What Mr Goodwin saw at the showgrounds
Two of the most challenging and affecting sets of photographs in the Goodwin Collection involve encounters between John Goodwin and indigenous people of the Cape. One of these was an encounter in life, the other in death. The first was the occasion in early 1937 on which Goodwin photographed a group of N/u-speaking San/Bushmen from the Southern Kalahari, when they were placed on public display at the Rosebank Showgrounds, close to the university. This was the same group of persons who had been exhibited in the "Bushman Camp" at the Empire Exhibition in Johannesburg the previous year, and whose spectacular appearance in the public sphere was to cause a "feeding frenzy of the eye by ethnologists, anatomists, photographers and filmmakers" (Rassool and Hayes 2002:118). The second encounter involved a group of hunter/gatherers exhumed by Goodwin from Oakhurst Cave on the southern Cape coast over a period of four years from 1932-1935. In my reading, both are ambiguous encounters, mediated by the photographic image.
Framed as exercises in science and dispassionate observation, the terms of both encounters slipped into something more complex and less defined, as the distinctions upon which science depends began to break down. As encounters that slipped out of control, Goodwin did not have the option of "uncreating" them. Rather he converted them into "bare description", or consigned them to the layered depths of the archive, a kind of death in life. Both encounters left an extensive photographic record. In fact, my interest in these two occasions began with the question of what to do with the photographs that they left. The themes that I pursue through a reading of these encounters fall under three headings. First, an interest in what might be called the terms of engagement: in the kinds of encounters through which knowledge emerges, and in the nature of this knowledge. Second, an interest in a set of linked epistemic sites – the archive, the photograph, and the grave – and in the themes that hold them together. Third, an interest in the limits of representation: in the unspeakable and the unshowable, and in the kinds of violence implicit in certain ways of knowing.
The events of 1936-1937 leading up to the public display of a group of N/u-speaking San at the Rosebank Showgrounds fall into three parts. First, the main protagonist and prime mover of events, Donald Bain – great-grandson of Andrew Geddes Bain, the famous road maker and explorer – set up a camp at Tweerivieren in the Southern Kalahari, at the confluence of the Auob and Nossop rivers, preparatory to taking a group of Bushmen to the Empire Exhibition in Johannesburg later that year. Bain, a "failed farmer and publicist of bushman causes", had a long history of involvement with Bushman affairs at the peripheries of science, including acting as local guide to the quasi-scientific Denver Africa Expedition of 1925. His ostensible purpose in taking the Bushmen to the Empire Exhibition was to pressure the Union government into creating a Bushman reserve, as a way of "saving the Bushmen from extinction". Bain drew people to his camp "by enticing them with game". This was followed by a "sorting out process" aimed at extracting "the best specimens for study and exhibition" (Rassool and Hayes 2002: 140, 133).
"An application of damp plaster of Paris was applied to cover [the] face, allowed to dry, and then removed along with facial hair".
From the beginning, the Bushmen were subject to intense forms of scrutiny and control. This combined a kind of improvised scientificity with the updating and modernisation of a set of practices in relation to the Khoekhoen and San that has a long history in the discourse of the Cape. In July 1936 a University of the Witwatersrand Expedition arrived at Tweerivieren, under the direction of the physical anthropologist Raymond Dart. This was unusual, even unprecedented, in that it involved five full professors from a range of disciplines (in addition to Dart there were the linguists CM Doke and LF Maingard, the musicologist PR Kirby, and ID MacCrone). With the arrival of the University of the Witwatersrand Expedition, the Bushmen were made to wear "little cardboard dogtags", with their measurements and identifying characteristics. These were added to incrementally as the Bushmen passed through the hands of the different professors. A medical laboratory was set up in a large, grass-walled enclosure at the centre of the camp. Here individuals were checked for illness or disease, and it was here that physical anthropological and anthropometric studies were conducted. Raymond Dart and his assistant, John Maingard, the professor's son, took detailed physical measurements of the Bushmen, collecting information on facial form, "constitution", and features, bodily habitus and stature, skin and eye colour, hair distribution, the limbs and "mammae". Close attention was paid to the external genitalia in both men and women, and to evidence of "steatopygy" (Rassool and Hayes 2002, Dart 1937b).
