In 1992 Rebecca Hossack was approached by a group of African Bushmen from the Kalahari Desert, who wished her to exhibit their art. She readily accepted – impressed, excited and intrigued by what she saw.
The Bushmen – or San peoples - are the aboriginal inhabitants of southern Africa. Over the course of some forty thousand years they evolved a unique and sophisticated hunter-gatherer culture, and a rich pictorial tradition of rock painting and body decoration. In recent centuries, however, they have been displaced by waves of settlers – both black and white – arriving in their traditional lands. The San communities are now scattered in and around the Kalahari Desert in Botswana, South Africa and other adjacent countries.
Although politically and socially marginalized they have always remained culturally strong. And in the early 1990s, partly inspired by the example of the Australian aboriginal art movement, they began an art movement of their own, setting down their ancient imagery in new permanent and portable forms – on paper and canvas. The initiative proved hugely important.
The work, done in a wide variety of media (painting, drawing, linocut, monotype, screen-print, embroidery), is a glorious assertion of San cultural continuity. The iconography derives from their ancient rock-art. The recurrent motifs are the animals and plants essential to their traditional way of life, and to their belief systems, although there are also representations of more personal and contemporary concerns. The imagery is stylized, the use of negative space bold, the colouring anti-natural: this is Art of undeniable power and integrity.
Several of the movement’s principal artists – including Dada and Thamae Setshogo - came over to London for their ground-breaking 1993 exhibition at the Rebecca Hossack Art Gallery, the first Bushmen to visit the UK since the time of Queen Victoria. They were impressed less by the size of the metropolis than by the absence of thorns on the pavements. (Sharp spiny thorns are one of the travails of walking barefoot in the Kalahari.)
Other exhibitions followed. !Kung, a major survey show, curated by Rebecca Hossack in 1994 at the Barbican art centre, London, helped to confirm Bushman art as an significant element in contemporary world culture. It is now represented in major museums across Africa, Europe and North America.
Rebecca Hossack Art Gallery holds important examples of work by the leading figures of the movement, including Nxaedom Qhomatca (Ankie, c.1930-1994), Coex'ae Qgam (Dada, c.1934-2008), and Thamae Setshogo (c.1970-2004).
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