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CLAIM TO THE COUNTRY (article first published : 2007-11-8)

Claim To The Country – The Archive of Wilhelm Bleek and Lucy Lloyd by Pippa Skotnes is an engrossing and informative read, but it’s more than that - a definitive book written by an expert.

Pippa Skotnes heads the Lucy Lloyd Archive, Resource and Exhibition Centre (LLAREC) and is Professor of Fine Art at the University of Cape Town. She is well-known for her involvement with the archive and with other institutional collections of Africana. She curated the highly popular and controversial Miscast exhibition at the South African National Gallery in 1996 and is the author of the book that accompanied the exhibition.

Published for the first time, this extraordinary new work records all the notebook pages and drawings that comprise the bulk of the Lucy Lloyd and Wilhelm Bleek archive. Also included is a DVD with notebook pages and drawings.

In the 1870s, facing cultural extinction and the death of their language, several San men and women told their stories to two pioneering colonial scholars at the Cape: Wilhelm Bleek and Lucy Lloyd. The narratives of these San (or Bushmen) were of the land, the rain, the history of the first people, the origin of the moon and stars. They told stories of their beliefs and their individual lives; how stories floated on the wind, and how they had come to Cape Town as prisoners of the British Crown.

Bleek and Lloyd created an archive of over 13,000 pages which includes drawings, notebooks, maps and photographs. These archival pages are now housed in three main institutions – the University of Cape Town, the South African Museum and the National Library of South Africa – this archive has recently been entered into Unesco’s Memory of the World Register.

In her introduction, Skotnes writes: “For me this has been a receding frontier, a space in which the past is approached but never quite encountered, where the individuals so central to its production are seen as drifting mist, suddenly visible and then disappearing again.” The San believed that once in early time things were different - animals were people, or almost people and some had characteristics that were close to those of the animals whose name they bore.

Claim to the Country gives readers a much better insight and makes us aware of how much the actual land meant to the San’s own personal stories. The book also contains essays by several scholars and acknowledges the work these scholars have done which has resulted in understanding the San. The diverse expressions of the Archive’s content will create better exposure and ensure that more people will treasure the richness and legacy of the San.

One of the chapters titled By Way of Words is a selection from the San dictionary of Bleek and Lloyd. Each word is accompanied by text and drawings, starting with “a” for afraid and ending with “z” for zebra. Each word is beautifully documented and explained.

Another special chapter in this book is Dream of Their Country which records the stories and pictures of Uma, Tamme, Inanni and Da. There are photographs of all the family members, but what is even more revealing are the many different clan groupings. The drawings and poetry recorded are beautiful and well-observed. The series of clay objects made by San boys is also fascinating.

Skotnes reveals the beauty of the archive and the dedication of Bleek and Lloyd who recorded the lives of the men, women, children and the daily struggle they faced against so many unimaginable dangers. Yet they filled the landscape with the poetry of their ideas and set their stories adrift in the wind – it’s poetry in motion.

“We who are Bushmen were once springboks, and the Mantis shot us and we really cried (like a child). Then the Mantis said, we should become a person, become people.”

As South African we should be enormously grateful to Lloyd and Bleek for preserving these stories and recording them and to Skotnes for revealing the beauty of the archives. Claim to the Country belongs in public libraries, as well as high school and university libraries, so that future generations can learn more about the brave and beautiful San people and treasure their rightful heritage. The book is part of a Llarec project to digitise, research and publish the Bleek and Lloyd Archive. Llarec is a University of Cape Town Research Centre located at the Michaelis School of Fine Art. The project is funded by the ANDRE W Mellon Foundation and De Beers.

Claim To The Country – The Archive of Wilhelm Bleek and Lucy Lloyd is printed in full colour by Jacana Media, cased and jacketed with ribbon, plus DVD of entire archive. Price R350. ISBN 978-1-77009-337-9 – Marianne Meijer




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