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The Medicine Chest

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  • A translated rock

    In 2012, while exploring possible curatorial opportunities for the Honours in Curatorship students, I met with Sven Ouzman, a curator in the archeology department at Iziko, to chat about possible opportunities pertaining to this collection. I took him the newly designed course prospectus, to peruse. He flipped through it and when he got to the second last page, he paused. ‘Do you know the story behind this image’, he asked. I told him I didn’t… He pointed at the rock in the bottom right hand corner and started his story. Apparently this rock was not part of the SAN Rock art collection at all. It belonged to an archeologist who worked at the museum for close to twenty years. When she first started at the museum, her partner, now husband (and also an archeologist) also worked there with her. They were still in the beginning of their relationship and he was, to use older terminology, still courting her. One of the gifts he gave her during this period, was a rock he drew that mimicked San rock paintings, probably ones that would pertain to love in some way or other. She kept this in her office and, when she finally left the museum and had to empty her belongings, forgot to pack the rock as well. Exit archeologist, enter the lady who tidied the office before the new occupant moved in. On finding the rock she assumed it was part of the collection and returned it to the store room where it was assimilated into the bona fide rock art collection. I don’t know in how many exhibitions it subsequently appeared, but in 2010 it appeared up in Pippa Skotnes’s exhibition 'Made in translation' – an exhibition that fittingly explored ways in which translations from the landscape have been made and in so doing, placed images of rock art in the context of other forms of translation.
  • Buttons

    A display of a collection of pins, buckles and buttons excavated from the washing pools used by slaves on Table Mountain. Taken from their dusty boxes in storage they are currently exhibited as part of Skotnes's 'Division of the World' (Department of Archaeology).
  • Division of the World

    "Undergraduate students regularly engage in discussions around certain displays as part of their teaching programme (N. Zachariou, personal communication, 27 May 2020), and the installation is also used to introduce visitors (exchange students and school children, for example) or students from other UCT departments (architecture students taking the archaeology module) to the department and the discipline (J. Parkington, personal communication, 20 June 2020). It has even been described as a ‘super curriculum’ (or as ‘several super curriculums’) for how it visualises what archaeology does on both an empirical and procedural level (J. Parkington, personal communication, 20 June 2020)" (Liebenberg 2021: 210).
  • Face value

    "In 1993, the [Lydenberg] heads were temporarily moved from the SAM stairs into the SANG as part of Payne’s exhibition. In the gallery context, where ‘the shifting definitions of art, the meaning of objects, the contexts of spaces as well as the politics of culture are continuously examined’ (Martin in Payne 1993: 4), these objects became part of an exhibition of Payne’s own terracotta heads, painted and sculpted cases, etchings inspired by the heads, drawings and a collection of supermarket trolleys" (Liebenberg 2021: 159 - 160).
  • Etching from 'Sound from the Thinking Strings'

    "Skotnes’s own visual interpretation of the history and cosmology of the |xam formed the last component of this interdisciplinary endeavour and constituted a visual component that drew together the various strands of disciplinary interpretations and presented a perspective on the |xam life she felt ‘was missing from the other interpretations’ (Skotnes 1991: 30). In these images she drew freely on San mythology, accounts of |xam life recorded by Lucy Lloyd, historical and archaeological research and images from rock paintings in a landscape setting. She writes in her preface that these etchings were direct attempts at ‘inverting the museum dioramas’ in the ethnographic halls close to the exhibition and which, through their display of the San’s body casts, rendered them closer to specimens of biology than as members of a highly developed culture (Skotnes 1991: 52). By creating images that combined shamanistic rituals, entoptic spirals, plants, hunting bags, bows and arrows, snakes, eland-shaped rainclouds, colonists, musical instruments, shelters and therianthropic shapes, Skotnes eclipsed the static narratives of the dioramas and the object labels in the exhibition, placing them in a context in which their metaphysical qualities were celebrated more than their physical qualities. These prints stood in striking contrast to the other exhibits, which framed the San as physical types, and they challenged viewers to confront the reality that the San had a rich history and cultural and social life" (Liebenberg 2021: 157).
  • Sound from the Thinking Strings (installation detail)

    "Skotnes had a longstanding relationship with the museum, which started when she was still a student at the Michaelis School of Fine Art. Davison remembers that Skotnes would visit the taxidermy section of the South African museum to draw bones. As an anthropologist, Davison admits to finding Skotnes’s way of looking at things stimulating – an individual way of looking at objects that made her look at them differently, even though she was already very familiar with these materials. Davison recalls a visit to the ethnographic stores during which she showed Skotnes the San skin bags, carefully conserved in their drawers and laid out on acid-free paper. Skotnes admired not only their aesthetic qualities but related the stories she had been studying in the Bleek and Lloyd archive to them – stories that shifted their status from anthropological museum objects to powerful animate objects in San spiritual and social life (P. Davison, personal communication, 28 January 2021). Skotnes remembers that she asked staff whether they knew what was inside the bags and was shocked when nobody could remember looking in them. She was allowed to look inside one and found a claw, which they thought must be a leopard’s (P. Skotnes, personal communication, 9 May 2021)" (Liebenberg 2021: 2015).
  • Stone tools

