I saw a ship a-sailing, a-sailing on the sea, and oh, but it was laden, with pretty things for thee… except this ship is not on water but on rock, rock washed in drifts of grey, ochre and green, flecked with lichen, under an overhang at the entrance to a cave high up in the Groot Winterhoek mountains, 60km from the ocean as the crow flies.
Thirty years ago I studied this famous, iconic image in History of Art and I remember the impression it made on me then. The concept of two civilisations developing on their own merry and distinctive paths intersecting at a point in time and then being captured in this delicate image, was mind-blowing. Visiting it for myself would once again strike the gong that I remember having been set off so many years ago in that darkened lecture room at Wits.
I have recollections of reading or hearing the following scenario, historically so plausible, it is hard not to view as fact: a Bushman (the name many Bushmen like to be called in preference to San , I remind you from the political correct fold) was walking on the strand one day 300 years ago and saw, perhaps for the first time in the history of his clan, the Europeans and their technology in the form of this galleon. What he witnessed for an hour or two passing by on the waves must have been like a dream. What did he make of it? In the same way we might snap something on a cellphone , did he quickly scratch out the form on a piece of bark and pop it into the top of his moochi to show people back home and/or as future reference? Or weeks or months later in the Winterhoek, having all but forgotten the sight in the concerns of his daily life as the urge to do a bit of art wiggled in his fingers and he found a nice clean spot to get going, did he find the image suddenly before him in his mind’s eye as clear as a reflection in a rock pool ? I like to think it is the latter suggestion because it binds this artist closer to me, duplicating in him back then the surprises I love to make in the process of making art now. Also, it brings into play the power of eidetic imagery, the ability of some artists ( unfortunately, not I!) -and some idiot savants too- to retain a visual image for a great length of time, to hold it accurately in space before their eyes and to reproduce it so faithfully it is as if they are tracing.
Looking at the galleon itself brings a welter of associations: Is it too fanciful to mentally stretch the rocky net of crackle and flake on which she sails as echoes of ocean waves ? Or a tinted backdrop of a sunset at sea? Are the weathered protrusions that crest the hills that surround this site merely coincidentally “ship-like”? I bestow unto this unknown Bushman artist complete mindfulness of the subtle irony he is plying.
The humour and wit of the work is a tickle with a feather, immediate and fresh. The temptation for romantic embellishment is great. I find myself writing “… there is a wind that fills the sails, gets the pennants dancing on the tall masts and propels the ship along. It is as if we have blown it out of our own lungs. Speed, light and grace bloom on the rosy cheek of the rock. What is captured is a moment in time rather than merely an image.” Like the scatterings of shiny, black dassie droppings that exude from the crevasses at the cave, she invites poetry and breeds metaphor, this ochre fingered lady of the rock.
This I know. The galleon is right up to date. Her context/content pushes the big buttons.There is the same crunch as when you bite into good contemporary art. But she is much, much greater because she has stood the test of time. She asks us: What is it to be human?