Tag Archives: Drakensberg

Bushman painting as documentary

30 October 2008

There were no Bushmen about to ask how to create the paintings, so artist Stephen Townley Bassett learned how to recreate Bushman paintings the hard way – by trial and error.

His dedication to the task over the past 18 years has led to the first major exhibition of his Bushman works – 30 extraordinary paintings assembled at the Origins Centre at Wits University in Johannesburg in an exhibition entitled Reservoirs of Potency.

“I threw away my penknife,” Bassett says, together with plastic containers and metal tins. And went out into the bush discovering. He learned how to use animal blood, saliva, ochre, cobra venom and ostrich egg shells to create pigment to paint the images, precise copies of Bushmen paintings from around the country.

He learned too how to use porcupine quills, buck horns, rocks, animal hairs, bird droppings, feathers and animal skins that would become his stock in trade. He made mistakes along the way but got it right.
‘I learned that fat is a good binder’

“I learned that fat is a good binder. I would make a paste which was easy to carry. I learned to liquefy it again with gall, saliva and blood.” Bassett also learned about the different quality of hair of different animals, giving him fine hair for a paintbrush, or thicker hair for a bushier brush.

He even made his own stone tools to skin spring hares and foxes he’d shot, to use the skin as a pouch in which to carry his painting implements.

The animals and people in his works, which Bassett calls “documentary paintings”, are the precise size of the originals. The works are done on 100 percent cotton sheets. Each piece, he says, is a one-off.

“So much has gone into each painting,” he explains. He would spend days at a site, deciphering the original, with a miner’s lamp on his forehead.

“The first thing is to document as accurately as possible, doing it with pigments available to them, absolutely life size. I would only record what I saw, making it a little darker, to take account of dust,” he recounts. Then back at home a painting would take between six and eight weeks to complete.

“The work is very exacting, very demanding. There is no debate, the work has to be right – everything exactly there. It is a blend of science, art and craft,” he says, referring to the tool-making as craft.

Such is his attention to detail that the professor emeritus and renowned researcher and author on Bushman art, David Lewis-Williams, comments in the caption of one piece that it was only after Bassett captured the work, the Leaping Lion, that Lewis-Williams noticed fish around the lion’s body.

“Often I return to the site with my half-completed painting to compare colours and overall appearance of my rendition to the original on the rock,” says Bassett. “All paint marks on the rock that are within the frame of reference of the chosen scene must be recorded. All marks must be acknowledged and recorded. The final product must be the next best thing to the original on the rock, a kind of historical document of what has been deciphered from the rock face.”

His paintings have brief notes or paint blotches around the edges which don’t distract from the work, but help to guide him as to colour and markings on the original.

And he has the full endorsement of Dr Benjamin Smith, the director of the Rock Art Research Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand, and Lewis-Williams, who describes the work as “wonderful” and “very special”.

“You must either do the work accurately or not at all,” says Lewis-Williams.

Smith says: “This is an artist like no other; he bleeds for his art,” referring to the fact that Bassett has used his own blood in his paint mixes.

Bassett doesn’t only do Bushman art – he produces landscapes and takes on commissions from local farmers, who, he says with a mischievous smile, can be very exacting in what they want.

A book has been produced to accompany the exhibition – Reservoirs of potency – the documentary paintings of Stephen Townley Bassett. In 2002, he published another book, Rock paintings of South Africa – revealing a legacy.

“It has been an extraordinary journey,” he exclaims. Bassett is keen for the exhibition to travel, around South Africa and overseas, on perhaps an equally extraordinary journey.

Bassett’s works are available for private viewing and purchase at the Bonair Road Gallery in Cape Town.

Source: City of Johannesburg

Painting in mountains where once dinosaur walked

Facts courtesy of KZN Wildlife Rhino Club

The Drakensberg Mountains, meaning “Dragon’s Mountain” in Afrikaans and called uKhahlamba, “barrier of spears” in isiZulu, are the highest mountains in Southern Africa, rising up to 3,482 m (11,422 ft) in height. Geologically, they are formed from basalt and sandstone resulting in a combination of steep-sided blocks and pinnacles. The sandstone layer was deposited as the remnants of a gigantic sea that occupied much of what is now Southern Africa some 500 Million years ago. The Basaltic layer which overlies this was deposited about 220 Million years ago in what many geologists think was the largest volcanic eruption in the history of the world linked with the splitting of the tectonic plates of Africa and South America.

In these mountains we often find fossilised sea shells and wonder how they could be here when we are so far above the sea. Even more curious are dinosaur footprints on the roof of a cave at Giant`s Castle! These footprints were left in the silt of the ancient sea. The Drakensberg is one of only two mountain ranges (along with the Simian Mountains of Ethiopia) to have been formed in this geological way, which accounts for its extraordinarily distinctive formations and colours. The landscape is dominated by extremely steep cliffs, some of them amongst the most impressive cliff faces on earth, such as the Amphitheatre Caves and overhangs are frequent in the more easily eroded sandstone It is here in the caves and on rock faces that the ‘First People’, the San Bushmen, lived and where they painted their view of life in these mountains.

You can come with me to see these extraordinary paintings and paint a few of your own in this amazing part of the world, while enjoying a South African Painting Holiday

The Berg or uKhahlamba

“The Berg” is a stunningly beautiful World Heritage site.The Drakensberg mountains got their name from the Voortrekkers because the ridges resemble a dragons back but the Zulus call them uKhahlamba the “Barrier of Spears”
Whatever you call it, the Berg is unadulterated beauty and perfect for any artist who wants dramatic paintings.

The Drakensberg is located in the west of KwaZulu-Natal along the border with Lesotho, it stretches 150 kilometres, and the peaks are a massive basalt cap on top of sedimentary rocks formed 150-million years ago.

Usually sunny, the weather is quite capricious and can change in the blinking of an eye so go prepared, as the scouts say. Generally speaking the summers are warm and wet, up to 800-2000mm of rain can fall a year here, it has been known to thunder down in a storm of lightening and rain and clear just as quickly. Misty clouds can pull down over the peaks and leave a hiker blinded until it lifts again.

A visit in the cold dry winter between April and September is best. The nights are frosty with a daytime atmosphere crisp and invigorating. Above 2000m you are most likely to see snow; however it can snow at any time of the year up on the peaks ( Check out my previous blog about our most recent snow!)

Hikers and walkers delight in the many trails through the mountains, there are some fairly extensive maps which show the trails to make your path easier to travel.


4000 years ago the San Bushmen painted 520 pictures on the walls of caves and rock shelters and despite all those years of weather most of them are still clearly visible. You can hike, with a guide, to view them and see a world unchanged in all these years but accessible to only a few… will you be one of those few lucky people to be transported back to the beginning of painting and the lives of the little guys who made these incredible masterpieces.I’ve been lucky enough to see several sites and each time they really do make your mind scrabble back and try to imagine their life as it was then. There are a few locations where the San are continuing with their life very similar to those days but the modern world keeps getting too close so I’m not sure how long it will be until their life is only to be read in history books. A real shame but we always seem to think the grass is greener on the other side don’t we?

Click here to see some more rock paintings

Or better still come and see them for yourself