Art and Craft of Botswana Sudha Satyawadi

Freelance artist, reseacher and author working on ancient Indian art for the last thirty years. Placed by UNESCO, Paris as a specialist of intangible cultural heritage, she has worked on comparative study of rock and folk art focussing on paintings of India, Australia and South Africa. She is currently preparing a compendium of ancient art motifs, their origin, evolution and movement with regard to ancient art motifs of some of the European, African and Asian countries.

Bushmen are born artists. Art is in their blood, but they need modern techniques and material. Kalahari desert in Botswana, the native land of Bushmen, is full of bushes. This barren land is of great credit to the hunters and gatherers, who have produced items of daily use and objects of art with limited, locally available material and resources. Photographs given in the article speak for themselves. The objects in the photographs are old and are drawn from the permanent collection of Ethnology department of National Museum and Art Gallery, Gaborone, Botswana.

History of human race begins with the people of the region, now called Southern Africa. Trails from north and south, marked only by mysterious rock paintings and skeletal remains of 50,000 years ago, all converge into the Kalahari desert, now Botswana.

Botswana is a relatively less known country. It is landlocked with Namibia in the west, Republic of South Africa in the south and east and, Zambia and Zimbabwe in the north. 70% of Botswana’s land is a bushy desert. The country, earlier known as Bechuanaland, asked for protection from the British against threats from all around. The British accepted it as their Protectorate but had their own interests in mind. It was to stop possible invasion by the Germans from Namibia as they posed threat to the British dream of Cape to Cairo empire. Botswana was one of the poorest country in the world in that period. The British thus did not take much interest in the culture of the country. Some explorers did record in books and personal diaries and missionaries documented what was interesting to them. Their accounts help to reconstruct how people lived in that period. In 1966, Bechuanaland became an independent country Botswana, under a President. Around this time diamond was discovered and there was a move for rapid development, commercialisation and an effort to run with equal footing with rest of the world. The result was that, the original traditions and culture prevalent since time immemorial were relegated to the background.

Botswana now figures in the list of rich countries of the world, the richest in Africa which has an ancient and rich culture. It was never a subject of serious study in so far as its customs and culture is concerned. Even today a lot of rituals etc are not known to many. The place is a vast virgin field for researchers. After independence the government focussed on collecting material of its own cultural background. Though a little is known about the Kalahari, much still remains to be discovered. Historians are now taking interest in studying the past by digging the remains that people of the land had left behind. Archaeological evidence along with present day art and craft helps one to confirm the knowledge and skill passed on orally, from generation to generation. Knowledge of the past sometimes sets useful direction for the course of action in the future.

The elderly folk of Botswana are the living ancestors. They can establish a link between past and present from their personal experiences and also from the experience of their ancestors, as narrated to them. They are in possession of many cultural artefacts like ritual vessels, headgear etc which were handed over to them by their parents and grand parents. The older generation alone can explain their use and purpose. It is only through their experience and wisdom that the present Botswana, has a chance to discover their cultural and historical roots.

Rock art of South Africa and the Present San art.

The original inhabitants of Kalahari were Bushmen or the San*, who have been living in the area for thousands of years. It is generally accepted that pre-historic rock paintings and engravings which can be found across Southern Africa were created by Bushmen in pre-settler times. These document the culture and history of their creators. San artists depicted animals known to them as well as their own social activities and encounters with neighbouring people and their cultures. They also depicted designs resembling grid, combs, wheels, bee-hive and mazes. Researches suggest explanations of

these as ranging from ‘idle scribbles’ to ‘representations of entopic phenomena’. Unfortunately, there is no longer any tradition or memory of painting and engraving on rocks among the surviving San. It could be that, the loss of their old way of life suppressed the expression of their creativity in its traditional form. A group of surviving caveless San, resorted to practising body painting and engraving designs and animal figures on ostrich egg shells, sticks and bone implements.

            Today in Botswana there are a number of tribes and subtribes, clans and various ethnic groups, found on the broad reaches of the Kalahari sands. The remoteness of Kalahari has provided a refuge for many groups of people from the neighbouring countries in recent times. A positive fallout of this is, that new settlers brought with them interesting skills and crafts that has remained in use to the present day. These are the river people Himbukushu and Bayei of Okavango delta of Kalahari desert. These tribes have central African origin. They migrated to this land in 18th century. All these tribes exchanged knowledge of skill. The present Botswana nation characterised by its ethnic diversity, is clearly reflected in museum collections. Ethnic groups and their culture are dynamic force in the evolution of Botswana culture.

            This article is about rock paintings of Bushmen and the present day San artist’s paintings, also the craft of Bush people both San, the original inhabitants of Kalahari and Bantu who migrated from central Africa. Their craft include ostrich egg shell paintings, bead work, terracotta and other type of jewellery, and basketry. The people of Kalahari, though living in very remote areas have a remarkable aesthetic sense.

Over the generations, the people of Kalahari developed bonds towards animals, plants and other organisms and the environment they live in. They consider themselves to be the member of animal and plant kingdom. Bonds manifested in the form of totems, taboos and sacred behavioural pattern which is quite evident in their arts, crafts and dances.

            Presently the Botswana San artists have been given facilities, material and encouragement by the government in order to nurture and develop old tradition of art in their own personal way. This is one way of tracing history of Botswana from very knowledgeable but largely illiterate traditional historians.

