an exhibition by Pippa Skotnes
Pippa Catalogue PDF File
A Miraculous History of the Book
At the centre of this exhibition stand three volumes. Each comprises a
horse's skeleton covered in hand-written texts. Both sumptuous and macabre,
the skeletons - burnished in gold leaf, shod in silver shoes and fully
bridled - draw us closer. The texts inscribed on the skeletons are of
diverse provenance but cluster around three historical periods, namely
medieval and early modern Christianity; the First and Second World Wars;
and finally a group of texts, produced in the 1870s, in the now dead Bushman
language /Xam. Located around the three horses is a galaxy of items: boxes,
reliquaries, cases of objects with textual inclusions, bridled horse skulls,
and multi-media images.
We approach the three skeletons and start reading. There is, however,
no fixed vantage point from which to read. The contour of the bones, the
direction and size of the text determine how we must choreograph ourselves.
We crane and peer, swivelling our heads this way and that. How, we wonder,
are we to read these skeletons, their texts and the objects that surround
them? How are we to navigate the feast of comparison and the extravagance
of relationality implied in the exhibition and its parts?
Like any traveller unsure of where to go, we must seek directions. These
are of course best sought in the texts of the exhibition themselves, since
any text carries with in it an implicit set of 'instructions' for how
it wishes to be read. These instructions lie in its formal arrangement
and rules of composition which will provide us with a set of guidelines
for how to proceed. By heeding these, we might try to make ourselves ideal
readers, to bend and tune ourselves to the imaginative address of these
However, the question of what a text is or might be has been much debated
in literary and cultural theory and much of the intellectual project of
the humanities over the last half-century has been to name and capture
the multivalent nature of textuality. In Barthes' memorable phrasing,
texts are objects of "shimmering depth", "vast cultural
spaces through which our person
is only one passage", filled
with the elusive "rustle of language" (31). At the same time,
much effort has gone into understanding texts as material objects, as
commodities that circulate. To adapt the terms formulated by Alfred Gell,
an anthropologist of the art object, texts as material objects are "temporally
moving through time and place, like a thunderstorm"
(226). Other domains, most notably studies of the history of the book
have likewise explored the text as material object. As the doyen of book
historians, Roger Chartier, has observed, any history of the book entails
a three-fold equation: "the text itself, the object that conveys
the text, and the act that grasps it" (161).
However, the theorists cited above have generally emerged from societies
that are hopelessly literate. The everyday practice of textuality around
which much theory shapes itself is consequently thoroughly institutionalized
and most reading practices become uniform and regulated. As a result,
reading becomes semi-invisible and decorporealised. Indeed, at one point,
Barthes notes, almost plaintively "Reading is the gesture of the
body (for of course one reads with one's body)
" (36). The sentiment
in parentheses could only emerge in a context where reading has become
an all but disembodied practice.
In order to capture the full richness of texts and textuality, those interested
in books and reading have often turned to societies in time and space
where reading is not uniformly institutionalized: to medieval societies,
to colonial and postcolonial settings where the technologies of writing
are explored and experimented with on the borders of, and outside formal
institutions (Prinsloo and Breier; Street). These investigations have
illuminated many cases where novel understandings of literacy are at work.
Early African Christian converts, for example, or medieval believers for
that matter acquired literacy miraculously, generally in a dream journey
to heaven or from the Virgin Mary (Hofmeyr, "Dreams"). Jamaican
slaves insisted on being buried clasping their communion tickets which
were believed to be passports to heaven (Curtin 29, 37). In such understandings,
texts circulate between heaven and earth and pose the beguiling question
of what kind of audience might be brought into being by such a path of
textual circulation. As books are baptized in new intellectual formations,
the way they are understood is enlarged, a phenomenon we see in the metaphors
used to describe books in para-literate situations. These include the
book as a flag, as marriage, and as dance (Hofmeyr, "Metaphorical").
In these comparisons, books and their potentialities, are grasped in novel
and distinctive ways and our understanding of texts and their promise
are commensurately expanded.
In this exhibition which entangles so many different times and spaces,
and which poses so powerfully the question of text, writing and material
objects, these novel theories of text and textuality are made vivid before
our eyes. If we heed the horses' instructions, we will learn and experience
a theory of the textual object which takes us beyond much contemporary
thinking on the subject. We will experience texts as multimedia and multilingual
portfolios which straddle the printed and the spoken, image and text,
the visible and invisible world. As a whole, the exhibition maps out the
imaginative boundaries of what a miraculous history of the book might
To explore this idea further, let us take three types of text distributed
in the exhibition and heed their instructions. They are the bone book;
the rosary; and the archive.
