An academic colleague and I recently took our third-year anthropology students to go see the Voices of the Drylands photographic exhibition by Attie Gerber currently showing at the North West University Gallery in Potchefstroom. The students are taking a course on research methods with my colleague and one on theory and representation in anthropology with me. We wanted them to engage with issues of representation and the difficulties of documenting other people’s lives, whether through writing, visuals or other means.
The Drylands are the arid areas of the Northern Cape and transnational regions such as the Kalahari.
The Voices of the Drylands exhibition is important, according to Gerber, because “These people [of the Drylands] are remnants of a vanishing lifestyle [and] the last pioneers of South African history”. Gerber states that the people of the “Drylands”, along with “their ancestors [were the] first people to occupy South Africa and they left an indelible imprint on the cultural landscapes in South Africa”. That the United Nations has been involved in efforts to preserve the “vanishing lifestyle” of the people of the Drylands, Gerber says, should worry us.
The cause for concern is not only that the area is a “succulent paradise” and an “ecological hotspot in an arid region”, but also that the way of life of “these people” is under threat. As people become wage labourers, and gain access to social grants and pensions, Gerber says, “so will traditional lifestyles decline”.
Issues of what is “traditional life” and what is modern, what is “civilised” and what is uncivilised have long been contentious issues not only in anthropology but in various other disciplines that document other people’s lived realities. A key problem here lies in the power dynamic and what George Marcus and Michael Fischer termed a “crisis of representation”. At the centre of this crisis is the recognition that possibly human sciences can never give a full enough description of the social realities we observe.
Yet, my dis-ease with some aspects of Gerber’s exhibition are best captured by Dean MacCannell’s notion of “staged authenticity”, which arises out of the recognition that in interactions between different cultures, the “realities” of each culture come “face-to-face”. And, as Davydd Greenwood posits, in this confrontation, “the outcome is determined by the relative material power of the two groups” and the group with less power “usually experiences itself as ‘objects’, of outsider observation, manipulation, and often derision”. This is where “staged authenticity” enters as is largely observed particularly in the tourist market, where one group (“the dependent group”) performs and stages “an impression of authenticity” for another group (that is materially powerful).
The notion of the exhibition somehow showcasing “traditional” lifestyles is troubling, not because of a desire to assist people preserve their cultural traditions, but in so far as it requires the group remains static within a certain positionality to maintain the position of “traditional” for outside observers and international organisations.
Yet, as can be seen from the exhibition, many people from the area have long been and are continuously engaging in various ‘western” modernities. Many of the participants in the exhibition utilise a lot of religious, especially Christian imagery, which we know (Christianity) was imposed and came with colonial settlers in the country – it is not a product of “traditional” African life or that of the “first settlers” in the country.
Gert, one of the people who are shown in the exhibition remarks, that: “Few of us still live like [in] the old days. It is much easier to buy bread at the shop.” Other participants further share the fact that they treat illness with “Grandpa and brandy”, while another participant remarks that all that they need is “flour” — all of which are products of multinational corporations and capitalism.
Gerber argues that the lifestyle of the Nama is a rarity, and that “one will find a few authentic examples of the Nama lifestyle in all the communal areas of the north-western Cape” (my emphasis). Yet, the problem with these type of projects and exhibitions is that they have the effect of not only entrapping the people in need of “preservation” in the requirement to stage continuously a stagnant “authenticity” for the outsider, who does the “preservation”, but also, and especially in this case, there is a tendency to glamorise suffering under the heading of a “traditional” way of life.
While it comes through in the exhibition and beautiful photographs that the participants, as Gerber notes, seem to attach “spiritual values” to their sheep, goats and donkeys, we learn very little about the “traditional” ways in which the Nama live. There is nothing on “how they prepare food, what they wear, how they entertain themselves, their farming methods, their natural medicines, their oral history” as promised by Gerber.
What I saw in the exhibition is lots of suffering. In the exhibition, Gert remarks: “I don’t have money to buy food. My stock is too small to sell off any goats.” Some of the people in the exhibition complain that it is too easy to die of thirst in the desert, because, as Koos says: “The Kalahari is a soft place where only hard people can survive.” It is no wonder, then, that when Gert is asked what he thinks about at night, he responds: “I think about life, and pray for help.”
Loneliness is a further theme that seems to run through the narratives of the people profiled. Grietjie says: “Yes, it is lonely here, but we got used to it.” Another informant says: “I should have married, because most people don’t understand my problems.”
The issue of helping preserve indigenous cultural systems is undeniably an important issue. Yet, after viewing this exhibition, I am left wondering about the strains indigenous communities are expected to endure and the toll it takes on their holistic physical and mental health to maintain “authenticity”. After reading the narratives and viewing the pictures, I kept thinking these are the people who do need social grants and pension schemes the most because of the evident social and economic suffering.
Moreover, there is clearly a need for people working with indigenous groups to self-reflect on their own positionalities and how these ultimately shape what they see. Often research participants also have clear ideas not only about what they are going to tell the researcher, but also what they think the researcher wants to know and be told. We have to be aware of these dynamics and be courageous enough to acknowledge how our “power”, racial backgrounds and particularly also gender impacts on the type of knowledge we produce.