Land Claim Landby Hazel Friedman
In order to explain "Land Claim Land" having an insight into the artist, Robert Slingsby, is what makes this particular sculpture a masterpiece in the truest sense. It is a beautifully crafted, unique sculpture, made by British foundrymen to the purist bronze specifications.
Robert Slingsby has been passionate about rock art since his first exposure to the ancient creative treasures that grace the rocks of southern Africa. Driven to try and understand the meaning that underlies their making, he embarked on a multifaceted journey that has taken him to all parts of the globe.
Thirty years ago, Robert began a systematic record of a region known as the Richtersveld, lying along the southern banks of the Orange River. It is barren desert landscape peppered with black dolomite rock. Dating back to tens of thousands of years are mainly non figurative images pecked into the rock; starkly visible by virtue of appearing in contrasting white. His fascination with their apparent manner of how the petroglyphs so consistently avoiding in the obvious in terms of design, led him to seek answers to the mystery of their meaning and purpose.
Naturally his preoccupation with these images influenced his art. Initially it was in terms of an exact parallel. The image would be accurately recreated on the canvas. According to the current trends of interpreting them at the time, which was to regard them as entoptic phenomena, he painted the entire surface in dot formation in beautiful, rich and at times dazzling colour. Always a purist in terms of the creative process, when it came to making bronzes at that point in time, he manufactured his sheets of wax from large silicon impressions gleaned directly from the rocks.
Slingsby's name became synonymous with rock art and the Richtersveld. It was not long before he started to be used as a contemporary follow-on to the likes of other South African artists influenced by rock art such as Battis. Slingsby is referred to in this context in academic papers and school text books by academics such as Professor Lewis Williams, Thomas Dowson and Skotnes. As the years progressed the entire subject of rock art became tarnished with an uneasy brush of contention. Academics fought over their interpretation, politicians battled over ideological supremacies and museums manipulated cultural legacies. It became a creative hot potato, with Slingsby feeling somewhat alienated despite his his lack of alignment in the midst of his controversial interest. Undaunted, he continued with his regular visits to the desert, diligently recording the rock engravings. He is acknowledged as having the most in-depth although incomplete photographic record of rock art in the Richtersveld.
The process of continuously revisiting a site at interrupted but regular intervals, meant that he has had a slow motion insight into the evolution at all levels of this region. The people who inhabit the Richtersveld are known as the Nama. They have occupied southern Africa for as long as man has occupied Africa. They are the true indigenous people who can claim a genuine living link to their ancestors, the artist of the petroglyphs. He has been privy to witness and have recorded the sociological changes that have influenced the community.
The Nama of thirty years ago, when Robert embarked on his love affair with the desert, were nomadic at heart. They erected dwellings made from reed matting that took the form and functioned like an igloo, protecting their occupants from the raw harshness of the environment. These "matjies skerms" could be assembled and disassembled, allowing for their nomadic lifestyle determined by grazing for goats. Decades ago, when he initially started recording in that area, "matjies skerms" dotted the desert landscape, a legacy of a way of life going back thousands of years.
Insidiously the landscape began to change. Instead of the traditional reed huts, they started to use corrugated iron and found objects. Despite the modification in terms of material and shape, it still allowed for their nomadic nature to be facilitated. Shacks could be dismantled and easily rebuilt. The evolution continued. In recent visits, the pace at which socio-political influences are effecting change is rapid. With the promise of running water and a brick shelter, the call of a nomadic lifestyle grinds to a virtually instant halt. Communities are now being herded into orderly little rows of block houses. Robert has had very mixed feelings about the process. It was inevitable that the deep sentiment that it stirs in him would find expression in his art. Robert became absorbed with the shacks themselves.
The evolution of the lifestyle of the Nama is simply one aspect of a host of what are highly sensitive or contentious issues. The Richtersveld is not simply a treasure trove of ancient art; it is also rich in diamonds. Hectares of sacred land is churned up and spat out in the search of the ultimate gem through the open cast mines. In the process, Nama are denied access to land, access to grazing, access to sacred sites and naturally access to benefiting from the wealth. With the implementation of land claims, the Nama have fought a brave battle in order to secure some recompense for what all know to be rightfully theirs. Sadly, their naivety and lack of insight into the magnitude of wealth both past present and future, which their land represents, is never fully impressed by the powerful mining consortiums.