The Bone Book
To comprehend the bone book of the horses, we find ourselves undertaking
forms of reading that are simultaneously modern, medieval and postcolonial.
As modern readers we quickly recognize the bone books as tissues of quotation
and as fragments of other texts. We also respond to their apparent randomness.
From a distance, it looks as though the skeletons have plodded through
some postmodern textual blizzard, fragments of language cleaving to them.
As consumers of contemporary popular culture, we note the information
that two of the skeletons were originally cart horses in Kayelitsha, the
large township outside Cape Town: the 'low' and 'unofficial' has been
recycled as 'high' culture. We smile at the textual parody of one horse
which has a set of bibliographic cards suspended under its spine.
at the same time our reading must be medieval. We are, after all, contemplating
the singular and handmade book, transcribed with patient dedication. Is
this act of transcription, as it was for many medieval scribes, a type
of prayer, a textual form that attempts to speak to other worlds? At times,
we cannot read silently but must mouth a word made unfamiliar by the contour
of the bone and so we come to resemble medieval monks, hunched over a
codex and reading in murmurs. Again like medieval readers our senses are
intensely involved: the red lettering, gold burnish and silver enchant
our sight. We hear and feel the horses' tails and the manes, made up of
hair, small bones and curls of vellum. We could be in the world of Augustinian
allegory and enigma in which texts speak allusively or in riddles (or
in St Augustine's words: "wisdom's way of teaching chooses to hint
at how divine things should be thought of by certain images and analogies
available to the senses" [quoted in Brown 253]).
moments, the modern and late medieval combine. In several pieces, we encounter
little ampoules, each containing a line from an essay by Stephen Greenblatt
(1996)which describes some of the polemical exchanges between Catholics
and Protestants in the Sixteenth Century and particularly those relating
to the sacramental bread of the Supper of the Lord. What happens if a
mouse or rat nibbles some of the consecrated host? Does he ingest the
Real Body, or does he not? A copy of Greenblatt's article has been cut
into strips, goldleafed and then curled into the ampoules and distributed
across the exhibition. These ampoules look as though they may contain
nourishing elixirs to be consumed, reminding us of the medieval (and later)
preoccupation with Christ's body as flesh and with the idea of the Bible
as a text to be ingested ("Open thy mouth, and eat what I give you,"
God instructed Ezekiel while presenting him with a roll of text [quoted
in Manguel 171]). At the same time, the ampoules spread text across a
surface and point to contemporary preoccupations with the textualisation
at the same time, these medieval and modern practices are thrown into
postcolonial relief and are reconfigured by the presence of the /Xam texts
and the colonial world that they imply. In a medieval context, a vernacular
language would betoken newness and promise. Here the vernacular, its speakers
exterminated, signals language death and the violence of colonial conclusions.
If there is a rustle, it is the rustle of dried language. Yet, the colonial
context also produces newness. Books and literacy, for example, are reshaped
as these technologies of writing are baptized in new intellectual traditions,
many of which are oral.
interface has constituted one theme of Skotnes' previous work, particularly
in relation to the Bushman and the /Xam, a group with whose intellectual
and artistic traditions she has had a profound engagement. Her exhibition
Miscast and the edited volume that accompanied it constitute, in Skotnes'
words, a "critical and visual exploration of the term 'Bushman' and
the various relationships that gave rise to it" ("Introduction"
20). An earlier art book, Sounds from the Thinking Strings: A Visual,
Literary and Archaeological and Historical Interpretation of the Final
Years of /Xam Life (1991) investigates in text and image the intellectual
history of /Xam communities. Her two most recent books (Heaven's Things
 and Stories are the Wind ) likewise engage with the richness
of /Xam thought.
major source to which she has repeatedly turned is Lucy Lloyd's extraordinary
archive of /Xam narrative and philosophy. These testimonies, songs and
folklore were dictated to Lloyd and her brother-in-law Wilhelm Bleek in
the 1870s in Cape Town by /Xam prisoners from whom Lloyd and Bleek learned
/Xam. The prisoners were released into their care and over a period of
several years, Lloyd and Bleek took down 13,000 pages of bilingual testimony
along with drawings, instruments and objects which today comprise the
Bleek and Lloyd archive, the only substantial collection of documentation
on nineteenth-century Bushman life (Deacon; Hall; Skotnes, Real Presence).
