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ARTsouthAFRICA recently had the exclusive opportunity to speak to reknowned South African artist Robert Slingsby in his Cape Town studio. What follows is our conversation with him about his last solo exhibition, ‘Crossing the Line,’ the symbolism in his work, and how travelling in Africa has shaped his practice over the years. This interview is published in full in the February Digital Issue of ARTsouthAFRICA.

STORY Slingsby Interview Cocked

ABOVE: Robert Slingsby, Cocked. Charcoal and chalk pastel on cotton rag. Image courtesy of Barnard Gallery, Cape Town.

Could you tell me a bit about ‘Crossing the line’- the works you produced and how the exhibition title comes into play?

In 2013, I made two trips to visit the remote tribes of the Omo River in Ethiopia. ‘Crossing the line’ was born out of an actual straight line demarcating where forest abruptly ended and ploughed land began. What was once tribal land offering a source of sustenance and livelihood to the indigenous Kara tribe along the banks of the Omo River, was now a cotton farm. I also learned about the soon to be completed Gibe III Dam which will disrupt the natural ebb and flow of the water. Consequently, there’s a line being crossed in the ethical sense too, literally depriving the people of this land of their livelihood. There is also a cultural, societal line being crossed, from indigenous, tribal ways to that of an urban, developed way of life. For the tribes of the lower Omo Valley, there exists a major ecological threat accompanied by an inevitable cultural transition.

For me, this line was so significant; crossing it represented going beyond what is ethical. With a population of close to 100 million and a history of famine, Ethiopia is compelled to focus on economic development and needs natural resources and land to do so. The tribes of the lower Omo Valley represent a marginalised minority unable to influence or inhibit the process of development, regardless of the significant value they contribute in terms of their cultural traditions. The irony is that many tribal people welcome development by gaining access to life changing benefits such as water and electricity. The price being paid for this development represents an irreversible line that is being crossed.

This is what ‘Crossing the line’ is about; the irreversible consequences suffered by the marginalised. This is what all my art is about.

In meeting people who come from African countries to the North, I would always wonder why they come to South Africa when they have such a great education back home.

As one heads south from Addis Ababa, there is a sense of abundance, with seemingly endless cultivation. However, the land that I visited in the lower Omo Valley, in the south, where the Sudanese and Kenyan borders are literally in sight, is exceptionally remote and uncultivated. Here tribes herd their cattle and goats. Some, like the Mursi, lead a nomadic lifestyle (within the confines of the Mago Park). Others, like the Kara, live in ancient villages alongside the crocodile infested Omo River. It is these communities who bear the greatest burden of environmental threats such as malaria, drought and famine.

Once you leave Addis Ababa, depending on the season, the journey down south is a ‘carnage’ reality check. The dry season sees Ethiopian women and donkeys laden in water, playing roadside Russian roulette, as they transport water from the river to their villages. The rainy season sees flowing rivers, meaning fewer donkeys, fewer women, fewer 4×4’s, rendering the roads less treacherous.

Beyond the towns there is no electricity and no running water. Life for the visitor is a bit like that of a tortoise. The shell is either a 4×4 or a tent. The field trips require a team; a translator, driver, soldier, tracker and even a cook. Everyone is in one vehicle, as well as all the food and water. Discovering Africa means discovering its people; how enterprising they are, how wise they are, and discovering their creativity, their art. There is so much to gain, so much to learn. Each visit seems to shed another layer in a complex weave of human interaction.

With regard to the tribesmen I met, few have ever travelled beyond the valley let alone Ethiopia. For most, it is the desire for education and medical intervention which leads to travel. However it is a tiny minority that are undertaking the incredible journey all the way down south.

These experiences have obviously shaped your practice profoundly. How does your choice of media aid in conveying your concept or message?

I have had a lifelong love for ochre; bits of red ochre always manifest among the remnants of pottery shards and ostrich eggshell beading in the middens of caves and beaches, wherever ancient man has lived.

Throughout my life I have visited countless ancient sites, home to extraordinary rock art. When I am confronted by either incredibly finely drawn images of mythical creatures on a cave wall, or non-figurative engravings onto horizontal slabs of rock, I am certain there is a sophisticated concept fundamental to the art. It is through decades of field trips to record rock art worldwide, that I have endeavoured to obtain a deeper understanding of the concept.

For over thirty years, I have photographed petroglyphs, or rock engravings, extensively in the Richtersveld. Through my early research in the 80’s, I discovered that this art had received little attention by academics or in literature. I felt compelled to pursue my own research through field trips and by communicating with people whom I believed may enlighten me on the subject. In my search to understand the meaning behind rock art, Credo Mutwa once said to me “when you hear the voice of the frog, eventually you will meet his scaly face.” And that’s my journey; I am trying to find the deeper understanding, through the ochre, the ancient artist’s ‘pen’, that sent me on this very special journey.

I’m interested in this “special journey” and your path out of South Africa and into other African countries. How do you think your time in South Africa during apartheid influenced your desire to travel north and to make work influenced by other cultures?

My initial journey beyond South Africa pivoted around education. The 1976 Education riots reflected the injustice of our education system as a tool of oppression. At that point in time, I was of the opinion that it would be iniquitous to be associated with a South African university, as I perceived them as part of the apartheid institution. This is what took me to Holland in 1976, where I was a student at the Vrije Akademie for five years. I produced resistance art and expanded my frame of reference beyond South Africa. I have always been dedicated to recording the culture and traditions of the marginalised. However, travelling to other African countries has been solely born out of a love of Africa.

STORY Slingsby Interview Thobeka

ABOVE: In conversation with Robert Slingsby in his studio. Photo by Brad Twaddle.

