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  • Angela Briggs

Ancestral rivers

Updated: Feb 17

On an ordinary Saturday morning, an artwork projects me deep into the past, a past I don't know, that yet feels familiar. People move in a panoramic landscape that stretches the length of the darkened gallery I am in. The shifting scenes are of real and imagined events taken from records of encounters between Europeans and indigenous peoples during Captain Cook’s journeys around New Zealand (1768–1779). It's an hour-long projection, with a whole range of interactions – some horrific, some humane – all set to a reverberating musical score. In the focused space of the gallery, I'm drawn in to the sweetness and the horror of it. I find the experience completely engaging, perhaps because of the resonant, multi-sensory space the artwork sets up. Judging by the quiet figures of the other viewers, many of them do too.


The artwork The Pursuit of Venus [Infected] (2015–2017) by Maori First Nation Artist Lisa Reihana is on show at the Norval Foundation in Cape Town. Norval Foundation encourages visitors to take and share photographs on social media, and these are my two best shots at this.

South Africa’s own colonial history was on my mind when I bought two books that look at the wars of dispossession in the Eastern Cape: The Broken River Tent by Mputhumi Ntabeni, and Writing the Ancestral River by Jacklyn Cock.


Mputhumi Ntabeni turns out to live in Hout Bay, like me, and the opening pages of The Broken River Tent are actually set here. In the prologue, the main character, Phila, is at a 2017 community meeting about land: “These riots when they came down to it, were all about one thing. Land. The irony, in the 21st century, was that the players were still the same as before.”

Described as “a stellar novel on the epic struggle for land between the Xhosas and the British in the 19th century”, The Broken River Tent turns out to be multi-layered.


The contemporary story is set in 2007. Phila, the main character, is well-read but nevertheless displays an engaging awkwardness: “Often, when people asked what he did, Phila felt defeated. His explanation differed according to mood.” The novel is partly propelled by Phila’s need to understand his personal history, “to find a good way to live, without too many internal contradictions”. His father dies early in the story, which starts him off on a journey through the Eastern Cape, looking for clarity.


Phila has been visiting Fort Frederick in Port Elizabeth when Maqoma, the 19th century chief and warrior appears, on a mission to tell him about his life. From then on, Maqoma accompanies Phila on his journey. The book is epic, with past and present weaving together in a plot that moves simultaneously towards resolution (in the contemporary story), and tragedy (in the retelling of the history, ending with the loss of land for the amaXhosa, and Maqoma’s death on Robben Island).


It’s effervescent too, traversing boundaries, and holding possibilities open. Both Phila and Maqoma play with language and the book is brimful with ideas, giving it the sense of a living thing. The boundary between past and present breaks down as Maqoma's stories fuse with Phila's thoughts and the contemporary landscape of the Eastern Cape becomes alive with the past.


Ntabeni is, I think, trying to perform an act of healing in making Maqoma’s voice accessible: “We preserve … so that our children and their children’s children, may stand up tall until the land of Phalo is returned to its rightful owners…” Speculating about what Ntabeni’s intent might be – however incomplete my understanding of his complex text – brings me back to my original desire to read the book and the ways in which that desire has been met, which has something to do with the way the author conjures up voices: not only ancestral voices, but an urgent contemporary one. I love South African books for the insights they give me into how others think. In this divided country it feels like a privilege to be able to hear these words.


Jacklyn Cock’s book, Writing the Ancestral River, is very different, but just as resonant. She’s an academic, but Jacob Dlamini’s cover shout – which got me to buy the book – describes it as “a love song … as hopeful as it is elegaic’’. At the book’s core is her personal experience of the Kowie River, which she’s returned to every year since childhood. Rooted in this emotional experience of a place, the book moves out of the academic, bringing together memoir, anthropology, history, river ecology and environmental activism, finally raising questions about how decisions are made today about resources like water.


Cock describes how her research for the book led her into re-examining her family’s 1820 settler history. She writes about her great great grandfather, William Cock, who led the development of Port Alfred into a harbour: “it was … deeply shocking to me to read of him in recent historians’ accounts as a member of a settler elite who promoted the violent dispossession of the land and livlihoods of the indigenous people…” I greatly admire her responsive writing about her family’s “inter-generational, racialised privileges, damages and denials”, which is, she says, “essential for any shared future”.


Her chapter about the river itself – an estuary – is beautiful. She describes bird, plant and fish species along its banks and in the intertidal zones at wonderful length. She shares anthropological accounts of Xhosa cosmology, including stories of Abantu Bomlambo, the “People of the River”, who are either ancestors or act as intermediaries, connecting the lives of the living with those who have gone before. And she describes accidentally witnessing a sacred ritual associated with the induction of a diviner-healer. This is all done delicately, in an attempt to acknowledge the various ways in which the river can be known.


Like Cock, Ntabeni celebrates ancestral rivers – the rich brown rivers of the Eastern Cape. The ‘”river tent” of his title (borrowed from TS Eliot, according to a Facebook post by the author) is the canopied tunnel above the river where Maqoma spent time with his Khoisan wife. Ntabeni shares in another Facebook post a photo of the mouth of the Nqabara River, the place where Hintsa was killed and beheaded by colonial soldiers. In the book, Phila says: “The only way you can see anything interesting in places like these is by bringing something of yourself along.”


In September 2018, when I was first reading the two books I’ve written about here, I attended a talk in the same gallery space that Pursuit of Venus [Infected] now occupies at the Norval Foundation. It was by Mmakgabo Helen Sebidi, opening her retrospective exhibition Batlhaping Ba Re!. The title means “The Fish People Say” and according to notes by curator Portia Malatjie it’s a line from a “totem poem” that belongs to her family.


There’s no recording of the talk, but I do remember that Sebidi was clear that she’d worked hard to make her art. Some of her earlier pieces were made on small pieces of paper which she had to reassemble as large works, creating huge wall panels of charcoal drawings crowded with shifting, painful figures. These emotive works, which won her the Standard Bank Young Artist Award in 1989, seem to show some of the psychic pain of apartheid – exemplified in her 1988 work Tears of Africa. At the talk, she also described how hearing stories of transatlantic slavery while in Brazil affected her deeply, resulting in her massive memorial diptych Tears of Africa 2 (2016).


Helen Sebidi, oil on canvas, A girl meets her spirit parents 2014–2015. (used with permission of Norval Foundation)

Her later works are also large and full but now radiantly coloured. Her family’s totem animal is the fish, and most of the paintings show encounters between humans and creatures of the water who are intermediaries between this world and the spirit world. I think this is why I initially link them to those Eastern Cape rivers, and the personal ancestral connections that Ntabeni (or rather, Phila) and Cock make there.


But there is more than that. Writing about her more recent bodies of work in the Mail and Guardian (21 Sept 2016) critic Kwanele Sosibe says: "Her work is perhaps less nostalgic and has more to do with an imagined future where lives can be configured anew." I think I get the sense of that – these vital works seem to link a relationship with the past with something hopeful that is coming into being. (To me it seems a generous form of creativity, and in fact Sosibe, writing about her process for these works, says: “She refers to this period of labour as ‘one of extended joy’, during which the free-spiritedness of precognitive techniques and more deliberate drawing can lead to endless new paths of discovery.”)


In some way, Ntabeni and Cock seem to be doing work of a similar kind – soaked in history and yet somehow hopeful for the future – and like Sebidi's, the value of their labour feels profound.


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