The History of the San in Southern Africa Told Through Embroidery

Discover the embroideries at Origins Centre designed by Tamar Mason and produced by herself and collective of craftswomen

Origins Centre

Threads of Knowing (2006) by Tamar MasonOriginal Source: Origins Centre, University of the Witwatersrand

Tamar Mason on the people who made the embroideries with her
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The history of the San

Eleven large and intricately embroidered panels are on permanent exhibition at Origins Centre. They illustrate aspects of the history, life and experiences of the San. They were designed by Tamar Mason and produced by herself and a collective of craftswomen in 2005 and 2006.

Threads of Knowing: The Trance Dance (2006) by Tamar MasonOriginal Source: Origins Centre, University of the Witwatersrand

Panel One: The Origins of the People

A San myth of the origins of people is depicted here as a world with both human and animal creatures, that metamorphose and move between a spiritual and physical world with ease.

Pythons are associated with rain and are often seen as the bringers of rain. Qauqaua, a Kalahari heroine in San folklore, becomes a python and undulates across the land, bringing soft, drizzling rain.

This scene, adapted from a painted rock panel in the Drakensberg, depicts a half human - half antelope figure in a spiritual underwater realm, surrounded by fish, eels and turtles.

A parade of therianthropes, sourced from rock paintings and from contemporary works. Bright, strong colours were used to add to the sense of them being otherworldly.

Threads of Knowing: Hunting and Gathering (2006) by Tamar MasonOriginal Source: Origins Centre, University of the Witwatersrand

Panel Two: Hunting and Gathering

The land provides but demands respect and skill - a harmony between people and the environment.

The rains of summer splits in sheaths as it gently descends to the earth.

Images from various southern African rock art panels are shown. There is a balanced harmony between people and the environment. The women gather a bounty of plants, and the men hunt (eland and gemsbok).

Intricately detailed skin bags, hung in a tree, suggest bounty, traditional knowledge and beauty.

Threads of Knowing: Origins of People (2006) by Tamar MasonOriginal Source: Origins Centre, University of the Witwatersrand

Tamar Mason on the rock art represented in the embroidered panels
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Panel Three: The Trance Dance and Healing

A depiction of a trance dance in action, involving clapping, singing and dancing around the fire. These scenes are depicted in the rock art.The trance dance is performed for various reasons including for social cohesion, to heal, or to bring rain.

Once in trance they make the ascent - or descent - into the spiritual realm. Scenes of healing, transformation and other-worldly beings are shown.

A healer, in trance, climbs a ladder into the clouds, which are symbolic of the spirit world. The patterns in the clouds reflect the geometric designs found in South African rock engravings.

Threads of Knowing: Arrivals (2006) by Tamar MasonOriginal Source: Origins Centre, University of the Witwatersrand

Panel Four: Arrivals

A range rock art forms represent the different cultural and language groups that arrived in southern Africa. Geometrics and handprints signify the arrival of Khoe herders. Art of various Bantu language speaking groups are represented - including Northern Sotho (Makgabeng), isiZulu, SeSotho/Tswana. Europeans are also shown.

The white, finger-painted art from the Makgabeng (Limpopo) were painted by the Hananwa (Northern Sotho). Mostly painted in the 19th century, during times of conflict with the Afrikaans government, they depict trains that would take their people away from their homelands to prison or to work in the mines in Johannesburg.

The geometric images from rock engravings in southern Africa are attributed to Khoe herders and signal their arrival in southern Africa. On the left are dancing Afrikaans farmers - they have their hands on their hips in aggressive postures, such as they are depicted in the rock art.

Many cultural and language groups came into contact with the San - sometimes resulting in conflict. Various Bantu language speakers are depicted here - Northern Sotho (Makgabeng), isiZulu, seSotho/Tswana - distinguished here by their weapons and shape of their shields.
Dutch settlers are also shown.

Threads of Knowing: Settled Life (2006) by Tamar MasonOriginal Source: Origins Centre, University of the Witwatersrand

Panel Five: Settled Life

Domestic cattle and farming slowly replaced a hunting and gathering lifestyle. In some cases San groups were ostracised or forced to become more sedentary as their land and animals were encroached on.

The movement of different groups around southern Africa, resulted in conflict over resources, but also a gradual mixing of lifeways, language and people.

A homestead representing changing lifeways, domestic bliss and inter-marriage. These changes are shown in this panel through clothing and house styles, as well as through domestic and wild animal species, and plants.