That’s very insightful. Why did you choose to represent the Kara, Mursi and Hamer tribes, amongst, others in Africa? 

Actually, I was first interested in the Dinka and Serma tribes. The Dinka are in Southern Sudan, the Serma are further north from where I work. I started drawing theKara, Mursi and Hamer simply because they are some of the most beautiful people you could ever imagine. Their features are absolutely incredible and I found I could isolate certain parts- bone structure, musculature and skin. They have an imposing, statuesque quality, which is immensely appealing to me. I discovered the Kara, a particular group in Southern Ethiopia when researching information for my previous exhibition ‘Money and God in his pocket’. I was interested in their body art painted in various earthly pigments, the designs of which were similar to rock art markings. Furthermore, their status as a marginalised community; propelled by their geography to change, mirrored a process I had documented in my art, with regard to the Nama of the Richtersveld. The. Kara are the ones I have always been most interested in, however, having been there, I discovered that the body painting was not confined to them, but is a regional phenomenon. These communities value their artistic expression more than music, more than dance. These tribes (in Southern Ethiopia) are artists by tradition- they are tribes I wish I belonged to. This is a human story; they are beautiful, rich, generous, kind, thoughtful and patient. Yet much like the Nama of the Richtersveld, their culture may die out without so much as a whimper.

I cannot wait to get back to Ethiopia. It is changing so rapidly and there is still so much recording to be done.

I think that at the same time as this rapid growth and change there is a fragile balance between old and new, a balance that could be shifted by such growth. There is a fine line between adapting and keeping up with the modern world, but does that not put indigenous culture in jeopardy? 

You are right about the balance, but people are very adaptable- that’s actually part of the problem. We can abandon our culture over night. In Timbuktu, libraries and monolithic stone structures are being destroyed because of their Animistic roots and representations. This Animism, where everything has a dignity, is alive with a spirit and a soul. The Mursi, the Kara and the Khoi are aligned with some of the greatest principles of science that we are only now becoming aware of. We are living in a most exciting world, but we need to have a sense of permanence too, a deep-rooted sense of the universe and our place in it. 

That sounds like it could be related to your exhibition title, ‘Crossing the Line’ – on that (very practical) note, is your work and the exhibition going to be showcased in the future?      

I took the opportunity to show at The Barnard Gallery (in Cape Town). I didn’t want to produce and show a body of small, trivial works- every work was monumental, and it required the very best of me. To show the subjects respect, I did my very best work. I feel I did do the people of the Kara and Mursi tribes, justice.

Your work came to be part of the Saatchi Collection last year. Could you speak of your experience of your work being in their collection?

Being selected onto the Saatchi exhibition is a massive achievement.

Do you think they were more interested in the technical aspect of your work than the conceptual?

Probably not, but for those who may not know my art, every part is drawn or dotted, there is zero smudging.

So being in the Saatchi collection is reminiscent of those years exhibiting in Europe? 

I’ve always had a very close association with Europe; I’ve been working with a dealer in London for over twenty years which has also led to shows further afield. I had my first show in Holland in 1978, while a student at the Vrije Akademie. By the time I was 24, I had had 25 solo exhibitions in Europe. In Holland, I exhibited extensively as a young emerging artist- I needed the money to fund my studies. I was there for five years, studying, exhibiting and building up a wide network.

Can you explain the symbolism in the works?

To understand the symbolism, I have to gain the respect and confidence of the tribe. My hope is that one day they will take me to the sulphurous yellow mud where they go to paint their bodies. To the best of my knowledge no outsider has ever been allowed to witness or be a part of that ritual. There is a mutual trust and respect that is nurtured, and fundamental to what I have learned from them. Meeting the community and watching them choose to evolve into a modern paradigm is an invaluable part of the process – highlighting the sense of urgency to document these traditions. That’s why I will keep going back; keep working with the tribes, contributing where and how I can.  For example, the last visit resulted in organising and funding the journey of a child, Nadine, her mother, her uncle, a chaperone, a translator and driver on an arduous journey to reach an Operation Smile clinic 300 km’s away as the crow flies; a week (in each direction) away logistically – to have her cleft palette repaired.

It’s a complex issue when one is confronted with the consequence of ones presence. It calls into question the effect of development in every aspect of life and therefore the responsibility I own with my presence as an outsider. I feel comfortable with regard to medical intervention.

The guides are pivotal. The journey is not an easy one. The senses are heightened from the heat and from hunger. The paint, the flowers, the beads, the hairdos, the headgear, they are all symbolic. I want to document all of this, I am desperate to try and make a contribution that goes beyond just the archives.

I like the suspended feeling in your work, where although the work could be seen as purely a thing of beauty, it is counteracted by the serious subject matter. In one painting, Nadore-Shifting the Shifters, the presence of a gun distorts the decorative elements and well-created scene. Could you talk more about the way you have portrayed your subjects and the meaning or message you are trying to convey?

Visiting and photographing is always a cultural overload, so I have tried to eliminate the clutter and detail of the background and focus on the human element. I am trying to go beyond a purely visual interpretation and I am trying to empathise with the soul that sits behind the eyes. I am not trying to make them beautiful. They are beautiful. I haven’t tried to embellish the subjects. They are embellished. In fact I make a point of eliminating the unnecessary. I make only enough marks to capture the depth of emotion I wish to get from the work. As I grow older, I want to challenge myself to produce the very best mark I can make, an enormous and soul-searching mark. It has taken me over forty years to arrive where I am now, and I am open to criticism – I am here to do something. I am doing something, and that’s the best I can do.

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