Skotnes points out, these /Xam testimonies constitute a complex and multivalent
textuality, a feature which Lloyd understood and attempted to capture
in her form of transcription which generally involved three parallel columns,
one containing the /Xam narrative, one being an English translation and
one being a further /Xam commentary on the narrative. Skotnes comments
(in the edited collection on Miscast whose layout incidentally is informed
by the principle inherent in Lloyd's transcription):
stories [Lloyd] was recording were not linear, and neither was the method
of measuring the time frame of their occurrence. To accommodate the qualities
of these oral traditions, she would often introduce a parallel text which
would run alongside the story on the left-hand page. The result was to
give a new dimension to the story, to make the process of reading an active
and mobile one, and to give a materialising life to the notion of //Kabbo,
one of her principal informants, that stories his people told were like
the winds that came from far off, and could be felt. ("Introduction"
Lloyd archive] has a visual presence, and its structure requires that
it be read, not as a narrative or set of narratives, but as a complex
network interweaving ideas and stories that link one with the other, that
confound a sense of chronology, that throw into doubt one's sense of time
and, ultimately, one's sense of what is real. ("Introduction"
this exhibition, these ideas of multiple and interwoven textualities have
been deepened and complicated by the /Xam texts being inscribed on bone.
This principle of text on bone provides an organizing principle of the
exhibition and requires a range of reading strategies.
obviously perhaps, the theme of bone highlights the pre-occupation with
medieval religious practice and its obsession with bodily fragmentation,
relics and resurrection, or put in Caroline Walker Bynum's terms, whether
dead parts could again be made whole through redemption (1991). The description
of fifteenth-century devotional painting as a form that put Christ's body
parts "on display for the
beholder to watch with myopic closeness"
(quoted in Bynum 271) could well be adapted for this exhibition: wherever
we turn, we encounter bones - singly, in piles, buried, disinterred, lovingly
presented alongside dried roses, encased in twirls of vellum, displayed
in pill boxes and reliquaries, and clasped in the arms of the priest-figures
who dominate the war landscapes.
the same time, the exhibition provides an acute reading of the omnipresence
of bone in southern African history. In the case of the Truth and Reconciliation
Commission (TRC), for instance, a dominant narrative was the story of
relatives desperate to find the unmarked graves of their 'disappeared'
loved ones, murdered by the agents of the apartheid state. In some cases,
these bones were found and re-interred. In others, the bones could not
be located. The testimonies of the TRC constituted a textual mantle or
reliquary over these bones, an endeavour to confer some coherence on the
trauma and to lay to rest the ghosts of the past. The theme of bones and
reinterment has continued to assume importance in the post-apartheid public
sphere (a recent prominent case involved the San woman Saartjie Baartman,
brought from Paris where in the nineteenth century her body had become
a museum exhibit and buried in a public ceremony in South Africa on August
9 2002 [a public holiday: Womens' Day]). These ceremonies around human
remains are all attempts to establish a material continuity with a past
that has been violently torn and, in keeping with African divination,
is an endeavour to make the bones speak. Skotnes brings together text
on bone as an organizing principle of the exhibition and in that relationship,
opens up a new imaginative and visual historiography that draws together
medieval and post-apartheid concerns: can we resurrect, make whole, narrativise,
or confer coherence on that which has been broken and killed?
