
cultures, citing frontier battles in which colonists beheaded San men
for trophies and specimens. Here the link between science and war results
in the collection of body parts for the purposes of analyzing racial
characteristics. Carmel Schrire illustrates how this link resulted in
perhaps the ultimate objectification of indigenous peoples: the collection
of heads and the particular obsession with Khoikhoi women's genitalia
(reminding us again of Saartje Baartman's fate). She argues that the
"mixture of legitimate anthropology and covert pornography"
is a "combination not as dissonant as it sounds" because the
exercise of power lies at its core. Similarly, the essays focusing on
photography examine the problematic origins of anthropology, an ambiguous
complicity between science and colonial domination. As Godby points
out, many of the ethnographic photographs and studies of Bushmen were
of prisoners from the Breakwater Prison in Cape Town, yet the relationships
between Bleek and Lloyd and their interviewees was one of mutual respect.
Several essays on rock art also frame debates within archaeology about
the significance and interpretation of imagery; the conditions of production
and authorship; the relationship between rock art and archaeology; and
the challenges of creating a chronology of precolonial history in southern
Africa. The use of rock art in contemporary advertising is also scrutinized.
Another theme in the book focuses on the role of Bushman culture and
identity in present-day Southern Africa. In a fascinating analysis,
Rob Gordon, Ciraj Rassool, and Leslie Witz compare the public display
of Bushmen at the 1952 Van Riebeeck Festival with the participation
of self-proclaimed Bushmen from Kagga Kamma game reserve in 1992 as
part of multiculturalism in the New South Africa. The Kruiper clan from
Kagga Kamma are also the subject of Barbara Buntman's essay on eco-tourism
and Bushman stereotypes today. Mathias Guenther compares the historical
relationship between Bushmen and frontier farmers with that of contemporary
frontier farmers in Botswana. Frans Prins explores the traces of San
cosmology in the training of Nguni diviners in the Eastern Cape. Deirdre
Hansen's essay on Bushman music argues that although aspects of traditional
dance still survive, musical instruments have largely become silent
artifacts, with their oral polyphonic musical system remaining unknown.
In one of the most interesting essays of the book, John Sharp and Stuart
Douglas analyze the role of Bushmen soldiers in contemporary Southern
African wars and their use of ethnic identities as a political tool.
This book is the most comprehensive body of work on the Bushmen yet
produced and represents the "state of the art" of aboriginal
studies in Southern Africa. By bringing together such a diverse group
of scholars, Skotnes has brilliantly achieved her goal of an interdisciplinary
challenge to the boundaries of those disciplines represented. Skotnes'
own "parallel text" is designed explicitly to "irritate
the boundaries of knowledge that those texts are capable of encrypting."
Although left with a lingering silence on the part of Bushmen themselves,
Miscast is a testament to the oppression, resistance and resiliance
of these indigenous peoples. Anthony Traill's essay on the destruction
of language contends the process of extinction has resulted from "the
intense persecution leading to a wholesale destruction of the social
conditions necessary for language maintenance." Deacon poignantly
recalls that the last known trace of /Xam was spoken by an elderly Hendrik
Goud just before his death in the mid-1980s. Echoing past centuries,
Goud had been taught by his parents to say: "Here come the Boers,
we must run away."
Department of History
University of Michigan