Lamb of God
an exhibition by Pippa Skotnes

Catalogue essay:
Pippa Catalogue PDF File

A Miraculous History of the Book
Isabel Hofmeyr

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 textual objects.

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 dispersed … 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 look like.

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.

But 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]).

At 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 of space.

Yet, 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.

This 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 [1999] and Stories are the Wind [2002]) likewise engage with the richness of /Xam thought.

One 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).

As 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):

the 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" 23)

Skotnes continues:

[The 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" 23)

In 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.

Most 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.

At 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?

The 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 histories…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 time.

This 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 catastrophe.

This 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.

If 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 these produce?

The Rosary

When 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.

A 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.

A 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.

The 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?

The /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).

As Skotnes herself has explained, this complex and layered comparison between Christian and /Xam practice forms one of the important foundations in her corpus:

The 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")

Another '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.

The Archive

At 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.

The 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?