Planting seeds to hunt the wind

Delme Cupido's picture


Khwa ttu San Culture and Education Centre launches its events programme 2013 with a new exhibition, entitled “Planting seeds to hunt the wind”, at its on-site gallery on 27 January 2013.
Planting seeds to hunt the wind is an exhibition of photographs and audio-visual recordings, combined with a live plant installation, that opens at !Khwa ttu San Cultural and Education Centre in Yzerfontein on 27 January 2013.
In keeping with the centre’s mission to explore ‘San culture, past and present, for a better future’, this multiform exhibition attempts to offer insights into the metaphysical experience of healing as it is practised by a diverse group of ‘kruiedokters’, ‘bossiedokters’, ‘smeerdokters’ and sangomas who work with African indigenous plant medicines in the Western, Eastern and Northern Cape provinces, and whose practices reflect those of their hunter-gatherer forebears.
The exhibition is the result of collaboration with the healers, community leaders and curators of medicinal gardens who appear in the images, some ofwhom will be present for the launch of Planting seeds to hunt the wind. Their shared intention is to open up conversation about people’s relationships to indigenous plant medicines.
Some of the plants represented in the images are growing in the garden at !Khwa ttu and have been potted as part of the installation. Gallery visitors are encouraged to step outside to explore the medicinal section of the garden.
The exhibition will be catalysed by a curated programme of events and discussions aimed at further exploring some of the ideas and provocations at play in the images. From a public encounter between San and Khoekhoe healers, to a concert featuring Pops Mahomed and Olufemi, and a San film festival in association with Encounters International Documentary Festival, the programme will be unfolding throughout 2013.
The archaeological record supports oral historical accounts that knowledge of plant medicines has been in circulation in Southern Africa for many millennia.
Plants are occasionally represented in rock engravings and paintings, evidencing the role that they played in hunter-gatherer medicinal and ritual practices. The central tenet of San religion was, and still is, ritualised interaction between the ‘real’ (material) and spirit world.
The most important ritual is the healing or trance dance that enables healers to receive power from the spirit world and might include advice on plants to use for healing. Although mood-altering plants are not generally used during the trance dance, plants that enhance the senses, such as sweet-smelling buchu, are sometimes used to help people enter the trance. When entering the spirit world, powerful animals, like the eland, are believed to facilitate the journey. The sensation is illustrated in rock paintings and engravings that show therianthropes, such as humans with eland horns or animals with human body parts.
One of the highlights of the events programme will be a presentation by renowned archaeologist, author and rock art specialist Janette Deacon, who will be tracing the use and depiction of plants to way back before the advent of agricultural societies in Southern Africa.
Many of the healers who have participated in this project claim Khoekhoe or San ancestral descent and argue for their right to benefit from the dissemination of indigenous knowledge systems. The landmark Hoodia case has seen San communities participating in a massive benefit-sharing deal involving the licensing of a patent to a traditional plant remedy.
For centuries, San people have been using a species of local succulent to stave off hunger and thirst on long hunting trips or during times of food scarcity. In 1996, scientists working for South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) patented a compound from the Hoodia gordonii plant of the Kalahari. The following year, they licensed the patent to Phytopharm, a British pharmaceutical company, for over US$20-million. Phytopharm then subleased it for commercial development to US-based Pfizer Corporation, and then to Unilever, the maker of Slimfast. The significant royalties and the agreement signed to ensure San participation in growing and cultivating the plant have shifted perceptions and contributed to international debates regarding intellectual property rights of indigenous peoples, bioprospecting and commodification.
Within this social and economic space, ethnicity can play a positive role for its subjects providing them with opportunities for collective prosperity. On the other hand, the manipulation of ethnicity as a political tool has also had disastrous effects. As various ethnic groups fight for legal rights over their land and communal discoveries, legislators have only just begun to grapple with the ramifications of this contested terrain. It is hoped that this exhibition will stimulate fresh discussions around this rapidly evolving contemporary phenomenon, as well as provoking some thoughts in response to the critical question: Who owns culture?