Two cattle form an abstract cloud. They rain on the world below - the changing world of farmers, cattle-raiders and hunter-gatherers.

Threads of Knowing: Sara Baartman (2006) by Tamar MasonOriginal Source: Origins Centre, University of the Witwatersrand

Panel Six: Sara Baartman

 Sara was a Khoe woman who was taken from South Africa to Europe in the early 1800s. There she was put on display at museums and shows, and objectified as if sub-human.Here flowers form a frame around her to protect her.

Bright, feminine and colourful flowers and waterdrops surround Sara Baartman.
She stands dignified, in profile dressed in a young woman's skin apron and skirt.

Sadly, Sara died in Europe in 1815. Distressingly, her skeleton and body parts were preserved and, together with a body cast, were placed on display to be studied.
Her remains were returned to South Africa in 2002, and buried near her birth place, Hankey, in the Eastern Cape.

Threads of Knowing: Genocide (2006) by Tamar MasonOriginal Source: Origins Centre, University of the Witwatersrand

Panel Seven: Genocide

A double-headed snake frames this panel. The snake represents evil and conflict. The snake engulfs scenes of fighting and unrest between the San and European (Dutch/Afrikaans) farmers.

Tamar Mason on the contemporary artists represented in the embroidered panels
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The double headed snake is based on a painting by Flai Shipipa.

The violent clashes broke out between the San and colonial farmers as well as between various African communities. Many of the images are based on rock art panels.

Scenes of violence and abuse at a South African Defense Force camp, into which San were coerced as trackers and soldiers. Abuse of women, children and alcohol are also shown. Based on Bernado Rumao's "tentedorp".

Threads of Knowing: Modern Life (2006) by Tamar MasonOriginal Source: Origins Centre, University of the Witwatersrand

Panel Eight: Cultural Appropriation

This panel depicts the theft of land and the loss of indigenous knowledge.

Abstract coloured forms mirror each other in the sky and earth below. A floating, empty homestead is watched by a lion and the grinding wheels of industry.

A scene of forced removals where sad, thin figures load up their possessions while a handcuff-wielding policemen and carnivores watch.

Indigenous plant species represent the loss of indigenous knowledge. The plants included in the panel are Khat, Hoodia, Boophane and Kougoed.
One plant image has been taken from a drawing in the Bleek and Lloyd collection.

Threads of Knowing: Modern Life (2006) by Tamar MasonOriginal Source: Origins Centre, University of the Witwatersrand

Panel Nine: Modern Life

 A meeting of modern ways and industrialization with the rural, sedentary farming lifestyle. All of which have replaced the traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

A cattle kraal with Nguni cattle. Based on images from painted rock art and contemporary work. Learning is rigid and prison-like and is no longer based on indigenous practices.

Bright aeroplanes traverse the skies, indicating modern transport. The clouds of this scene are from a painting by Ennie Bob.

A settled homestead replaces the transient San hunter-gatherer camps. Huts are replaced by a wattle and daub hut with a grass roof, and fenced off with a square fence.

Threads of Knowing: Death and Disease (2006) by Tamar MasonOriginal Source: Origins Centre, University of the Witwatersrand

Panel Ten: Death and Disease

HIV and AIDS have ripped through contemporary San and Khoe communities.

Ominous double-headed snakes form the clouds above scenes of sickness and death.

A wreath of Devils Thorn (or Dubbeltjie) flowers surrounds a health clinic and ambulance. Sick people wait outside to be treated.

Wrapped bodies and freshly dug graves are watched over by two leopards and a snake.
The gravestones have inscriptions - this is the only panel to use text.

Threads of Knowing: The Future (2006) by Tamar MasonOriginal Source: Origins Centre, University of the Witwatersrand

Panel Eleven: The Future

This panel focuses on children - children, of all colours and cultures, playing together.

A vine-like plant, taken from a painting by Ncg'abe Taase, weaves around the children.
The panel brings hope for a bright future.

We embrace the children of our future. We celebrate South Africa's diversity and indigenous cultures, languages and groups.

Credits: Story

The San and Khoe people of southern Africa
Artist and design: Tamar Mason
Created by Tamar Mason and a collective of craftswomen from the Mapula Project from the Winterveld, Ikageng from the Bus Factory, Newtown, Kosikona women from Quaggafontein.
Collection: Origins Centre, Wits University
Online Exhibition Curator: Tammy Hodgskiss

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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