Animal kingdom is the main subject of Bushman or San art both ancient and present. The closeness with animal world was quite evident in rock art of South Africa. Some of the animals are sacred to the people of Kalahari, others too have some importance in their lives. A large number of painted eland, ox-like African antelope with twisted horn, in south African San rock art suggest that, this animal must have been in some sense a sacred animal. Ever since the days of the first Bushman, no hunter kills an eland without first offering a dance. Eland in Kalahari has a great religious significance especially in its role as a dominant symbol. The animal represents water, welbeing and good health. It was one of the prime sources of healing potency which the dancer drew whenever he required cure from an ailment. The ancient rock art of southern Africa and the present day San paintings on canvas, cover the same topics – their harmony with nature, their daily life (now changed) rituals and legends.

            Although living in the harsh environment, the San skill of craft has survived for generations and is an integral part of their culture. It is derived from the hunter gatherer culture, by using natural material locally available e.g. skin, sticks, roots and ostrich egg shells along with more modern equipments such as wires, tin and coloured glass beads.

Ostrich egg shell as water container

Bushmen use ostrich egg shells as water containers. The San women fill the egg shell at waterholes in rainy season and safely seal it with grass plug. They usually draw or engrave personal emblems denoting ownership of the container, they then either store it in camps digging holes into the sand or prop it against the hut walls. Bushmen being nomads, keep the container with them. Sometimes they hide these containers under the sand. When they come back in the same area, they unearth the egg and use the stored water.

            Each egg shell has designs drawn on them, a brid, snake or an animal or some geometric pattern. It is difficult to trace the meaning of these designs. The Gwi Bushman’s emblem may represent a snake, birds, animals or humans, the Kung carve only geometrical patterns similar to the designs of rock art. The animal, bird, and snake designs may act as an emblem of the tribes and geometrical designs may suggest the location of the buried egg shell.

Bead work made out of ostrich egg shell – Bushmen are good craftsmen of beadwork. Hatched ostrich egg shells are broken into smaller pieces by using fingers, stones and sometimes teeth. Holes are drilled in the centre of the bead by turning the drill between the palm of hands. The beads are put on string made of twisted sinew. Each bead is patiently chipped until it becomes round by using a springbok horn and a stone. To keep the beads together, while being polished, a paper like fibre made from a plant root is placed between each bead. A grindstone is moved up and down until the beads are even, round and smooth. Beads are used as necklaces, headbands, belts, bangles and decorative apparel. Egg shell beads are also used for decorating aprons, skirts, bags or powder puffs. The bead work is sewn with thread made of animal sinew.

Basketry – From remote rural areas bordering the Kalahari desert and the Okavango delta comes Africa’s most creative artisans. Their extraordinary artistic achievement in basketry is due to ancient traditional skills of the Himbukushu, Yei, Bushmen and Babirwa people who lived in the land of Kalahari in harmony with their environment.

Material for making baskets depends on what is available – grass, bark, vine, reeds etc. Baskets are made from the leaf of the Mokolane tree (Hyphaena ventricosa), a fan shaped leaf. The spine of the leaf is used for coil, the split leaf is used for binding. The broad sword like fronds provide a flexible and pliable fibre for basketry. Motlhakola tree (Euclea clivinorum) provides dye for basket making. Basket maker boils the root, bark and palm fronds to dye them in various shades of brown which produce infinite variety of patterns and forms. Traditional symbols are combined with several coiled weaving techniques to produce an artistic harmony of form and designs. Coils are prepared either by a bundle made of grass or palm leaf spines which form a long continuous strand and by single core coil made from long vines or roots.

Baskets are made in variety of shapes and sizes with a specific purpose. A flat tray is for winnowing, flared baskets for gathering and carrying. Open and lidded storage baskets have a size and shape according to the intended contents and other household uses. Small baskets may contain seeds, herbs, flour, sorghum and variety of household articles. Large bowl shaped baskets are used for gathering and carrying. Some have concave base to facilitate carrying them on the head. Beer baskets are usually tightly woven, rigid and have a small opening. When a basket is filled with beer, the coils swell and the basket sweats, cooling the liquid in the process. Very large grain baskets can hold ten to fifty kilogram bags of sorghum and are placed on a stand to keep away termites. When creating a motif, the craftman considers the shape of the basket to create a pleasing design. For making a basket, the craftsman starts stitching from the centre coil and progress to the outer rim. The shape and stitch must be determined before the work starts. In general the total design is conceived before the work begins.

Most striking motifs are created by the basket making people in the north and northwest. They have evolved within their community a series of symbolic patterns. These patterns are known by specific names. The motif of a triangle is the symbol of swallows flying in formation. When swallows migrate it is the sign of rain or pula, supposed to be the sign of good fortune. Tears of the giraffe are depicted by parallel lines and dots signifying women following men on a hunt. Other motifs are forehead of the zebra identified by bold stripes or flower like star design, the diamond shaped designs are knees of the tortoise. A zigzag line is urine trail of the bull, carved concentric lines are ribs of the giraffe and the running ostrich is a circular pattern of stepped lines. Some symbols carry mystical message and origin of some are still unknown.

* Bushman, the name given by the Britishers was disliked by the original settlers of this land. Now they are known as San or Basarva, a name given by Botswana to these men of great wisdom and harbingers of cultural evolution and civilization of the past.

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