For many people the idea of San art may connote images of rock art depicting ancient occurrences, rites and rituals. In ‘Tsamma Time,’ an exhibition of contemporary San art currently on display at the National Art Gallery of Namibia, the San community’s enduring creativity, their profound connection to nature and historical penchant for storytelling comes to the fore in a diverse and vibrant offering by Omba Arts Trust.
Exhibited with the support of the Commonwealth Foundation and the NAGN and curated by artist and workshop facilitator Catharina Scheepers, ‘Tsamma Time’ is a result of a series of sessions held with artists from three Ju/‘hoansi resettlement farms in the Omaheke region of Namibia.
While the ‘tsamma’ of the exhibition title invokes notions of the approaching summer, the word actually refers to a wild melon harvested by the Ju/’hoansi people in September. The fruit is a symbol of happiness, hope, the changing season and much needed sustenance.
As the featured San artists celebrate tsamma time, they invite patrons into their world through a selection of drawings, paintings, video and soundscapes.
Through over 100 artworks by 29 artists, viewers come to learn not only of the sunny and starry night scenes of the natural world that surrounds San communities at Skoonheid and Donkerbos-Sonnebloem but also of these marginalised communities’ struggle for water, of shacks burning to the ground, the threat of snakes, the disappointment of a hunter returning without meat and of the telltale tobacco pouch signaling danger from sometimes exploitative farmers.
Though life at the resettlements can be tough, much of what is depicted is idyllic.
Images of wildlife such as eland, zebras, elephants, giraffes, birds, porcupines and smaller grasshoppers, worms and dung beetles are tenderly and charmingly wrought, while scenes of the ‘clapping song’, ‘buffalo song’, ‘eland dance’, veldkos and of burning community fires invite the viewer to consider San culture and tradition.
In an installation by Lucia Moses, footprints overlap around a painted fire and highlight the significance of fires in her community as sites of ritual, celebration, storytelling, cooking and connection.
Moses, who has worked with the Omba Arts Trust for 15 years, is in attendance at the exhibition opening alongside artists Piet Skoen and Bertie Anton. Each artist representing the broader 29 is making their visual art debut.
“I love nature and most of my drawings are of nature,” says Anton in Afrikaans. “It’s my first time exhibiting and I feel very happy and proud. I invite all the people worldwide to see what we can do. We are also very happy that Omba invites us to such things.”
Skoen who is instantly recognisable from a featured self-portrait is just as enthusiastic.
As a teenager, Skoen used to sift and weigh charcoal for a farmer which affected his lungs. Just a year ago, Skoen’s hut burnt down leaving nothing but charcoal. By using charcoal to create art, Skoen employs a central element of these challenges to work through trauma and imagine a better future for his community and for himself.
“My dream is to be an artist and just draw,” says Skoen who mostly draws images from nature, including particularly delicate renderings of trees.
“There are other artists in our communities who like to draw but they don’t have the chance to show how good they are. I once sat and thought that if one day I get a studio where I stay then I could also give them a chance,” Skoen says in Afrikaans.
“I want everybody to see this exhibition. I wish there were more people from my community here to see how well it’s going and that they can also stand up and do something themselves.”
‘Tsamma Time’ will be on display at the National Art Gallery of Namibia until 23 September.
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