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South African indigenous heritage

In South Africa, artists that are descendants of /Xam speaking San people and others of the central Karoo work communally to produce artworks at the First People Centre of the Bethesda Arts Centre in the small village of Nieu Bethesda, Eastern Cape. They mainly produce collaborative artworks in textiles that explore their own creation myths and celebrate the ancient culture of their ancestors that survived in the harsh environment of the central Karoo desert region for millennia.  These large art quilts reflect a visual language that stretches back to a time of great antiquity.

Fragments of ostrich eggs between 65-75,000 years old have been found which show evidence of decorative engraving a distant connection to the lost art of rock engraving so evident across South Africa’s central Karoo region. Art forms like these flourished around the end of the last ice – age approximately 12,000 years ago.

Eminent archaeologist John Parkington observes that:

Not a single karoo engraver has been observed in the act of engraving. Nor do we have the comments of anyone from inside the engraving tradition on the significance of engravings.

Although little evidence exists of the specific purpose of the rock engravings and paintings that are still in situ in the Karoo, they do afford tantalising glimpses of the culturally specific ritual significance of this extinct petroglyphic practice.

The tragedies of the last two centuries devastated the traditional hunter gatherer populations of the Karoo and the /Xam language became extinct towards the end of the 19th century.

However, the living descendants of ancient /Xam engravers from South Africa’s Karoo region are working today at the Bethesda Art Centre. They are committed to filling the cultural vacuum of interceding generations where traditions that had endured for millennia were lost.

The story-telling traditions of these artists’ forbears would have remained largely a mystery if it were not for the comprehensive archive of the Bleek & Lloyd Collection. This extraordinary collection was instigated by German ethnologist Wilhelm Bleek in the 1870s in collaboration with his English sister-in-law, Lucy Lloyd. It consists of stories comprising verbatim interviewed accounts of hundreds of traditional /Xam stories translated into English.

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