    "By positioning artefacts to emphasise their labelling (stones are positioned to reveal the details written on them), including seemingly familiar objects and expanding and shrinking timelines, the installation [Division of the World] draws attention to the framing devices, tools and methods of the department’s insiders" (Liebenberg 2021: 207).
  • Things archaeological insiders look at

    A variety of pottery shards of Asian porcelain, European earthenware and British stoneware in a drawer in the Department of Archaeology, UCT.
  • Appendix (installation shot)

    A variety of pottery shards consisting of Asian porcelain, European earthenware and British stoneware sourced from the University of Cape Town Archaeology department and subjected to a botanical analysis by a graduate of the Biological Science (Botany) Department.
  • Appendix (installation shot)

    A variety of bones sourced from the University of Cape Town Archaeology and Zoology departments, playfully re-imagined by the students as a collection owned by a time-travelling anthropologist - collecting samples across time and sometimes, across dimensions.
  • Miscast (taxonomies)

    An extract from an email from archaeologist and former head of African Studies, Prof Nick Shepherd (Jan 21, 2021, 11:33 AM): "Disciplinary practices and regimes of care constitute a kind of bureaucratization or governmentality of elapsed time and its material remains and human relationships, placing these remains and relationships under a kind of administration. We think of the elaborate structure of regional typologies and chronologies, the immense work of correctly assigning artefacts and sites to these imagined categories, and the vast institutional apparatus that supports these endeavors – all of which constitute archaeology as a formidable disciplinary enterprise. In the face of this enterprise, the 'many worlds' of local claims to the past have little chance of success."
  • The conquest of time

    An extract from an email from archaeologist and former head of African Studies, Prof Nick Shepherd (Jan 21, 2021, 11:33 AM): "Disciplinary practices and regimes of care constitute a kind of bureaucratization or governmentality of elapsed time and its material remains and human relationships, placing these remains and relationships under a kind of administration. We think of the elaborate structure of regional typologies and chronologies, the immense work of correctly assigning artefacts and sites to these imagined categories, and the vast institutional apparatus that supports these endeavors – all of which constitute archaeology as a formidable disciplinary enterprise. In the face of this enterprise, the “many worlds” of local claims to the past have little chance of success".
  • End papers of 'What to Observe'

    Published in 1841, Jackson’s guide was the first of a series of guides published during this period which offered notes for the traveller on appropriate conduct in the field – from providing methods for training the eye to observe what was deemed as relevant details, to instructions on which precision instruments should be carried and how to use them to record and inscribe the results of observations made (Withers 2013: 170). As Jackson states, his guide pointed out to the “uninitiated Traveller what he [sic] should observe, and to remind the one who is well informed, of many objects which (…) might escape him” (Jackson 1841: i).
  • Burrowing

    Extract from 'A Child in Time': "Later, in the sorry months and years, Stephen was to make efforts to re-enter this moment, to burrow his way back through the folds between the events, crawl between the covers, and reverse his decision. But time – not necessarily as it is, for who knows that, but as thought constituted it – monomanically forbids second chances" (McEwan 1987: 14).
  • On the External Characters of Minerals

    "The chest is designed to meet the requirements of travellers, miners, missionaries and others who need a chest of sufficient capacity to take a good supply of medicines without undue bulk and weight. It is very portable, and, on account of the material of which it is made, capable of standing hard usage" (BWC 1934: 24).
  • Timekeeper

    Installation view of a hole revealing all painting of successive exhibition layers, 20 cm in diameter at the Viennese Secession
  • Holes

    The landscape of the Karoo and the Northern Cape – the land of the |xam – is rich with holes in the ground. Below the surface of the earth burrowing animals navigate their way through the roots of grasses and shrubs, small trees and creepers. Holes are made and inhabited by scorpions and spiders, mice and shrews, suricats and mongooses. One of the most energetic of burrowers is the anteater whose holes, in places, transform the landscape. Anteaters are such active diggers and their holes so numerous that abandoned burrows are quickly occupied by bat-eared foxes, hyenas, hares, civets, bats, jackals, owls and porcupines (Skotnes 2010: 26)
  • On the External Characters of Minerals

    "The chest is designed to meet the requirements of travellers, miners, missionaries and others who need a chest of sufficient capacity to take a good supply of medicines without undue bulk and weight. It is very portable, and, on account of the material of which it is made, capable of standing hard usage" (BWC 1934: 24).
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