Sound from the Thinking Strings honors the disappearing indigenous people of Southern Africa known as the San or /Xam, also known as Bushmen. Genetic evidence suggests they are one of the oldest, if not the oldest, peoples in the world, going back to perhaps 60,000 years.
The book is based on the interviews conducted by Wilhelm Bleek and Lucy Lloyd of three San informants, //Kabbo, /Han ≠ Kasso (//Kabbo's son-in-law), and Dia!Kwain in the late nineteenth-century in Cape Town, South Africa. Skotnes pays tribute to honor the history, cosmology, and visual traditions of the San through the archaeological, historical, and oral traditions as preserved by Bleek and Lloyd. Without this historical record, knowledge about San culture would be irrevocably lost and this publication would not have been possible.
Wilhelm Bleek, a philologist, was interested in the origins of San language and began recording terminology with the help of his sister-in-law Lucy Lloyd. Their informants were San prisoners from the Breakwater Convict Station, some of whom were entrusted to their care for the purpose of their research. His main informant was //Kabbo whose name means 'dream' in the San language, who not only taught them San vocabulary, but also retold San stories and myths and described San culture. //Kabbo considered himself to be Bleek's teacher. After Bleek's death in 1875, Lloyd continued documenting San stories with her informants. Their cumulative research ultimately became the 13,000-page archive now housed at the University of Cape Town, which provided the source material and the inspiration for Sound from the Thinking Strings.
The San Poems
The literary dimension of Sound from the Thinking Strings is provided by Stephen Watson. Relying on archaeological and historical records, Watson selected forty-two narratives from the Bleek-Lloyd collection of San interviews and transformed these difficult texts into poetic language. He thus restored and preserved some aspects of San cosmology and mythology for posterity. In the essay accompanying the poems, he addresses the difficulty of translating textual material from 1870, in the absence of any dictionary because 'there is no-one left on earth today who can speak the /Xam language. Worse still, no-one is in a position to gain a reliable knowledge of it, even if he or she wished it'.
The title Sound from the Thinking Strings is a reference to the 'thinking strings', the San way of expressing thoughts or consciousness. One powerful poem called 'Song of the broken string' encapsulates the tragic demise of the San people and the destruction of their culture. One poignant stanza from the poem:
of a broken string,
because of a people
breaking the string,
the earth, my place
is the place
a thing broken
that does not
breaking with me.
John Parkington's essay in Sound of the Thinking Strings, entitled //Kabbo's father's father's place it was: perceptions of San hunter gatherers, describes /Xam history and way of life and their dramatic transformation in the interior Cape as a result of the foreign intrusions, particularly the colonialists during the late nineteenth century.
The seventeen monochrome and three color etchings, combining aquatint, hard and soft ground textures, and linear patterns, are individually signed by the artist.
These etchings represent metaphysical, symbolic, historic, even archaeological aspects of San culture. Skotnes' images often include therianthropic figures (part human, part animal) looming over an arid landscape in a dream-like vision.
An equally evocative visual icon is the hunter's bag, a symbolic reference to things being held and things lost. In a short essay the artist explains that these images are drawn from her research of rock paintings and engravings in southern Africa, museum displays of the San in the South African Museum, San mythology, and Lloyd's accounts.
The /Xam and the Colony, 1740.
Nigel Penn's essay on the interactions among the Khoi, the San, the colonials and the missionaries between mid-eighteenth to late nineteenth century begins
'By the 1870s the /Xam hunter gatherers of the Cape interior were a dying people, their societies shattered by warfare, starvation and disease; their women and children enslaved; their men all but exterminated by the genocidal hatred of their enemies. They fought this process of extinction for over one hundred and thirty years, but the story of their struggle 'their history' is virtually unknown.'
The struggle was between the Khoi pastoralists and the San hunter-gatherers, between indigenous people and the newcomers, between colonials and indigenes, and between humans and the harsh environment. The winners were the colonials with greater resources and weaponry; the losers were the vulnerable, unprotected San.
Penn describes the conflicts, the raids against the San, the struggles with the environment, and the missionary attempts to civilize the 'uncivilized' San. His essay underscores the raison d'etre of this publication, a means of preserving and illuminating the San world by recording their re-constructed history, representing a visual world, and hearing their stories in poetic form.
In his foreword the noted paleontologist Stephen Gould (1941-2002) reflects on the loss of San culture:
'The extirpation of /Xam culture and language was a special tragedy . . . We should have seen the /Xam for what they and all human cultures are 'brothers and sisters on their particular island in the sea of human cultures'with all islands as wonderful places to visit, all equally instructive, equally complex, and equally beautiful. When any island founders, we lose a vital piece of the human soul.
Source: Smithsonian Libraries