contours of this historiography are further suggested by the three textual
archives that the bone books 'anthologize'. These are texts on medieval
Christianity (including hymns, extracts of Dante on purgatory, lives of
Saints, lists of popes, and controversies on the Eucharist); the First
World War and finally /Xam texts from the Bleek and Lloyd archives. By
radically integrating texts across time and space, this exhibition resonates
with recent revisionist thinking on Empire (Cooper and Stoler). This school
of thought questions the usefulness of older models of 'centre' and 'periphery'
in which everything flows from metropole to colony and instead, asks us
to think of Empire as an intellectually integrated zone in which circuits
of influence travel in more than one direction at a time. In the words
of Gyan Prakash, we need a realignment that releases "histories and
knowledges from their disciplining as area studies; as imperial and overseas
that seals metropolitan structures from the contagion of
the record of their own formation elsewhere" (11). (This same sentiment
has been expressed, in lighter vein, by Salman Rushdie who has noted that
the British do not understand their history because it happened somewhere
else [Clifford 317].) To encompass such ideas, we need a multi-sited methodology
which demonstrates how events are made in different places at the same
exhibition performs these ideas for us in visual terms. One insistent
backdrop is the battlefields of the First and Second World Wars which
explode before us in virtually every image we see. This exhibition reminds
us that this catastrophic encounter affected not only Europe but all of
Empire: troops from across the Imperial world were drawn in; fighting
happened both inside and outside Europe; in some analyses, the war itself
was sparked by Imperial rivalries. As Prakash indicates, the catastrophes
and contagions of Empire cannot be sealed off and demarcated as the business
of either metropole or colony. Imperial catastrophe becomes everyone's
point is underlined by the images that repeatedly splice together different
orders of Imperial carnage: in several images of First World War battle
scenes, we see a foreground of disinterred bones, which at first sight
seems to be coterminous with the First World War battle scene in the background.
However on closer inspection, we see that the brown colour tones of the
foreground differ slightly from the background and we learn that the pile
of bones in the front of the image only recently came to light in a Cape
Town building development and probably comprise slave remains.
we are to have an integrated and multi-sited history of Empire, then these
relations have to be simultaneously grasped: foreground and background,
then and now, text and image, here (Cape Town) and there (the Somme).
As other have pointed out (Myers), such a revised history could usefully
be traced through the things and objects of Empire. By tracking the flows
of commodities that coursed through Empire, by documenting the biography
of things and the unexpected routes that they took, we will start to make
apparent the complex pathways and intersynaptic networks of Empire. The
exhibition and its multiple objects put this methodological challenge
to the viewer. How, for example, does an unused roll of Second World War
bandage make its way to an antique shop in Cape Town, and what might we
learn from that story? At the same time, the exhibition plays with this
method: dotted across its space are what look like colonial postcards.
They are however digitally produced. We are asked to ponder the result
and conceptualize what it might mean for a fragment from the present to
be imaginatively and retrospectively circulated via the postal systems
of Empire. In some cases, the digitally produced cards mimic the carte-de-visite
format and bear the name of the photographer W. Hermann who took photographs
of the Bleek and Lloyd /Xam informants and printed these as cartes-de-visites
(Hall). In this case, we are asked to consider the role that a particular
visual genre plays in circulating images, and what it means to transpose
that format from the past into the present with a changed set of actors
within its frame.
The exhibition and its objects also push us towards yet unthought of histories
of Empire that might emerge from its micro-objects. If, for example, we
take the objects of this exhibition like a leopard's vertebrae, a horse
shoe nail, a toy stretcher, and a dried rose, what type of history might
I first went to Cape Town to see the exhibition taking shape, I had never
used a rosary. In no time, Skotnes produced one from the wonderful cornucopia
of her studio overflowing with every imaginable object - family photos,
animal skulls, wreaths, medical antiques, a stuffed monkey, tape measures,
feathers, dried flowers, parchment clippings, baby shoes, x-rays, relics
She also printed out a set of instructions, from the Internet, on how
to use it (a text that incidentally recurs in several images in the exhibition).
Using a rosary for the first time, I experienced the complex interaction
of mind, body and text that it demands. The operation has several simultaneous
dimensions: saying a roster of prayers, in a particular order, while touching
the beads to keep track of one's progress, all the while meditating on
the 'mysteries' or events from the lives of Jesus and Mary. The particular
set of events on which one meditates changes according to the day of the
week. On Monday and Saturday, for instance, one reflects on the 'Joyful
Mysteries', namely The Annunciation of Gabriel to Mary (Luke 1:26-38);
The Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-56) and so on. On Tuesday
and Thursday, we contemplate the 'Sorrowful Mysteries': The Agony of our
Lord in the Garden (Matthew 26:36-56), Our Lord is Scourged at the Pillar
(Matthew 27:26) and so it goes.
bead, then, is associated with, and triggers a particular prayer as well
as a cluster of biographical events in the lives of Jesus and Mary. These
disparate texts are in turn given coherence via the rosary. The recited
texts have agency in the world since they can
accomplish works of redemption in this world and the next. The texts also
mark the passing of time and remind one of what day of the week it is.
rosary, then, is a mini-textual 'factory', a physical site where texts
are generated and disseminated, floating to the next world and the ears
of God. Rather like /Xam stories which float in the air, these texts can
glide through time and space and have effects in this world and the next.