Each image in the exhibition shows a healer in relation to a particular medicinal plant or natural curative substance of their choice. Although African healing practice draws on a broad-based body of collective knowledge about the therapeutic properties of each substance used for healing, a large element of it is also subjective and interpersonal. In indigenous medicine, cosmos (outer) and psychi (inner) are intertwined, and spirituality finds a place in the practice of curative knowledge. For this reason, each of the healers was asked to articulate which medicine he/she felt most closely connected to and why. Recordings of these discussions can be listened to as part of the audio-visual component of the show.
From Mary McCloud, a Griekwa elder who has been a spirit worker for over six decades, counselling and healing people in the neighbourhood of Lavender Hill on the Cape Flats, to Jean-Pierre James, a Rastafarian medicinal herb purveyor who tends the Franschhoek Medicinal Garden, the images engage with a broad diversity of healing practices in contemporary communities.
Previously viewed as part of The Fringe of the 2012 Johannesburg Art Fair, this is the first iteration of an ongoing project that will include future collaborations in Swaziland, Lesotho, KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga and beyond.
Subtle Agency is a heterodox group of artists from a variety of cultural backgrounds who have come together to explore these everyday San andKhoekhoe healing practices in an open-ended visual way. ‘Using artistic agency provides us with a way to represent people’s knowledge and use of indigenous plant medicines in a way that is not inscribed within the Western scientific framework,’ says Julia Raynham, who initiated the project. ‘With images, we are able to suggest ideas around spirituality, cosmology, belief systems and metaphysical power that one can’t as easily talk about by means of narrative language.’
Raynham’s artistic practice melds composition, performance art, poetry, video, sound, and improvisation in a distinctly experimental vein. She has also been a practising sangoma for a decade, having trained extensively in divination and plant medicines, and forging links between the ancestral and human worlds.
The exhibition was inspired by her ongoing contact with a diversity of other healing practitioners in the field and by Karen E Flint’s landmark study, Healing Traditions: African Medicine, Cultural Exchange, and Competition in South Africa, 1820 – 1948 (University of Ohio Press in association with University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2008).
The book was published subsequent to August 2004, when South Africa officially sought to legally recognise the practice of traditional healers. ‘Largely in response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic, and limited both by the number of practitioners and by patients’ access to treatment, biomedical practitioners looked toward the country’s traditional healers as important agents in the development of medical education and treatment,’ reads the publisher’s statement.
‘Flint’s book offers a very clear analysis of a chapter of urban history in South Africa that few people know about,’ says Raynham. ‘As we became urbanised, traditional doctors setting up pharmacies in South African cities at the beginning of the 20th century were imprisoned for unlawfully trading, their pharmacies shut down – so the evolution of traditional practice was violently interrupted. To this day, many people still tend to think of African medicine in terms established during the colonial era. We wanted to try to revise the way we view this field in a very open ended, explorative way.’
In some instances, like the image of Chief Doctor Richard Kutela in a corpse-like pose holding the embalming bulb scales of the ‘gifbol’ plant, Boophane disticha, the precise meaning or curative efficacy of the plant is invoked and in others, like the image of Sangoma Veronica Mhlazi at Ntufufu River mouth, the aim was to capture a more inherent state of grace or prayer associated with traditional healing practice. ‘We also wanted to highlight a way of relating to nature that is outside of the middle-class Western construction of nature as a space of leisure,’ says Raynham. ‘For African healing practitioners, nature is alive and sentient. Similarly, natural medicines are understood to be catalysts of life force or vectors for communication.’
The makers of this exhibition hope that it will go some way towards shifting limiting stereotypes around the way that indigenous medicine is perceived in South Africa today. ‘Our ultimate goal is to get the images and catalogue into public libraries and schools across the country to share this knowledge in the public realm, so that people of all ages have informed access to what is happening in the field.’
The exhibition and cultural events programme is generously supported by OSISA, the National Heritage Council and CATHSSETA.
GENERAL INFO: For details about upcoming cultural events, the current exhibition or !Khwa ttu San Culture and Education centre in general, watch  and the local press.
MEDIA: High-res images available on request. Media updates and information are available from the website or from the !Khwa ttu offices. Media releases for cultural events throughout 2013 will follow.
Media enquiries:
!Khwa ttu San Culture and Education Centre
tel: 022-492 2998
mobile: 082-431 8575 (Mirjam Asmal-Dik)
Mirjam Asmal-Dik
Programme Manager Arts, Culture & Heritage
!Khwa ttu San Culture and Education Centre
tel: +27-82-431 8575


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