A speculative interest in the external genitalia of women, in particular, had been a long running feature of travellers' accounts about the Cape, and a sub-text to public displays of "Bushmen" and "Hottentots" (Gordon 1992). This was mainstreamed as part of medical discourse in a paper published by James Drury and Matthew Drennan on "The Pudendal Parts of the South African Bush Race" in 1926. Dart elaborated on this research at Tweerivieren, and produced a typology of Bushman groups based, in part, on the size and shape of the labia minora (in women), and the disposition of the penis (in men). These features were also deduced as indicators of racial "purity". From the site of the grass-walled enclosure, individuals passed to the face-casting section. Bushman subjects were placed on a long table with reeds inserted into their nostrils to allow them to breathe: "An application of damp plaster of Paris was applied to cover [the] face, allowed to dry, and then removed along with facial hair" (Rassool and Hayes 2002: 135). Photography was a central component of the physical anthropological studies conducted at Tweerivieren. James van Buskirk, a member of the expedition, was responsible for a series of anthropometric studies of adult and child, female and male "types". These, together with detailed studies of individual body parts, form an important part of the report on Tweerivieren published in two issues of the journal Bantu Studies (Dart 1937b, Doke 1936a, Doke 1936b, Kirby 1936). Publicity was an important element of the self-styled "laboratory in the desert". Van Buskirk, who also acted as the official publicist of the expedition, sent regular reports "by a special camel patrol furnished through the courtesy of the Desert Police" (Rassool and Hayes 2002: 133).
In September 1936 seventy of the Tweerivieren Bushmen were taken to the university research farm at Frankenwald outside Johannesburg. It was from here that groups daily made the journey to be exhibited at the reconstructed "Bushman Camp" at the Empire Exhibition in Milner Park. Organised to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the city of Johannesburg, the Exhibition was part of a genre of spectacular public exhibitions that had sprung up in the wake of the Great Exhibition of 1851 in the Crystal Palace. It was designed to present the modern face of the Union and its place in the Dominion, and included pavilions representing Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, as well as those of a number of British colonies in Africa (Gordon 1999). The largest structure was the South African government's four-acre model farm, featuring the world's largest rock garden. The "Bushman Camp" was located in a corner, to the right of the entrance. It featured a number of grass shelters, and an open, sandy area for dancing. It was "one of the sensations of the exhibition", rivalled only by a replica of the Victoria Falls, which reportedly used over 2000 gallons of water per minute (Gordon 1999). The "Bushman Camp" drew over half a million viewers, including a record 7692 in a single day.
A typical show began with a talk by Bain over the public-address system. Spectators could purchase an illustrated brochure, which feature an introduction by "Kalahari Bain", and numerous photographs. Visitors were also encouraged to take their own photographs, as a way of capturing the experience. Early in 1937 Bain took fifty three members of the group of Bushmen to Cape Town. In addition to being displayed in the Rosebank Showgrounds, their itinerary included a symbolic march on Parliament as part of the campaign to create a Bushman Reserve. It also included "an interesting scientific experiment" whereby one of the senior women from the group, /Khanako, and four members of her family were induced to pose in the Bushman cast room of the South African Museum, so that as "living Bushmen" they could be compared with the casts made earlier by the renowned modeller James Drury (Rassool and Hayes 2002: 141).
