The propaganda war with Survival International, the BBC, busybody organisations in the west and semi-retired South African bishops over the relocation of the Basarwa from the CKGR does not seem to be going quite the way Government Enclave officials would prefer. And that is only at the political flank. There is another attack from the artistic flank that the government seems oblivious to and totally unprepared for.
Ernest Tlhagadikgora is among a group of Batswana students studying art in South Africa who have been exhibiting their works at Thapong Visual Art Centre in Gaborone. A BTech holder in Fine Arts from the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in South Africa, Tlhagadikgora is currently studying for a post-graduate certificate in education at Tshwane University of Technology in Pretoria.
For this exhibition, Tlhagadikgora chose to focus on the plight of Basarwa and part of the message that he is trying to put across in his art is what Survival International would use in its propaganda. Like Survival, the artist uses the supposedly derogatory, outrightly sexist and recently outlawed term “Bushmen” to refer to people whom the government wants to be called “Basarwa”.
“My work is inspired by the realisation that the Bushman is a Southern African indigenous culture facing extinction due to environmental changes, government policies and other unfavourable conditions. In order to portray the decline of their culture, I used art in the form of sculpture. I used simplified sculptural figures reflecting a disappearance of the Bushman culture,” Tlhagadikgora explains his art in the exhibition’s catalogue.
The artist uses the symbolism of stick-thin bronze figures to tell the story of a culture that is steadily ‘losing its meat’. The artist’s assertion that “the sculptures possess the ‘feel’ of the Bushman’s culture finds artistic elaboration in the minimalist dressing of the figures and the immediate environ the sculptures reside in. All sculptures are mounted on wood, being material which plays an important role in the day-to-day existence of the Basarwa.
Part of the feel of that culture, as obtains at present, may be hope for divine intervention. No piece expresses this better than that of a male Mosarwa figure perched on a tree stump. The face is turned up skywards and the left hand is held in a beseeching gesture. “God, please help us,” the figure could be saying to the Helper above.
“All in all, I’m trying to communicate with the audience that the Bushmen are losing their identity,” Tlhagadikgora concludes in his note in the catalogue.
“Losing their identity” is an interesting phrase because for all his professions about preservation, the artist himself may be adding to the stated problem if the medium that he chooses to depict the Basarwa is anything to go by. Why would he use bronze to portray a culture in which there is little if any use of that metal? Why, again, would he use the abstract form to sculpt a people whose own art does not make any nod to abstract expressionism?
Tlhagadikgora’s art would also fail the test of originality. Some artists seem to have an obsession with hardship and victim-hood. On the basis of that bias, they have churned out art that does not celebrate triumph and success. Told from the perspective of Survival, the situation of Basarwa is a desperate one but there are countless success stories of Basarwa moving with the times.
The exhibition at Thapong ended on Friday but art like Tlhagadikgora’s should serve as a wake-up call to the government. The fight for the hearts and minds of people over the Central Kalahari Game Reserve issue is being fought not just at the political level but at the artistic level as well. The government should take note and cat appropriately. But even at the political level, there is still the question of how well the government has mobilized citizens (notably artists in this particular case) so that they can promote its views on the CKGR issue. If the proposition that art can be used as a deadly political tool, then the government could have, on its hands, a battle it is ill-prepared for.