At points in the exhibition, this comparison is made explicit. In one
grouped display of boxes, we encounter a leopard spine inscribed with
the texts of the rosary. On either side, are photographs of Diä!kwain,
one of Lucy Lloyd's primary informants. The juxtaposition invites us to
compare the rosary as a set of textual practices with those of the /Xam.
juxtaposition is arresting and itself becomes a 'factory' of speculative
comparisons in which /Xam and Catholic practices are compared and defamiliarised.
What if the leopard's spine were to become the rosary? Imagine the rough
penitential work involved in reciting a whole cycle of the rosary! What
if we considered the rosary, not as an inanimate object, but rather treated
living objects as rosaries, using them from afar to generate texts of
meditation? Is it useful to think of the leopard as a type of rosary for
the /Xam? Did it unify a set of discrete and repeated texts (for instance,
about leopards and humans, hunting, predators, the porous relation of
humans, animals and gods) and so function as a usable archive?
/Xam often saw texts as objects that floated in the air, came with the
wind and carried within them the past and the future. The texts of the
rosary function in the same way: they are released into the next world,
and like all religious texts, collapse time. To contemplate on Jesus'
life is to enter, what one historian has aptly called the "apostolic
dream time" (Peel 155).
Skotnes herself has explained, this complex and layered comparison between
Christian and /Xam practice forms one of the important foundations in
exhibition hopes to create an arresting comparative exposition of rituals
and ideas that are at once central to /Xam cosmology and more broadly
Christian traditions, and set these against images from periods of global
and colonial conflict where, it contends, notions of sacrifice have enabled
violence and brutality. One of the aims of this project is to place /Xam
ideas within the global imagination - not that this has not already been
done in other ways - but here in a way that simultaneously highlights
the tragedy of the loss of culture and the strangeness of our own (western)
traditions and beliefs. ("Lamb of God")
'instruction' we can, then, take with us is to read the exhibition as
a /Xam rosary. It is after all an exhibition made up of different 'joints'
or 'beads', each of which we must experience physically, each of which
we must contemplate on, each of which is a mystery and each of which (because
it is so multivalent) would render up a different narrative on any day
of the week. Like a rosary, the exhibition functions as the locus for
a set of texts. Many of these have 'floated' to us through time via the
agency of people like Diä!kwain and Lloyd and are held together productively
by the 'rosary' of the exhibition.
several points in the exhibition, the archive created by Bleek and Lloyd
is invoked: sections of it are inscribed on one horse, images of rolled
up documents from the archive are included and individual pages and letters
written by Lloyd are reproduced. Indeed Lloyd herself appears in the exhibition,
dressed in a priest's robes.
idea of the archive has of course loomed large in recent academic thought
(Hamilton et al) and has become a strategy to contemplate reflexively
on disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. Archives are now
less sources of information to be mined for facts but are rather institutional
sites through which the politics of knowledge may be profitably analysed.
The term, often used with a capital 'A' has become a way of talking about
virtually any corpus of texts as a configuration of power (Stoler). In
relation to state-sanctioned collections of documents, debate has focused
on archives as sites for analyzing state craft and technologies of rule.
The nature of state power is then analysed through the systems of classification
that states use in their "paper empires" (quoted in Stoler 90);
the grid of intelligibility through which these operate; and the codified
fictions through which states authorise themselves.
The exhibition invokes the metaphor of the archive and so turns our attention
to these debates. However, it soon becomes apparent that this exhibition
is less interested in reading archives as configurations and grids of
power than of asking how these may be eluded. This tendency becomes apparent
if we turn to the biography of the horse skeletons. As the artist explained
to me, the idea for these emerged after she had unsuccessfully attempted
to prevent the State Library from claiming a depository copy of an art
book, Sounds from the Thinking Strings: A Visual, Literary and Archaeological
and Historical Interpretation of the Final Years of /Xam Life. Skotnes
maintained that the book was a work of art and so did not fall within
the scope of the deposit law. The State Library maintained it was a book.
After a protracted set of court cases, the Library won and claimed its
book. What type of book, Skotnes wondered, could one make that the library
couldn't claim? Could one make a book to evade the state with its extractive
demands and forms of classification?