Ciraj Rassool and Patricia Hayes, on whose account I have relied, focus their interest in these events around the life and fate of /Khanako. Begun as an exercise in "biographical rehumanisation" (118), their study develops into something more far-reaching: a searching indictment of the legitimisation of forms of racial science and their institutionalisation in the South African academy, and a meditation on the violence of ways of looking and of knowing. The events of 1936-1937 looked backwards and forwards: backwards to an embedded set of practices and ideas in the discourse of the Cape, and forwards to the growth and mainstreaming of Bushman Studies and Kalahari Studies through the 1950s and 1960s, under the auspices of a range of disciplines (anthropology, archaeology, linguistics, musicology, anatomy). Rassool and Hayes argue that these events constituted a key convergence between science and spectacle. There were two features of the science that emerged. The first was a focus on racial purity, often in the face of "potentially interesting data hinting at massive hybridity in a highly fluid region" (137). For example, Dart records but does not develop the information that /Khanako had five daughters:
No. 51, female, /keri-/keri and No. 7, Marta, young women, her daughters by a bushman booi, No. 6 female, klein /khanako (or klein /ganaku) and No. 9 female, kuskai, young girls, her daughters by an unnamed Hottentot, and No. 8 female lena, her daughter by an unnamed European. (Dart 1937a: 162, cited in Rassool and Hayes 2002: 137)
This selective focus on "pure specimens" reinforced an image of the Bushmen as a people apart, rather than as a group knitted into society at a complexly changing colonial frontier (Gordon 1992). A second, and related, feature of the discourse was a salvage paradigm, or "paradigm of preservation", which increasingly informed public and scientific responses to the Bushmen.
Goodwin's photographs of the Tweerivieren Bushmen are contained in six envelopes of prints in Box 98 of the Goodwin Collection. None of the photographs are captioned, although one of the envelopes has "Bushman wizard?" written on an inside flap. The box also includes the original roll of negatives from which the prints were made, so that it becomes possible to reconstruct the order in which the photographs were taken. In the spatial rendering of the Bushman display at the Rosebank Showgrounds it becomes possible to reconstruct Goodwin's walk-path, as he moved among the groups of Bushmen, pausing here and there to snap off a photograph.
What can it mean, this proliferation of bodies and parts of bodies, breasts, arms, legs? Persons and parts of persons are photographed and re-photographed, image piles on image.
The Bushmen were loosely arranged in an open area close to the public stands. Unlike the "Bushman Camp" at the Empire Exhibition, they were exhibited without the benefit of supporting props. Neither was there a clear demarcation of space. The Bushmen stood in groups – a line of men, several groups of women, lone figures, a group of children playing – with the spectators arranged in a half-circle around them. The men and women wore loincloths or short skirts, but little else. Many had what appear to be an improvised set of accessories. Some of the men wore leg-rattles crossed over their chests like bandoliers. Several wore elaborate headdresses.1 In some of the photographs, onlookers are visible in the background. Their formally dressed figures contrast with the near-nakedness of the Bushmen; in fact, the distinction between clothed and unclothed figures was one of the features that marked off the observers from the observed in the improvised exhibitionary space.
In some of the early photographs an attempt has been made at an anthropometric front-and-sides approach, but this was quickly abandoned. Most seem simply to record impressions. Goodwin gets in close: a single figure or a row of faces fills the frame. In one image, the heads of a group of women have been cropped, so that they appear as a line of torsos (one woman holds a child to her breast). The photographs are black and white and have a grainy quality. The effect is to aestheticise the scene, and to impart to it an atmospheric quality, a kind of stillness. The figures loom out of the surrounding background, frozen in a set of characteristic poses. For the most part, they look at the camera. Their expressions are open but unreadable. This is, after all, an intensely photographed and scrutinised group of persons, certainly one of the most photographed groups of the period. There must be literally thousands of private collections of photographs of the Tweerivieren Bushmen, in addition to their scientific and media representations. RJ Gordon notes that Bain's Bushman displays "set the standard of the emergent current ‘tradition' of Bushman displays in South Africa" (1999: 266). They also constituted a key moment in a local history of looking, an intense scopic regard, in many cases mediated by the camera and by processes of photographic representation and reproduction. It is possible that there was some form of interaction between Goodwin and his subjects. In some photographs a group of men appear to have been arranged in a straggling line. Many photographs repeat themselves. Groups and individuals appear again and again. A group of women is singled out for particular attention. In the sequence of photographs, Goodwin returns to this group repeatedly as he traces his path among the Bushmen.