With a commitment to hold a major exhibition at a top contemporary art gallery in Cape Town, Robert felt the time was right to allow for creative expression to include the shacks and their symbolism. He sees them as homes made by artists. He believes that these particular homes have all the love and peace that one would expect to find in that which is associated with grandeur. In order to capture this, he painted a series of canvases that portrayed actual shacks that he had recorded. He painted them in heavily impastoed, textured and embossed surfaces.
He used limited colour reflecting emotion having been stripped away. His intention was to assemble a cohesive body of work which he exhibited under the title "Power House". As part of the statement he felt that the need to do a series of bronzes. It is the legacy of the Nama in all its facets that Robert has tried to capture in the critically significant bronze titled "Land Claim Land".
This bronze should be seen as a document of the evolution of not only the Nama, but of people across the globe as they move from a rural to an urban lifestyle, that has been characterised by a process of colonization. The document tells of the inevitability that those who make a claim to land represent those who have lost their land. It highlights the plight of having to dig deep into the resources of a community to lead and stand up for what is believed to be a rightful claim.
The bronze sculpture is set upon a base that is an integral part of the sculpture. The base is made from scraper blades from earth moving equipment; the heavy machinery that ploughs indiscriminately through the earth, reshaping the landscape. Dolomite rocks engraved with ancient art get buried under tons of overburden. The blades provide a sturdy base on which the foundation to the group of shacks rests.
The foundation is from a silicon mould taken from a rock onto which a petroglyph is pecked. In other words the houses are placed onto a foundation representing their true cultural heritage, which on turn rests on a base determined by a more recent legacy which has rendered them powerless. Their loss of land, by virtue of the mining industry coupled with the tempting promises of what the new modern politics offers in terms of a brick house, has resulted in these settlements becoming a reservoir of cheap labour.
The ironies which manifest in these gentle people abound. Whilst they are so rich in terms of culture they are poor in terms of capital. While they have a legacy of being the truly indigenous and original people of Southern Africa, they own no land. While they willingly abandon their "matjies skerms" for a block house to gain something, they actually lose so much of the values that are associated with their ancient culture.
The cluster of houses that rests on the petroglyph foundation surrounds a church. This embraces yet another irony. The Nama have one of the oldest and most sophisticated beliefs. It has taught a way of life they takes no more from nature than is necessary, understands the natural cycle of life, attained unrivalled standards of art, healed the sick and communed with ancestors and the spirit world. Yet, as with most colonized people, indigenous tribes have always proved vulnerable to the influences of new religions. Not only that, the Nama appeared to have fully embraced both the Roman Catholic and Dutch Reformed churches, evidenced by the numbers of them regionly.
In this regards, Robert is extremely active. He submitted a proposal to a large mining company outlining many suggestions of what could be done to improve the status quo relating to many things. Robert has both short and long term goals which include the preservation of the petroglyphs, avoiding further damage to petroglyphs, creating areas for tourists to visit the ancient rock art sites and ultimately a museum with modern facilities. His proposal has been totally embraced and plans are now underway for the first stage of implementation. He has also become involved with Nama living in a non-rural setting in larger towns close to the Richtersveld. He has been disturbed by their lack of awareness and acknowledgement of the wealth of art that they do not lay claim to. With the help of enlightened locals this is certain to change.
"Land Claim Land" is a truly layered piece in terms of meaning. It was the main piece on both the Cape Town and London show. It has been featured in his review by Cape Town critic Hazel Friedman in their July edition of Art South Africa. "Land claim land" is a very serious and major art work of a committed international artist.
"The title of Robert Slingsby's latest exhibition captures concisely aspects of the social commentary embedded in his new works. Dubbed Power House (at Bell-Roberts Contemporary Gallery until January 7), it's an eloquent protest against the marginalisation of the forgotten people of the Richtersveld.
Jane Mayne - Business Day
Passionate about the Nama and their plight, Slingsby contimues to explore them in his art. For the first time he has included a portrait of a typical Nama woman.
Robert Slingsby has exhibited internationally since the seventies. He has been collected on all continents. He remains a deicated and committed artist who has maintained the utmost degree of integrity in his art through a contuous process of engaging in the intellect; a process that he believes is fundamental in the creation of exceptional art.