The profusion here is the profusion of skin, of surface. What can it mean, this proliferation of bodies and parts of bodies, breasts, arms, legs? Persons and parts of persons are photographed and re-photographed; image piles on image. Is this an exercise in compiling information, and if so, what is the nature of this information? Is there a narrative organisation to these images, besides the narrative of Goodwin's own restless movement? Is it hoped that a single, overarching meaning will emerge through repetition, through the adding of ever more detail? If so, this hope is frustrated as meaning is submerged, overwhelmed by sensory impressions and "data". There is at once an excess of impressionistic detail, and a paucity of interpretation. Meanings fly off in all directions. Is that a twinkle in "Old Abraham's" eye? Can it be that he is enjoying this accumulated attention? Or is it another privation, a further indignity, in a life of hardship and privation (as signified by his furrowed brow)?
A number of younger women have strikingly painted faces. They are foregrounded in Goodwin's photographs, as in many of the media images of the group. Is their youth and beauty the basis of their appeal? Or rather, in the ambiguous, layered nature of the encounter, what part do youth and beauty play in their appeal, and in what terms do the different protagonists – the observer and the observed, the photographer and the photographed – know this, describe this to themselves? Can Goodwin say what it is that he saw at the showgrounds? Ultimately, it appears that he is defeated by the open-ended nature of the encounter, by its lack of a convincing meta-narrative. As an encounter whose terms slip out of control it cannot be "uncreated". Instead he consigns it to the layered depths of the archive, as a set of uncaptioned images, kept without commentary.2
The events around the Tweerivieren Bushmen constitute a significant convergence of science and spectacle. Goodwin's own encounter with them was a hybrid moment, a snatching of images for science in the midst of a public spectacle. We might imagine this scene of encounter from two perspectives. First, from the perspective of the Bushmen: a figure separates itself out from the crowd. He is carrying a camera, into whose viewfinder he peers. He steps in close, first to one group, then to another. Sometimes he offers direction, but mostly he just moves among the people, taking photographs. Second, we imagine the scene from the perspective of the crowd of onlookers. One of its number steps forward and moves among the Bushmen, taking photographs. To the choreography of the spectacle – the dancing figures, the children playing, the groups of men and women – a new element is added, a figure with a camera, weaving among the Bushmen, clicking away.
Staged as spectacle, the bodies of the Tweerivieren Bushmen invited looking, and not just any looking, but free and uninhibited looking, looking without consequences. They were subject to intense forms of contemplation and "hyperfocalisation". To what end did this focussed looking take place? The answer is likely to be complex (information, entertainment, pleasure, desire, data). Part of the point of the exercise was that the Bushmen were available for exhibition in this way, that they could be subject to certain kinds of looking. Another part of the point of the exhibition-in-life was its repeatability and profusion. What counted was not the specific instance but the general condition, and a specific category within this general condition, the type. The staging of these various encounters specifically excluded the possibility of dialogic interaction, and what follows from it: interiority and individuality. The conclusion that this demanded from those who looked was that the nature of things is revealed in their surface aspect. States of mind, forms of culture, ways of being: all are read off from appearances.
As the characteristic artefact of these encounters, the photograph condenses and perfects this objectification. It decisively removes the possibility of dialogue. All is surface, and not just any surface, but the detailed, mimetic surface of the photographic print. At the same time as it suggests an array of possible meanings it offers its own surface as indexical of a kind of truth. This is the source of its power, and the nature of its "second life". In an interview conducted long after the fact, Ouma /Una Rooi, one of the survivors of the 1936 Kalahari anthropometric research, described some of the photographs as the product of "'n kamera wat verkrag" (a camera that rapes) (Rassool and Hayes 2002: 123).
- 1. RJ Gordon writes that much of the Bushman Camp was contrived, although Bain reportedly made a special trip to Ngamiland to obtain "traditional attire" and artefacts (1999: 281).
- 2. Rassool and Hayes write of encountering some of these images in Cambridge in 1995, as part of a set of images allegedly taken by Goodwin in Bechuanaland and sent on to Cambridge to be part of the "Images of Man" collection curated in honour of the anthropologist AC Haddon. Later they would realise that the images were from Rosebank.