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Robert Slingsby | In/dependence

Text by Hazel Friedman

EXHIBITION OPENS AT CIRCA ON 7 MARCH 2019

To the outsider, the slo-mo serenity of the Omo River Valley, in Southern Ethiopia, is rendered all the more acute by its contrast to the cacophony of a nation hurtling along the highway of modernisation.
     Stretching to where the Sudanese and Kenyan borders are literally in sight, from a distance the region appears pristinely untouched by any of the accoutrements associated with Ethiopia’s industrial revolution. One of the world’s most biologically and culturally diverse regions, together with the national parks of neighbouring Lake Turkana, into which the river flows, the Lower Omo River Valley provides a biological and paleoanthropic treasure-trove, earning it the status of a UNESCO World Heritage site. For centuries it has also served as a conjuncture for communities traversing the region. About 200 000 indigenous people, belonging to at least 10 cultural groups, have lived and continue to survive off the earth and river of the Omo basin, as nomadic pastoralists or small-scale farmers.

Everard Read CIRCA Gallery Robert Slingsby In/Dependence
Robert Slingsby, Thorny Issue

     Yet now, the Omo Valley faces inexorable changes to both its topography and inhabitants that are much more than a collision of tradition and technology; they provide a portent of calamity whose repercussions are as global as they are regionally specific for the continent. It is this combustion of forces that forms the fulcrum of Robert Slingsby’s In/dependence installation – the latest exhibition of this prodigious artist whose oeuvre spans almost half a century. The ambivalent title is self-explanatory: the notion of freedom intertwined with associations of control, even enslavement. It is a work of immense complexity – both homage and epitaph, both a lament and an impassioned call to action. As is multimedia installation, it comprises sculpture, photographs and drawings inspired by material culture the ancient groups inhabiting the region, particularly the Mursi and Karo, hewn as much from the intricacies of science, anthropology, ethnology and history as from Slingsby’s personal cultural observations and unfettered creativity. He likens the ancient art traditions of Africa to a tree whose rich visual art legacy is ‘rooted’ in the earth and who use, not only natural objects like rocks as their canvases but also their bodies, imparting a sense of stability and permanence, much like a tree trunk.
     And to even begin to access the layers of In/dependence, we must traverse the landscape that has inspired it: Africa’s Great Rift Valley and, particularly, the Omo River. Much has already been publicised about the construction of Gibe I, II and III – three of Ethiopia’s most ambitious and contentious hydroelectric projects that began in 2006. Funded initially by Italy, followed by the Ethiopia government and now China’s Exim Bank, the dams have already been completed in Ethiopia’s south-western lowlands. These power stations have replaced the Omo river’s natural flow cycle with regulated, manmade cycles that depend on the electricity demands from the Ethiopian grid and its international connections.
     But less has been documented about the effects of this ambitious project to transform a land described by historian Edward Gibbon as ‘the country that slept a thousand years while the world ignored it. There is an inescapable symbolism associated with dams particularly as shrines to development. They are perceived as pivotal for food security and poverty alleviation, particularly in the context of climate change and water scarcity. They continue to be supported by the world’s most elite and powerful, who are set to reap the benefits from their construction. Yet they are equally challenged by the scientific community, socio-environmental activists and advocacy groups as a means of centralising the supply of another natural resource – water – that is coveted and expropriated by governments and corporations, worldwide.
     In India, for example, the controversial Narmada dam project has displaced up to a million people from rural communities who, instead of benefitting from its liquid largesse have been alienated from their traditional agrarian habitats and reduced to squatting on the fringes of cities like Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai. In the 1950s, the USA-funded dams built along southern Afghanistan’s Helmand River not only disrupted the delicate ecosystem and eroded the traditional agrarian economy; they also laid the fertile foundations for Afghanistan’s most lucrative export: narcotics from the country’s prolific cash crop – poppy plantations cultivated along the reconfigured river banks – from which opium and heroin are extracted.
     Defenders of the dams claim that effective hydroelectric management – whereby the river’s annual floods are smoothed out and the low flows are increased – will be beneficial to the entire Omo River Basin. They point to the financial and technological advantages they will bring to the region and country as a whole.
     But is this simply a cynical spin on the currency of power and the power of currency? In their semi-nakedness, subsistence livelihoods, nomadic lifestyles and cultural separateness the tribes inhabiting the Lower Omo Valley along the margins – do not conform comfortably to mainstream narrative of progress. They are caught between conflicting values, precariously straddling the schism between the old and new. Their material culture and group identities are predicated on and inextricably tied to the Omo River basin’s delicate ecology. In fact, their very survival revolves around the annual floods which are needed to cultivate the riverbanks and herd their livestock, not only for the continuation of their agro-pastoralist lifestyles, but for their physical survival and cultural identities, as well. In order to establish and maintain inter-group boundaries, as well as for aesthetic purposes, the groups inhabiting the river banks, including the Karo, Hamar, Mursi and Suri, have also developed distinct material cultures and rituals, derived from their relationship with the Omo river. These include body modification, scarification and other distinctive adornments. But these traditions are now being decimated in a barren, eroded land reconfigured by a concrete stairway of water. And the groups that maintained their cultural identities for centuries have become pawns in a ruthless geopolitical game – collateral damage in the neo-colonial war of economic imperialism waged in the name of progress, profits and power.
     In order to provide irrigation for large-scale commercial farming, the dams cut a swathe through the Omo communities’ grazing and agricultural pastures. The Chinese have built a road through which to transport their own cargo; the spoils of a cash crop, sugar plantations and desiccated forests. Like the rest of the continent, Ethiopia is rich in natural resources, which China’s industrialised, fuel-hungry economy desperately needs.
     Considered to be one of Africa’s top three investors, China also has unfettered access to Ethiopia’s natural resources and the negative impacts are already apparent, in terms of their involvement in widespread deforestation, poaching and other disruptions of the valley’s biodiversity.
     Indeed, where there were once trees as far as the eye could see, the bulldozer’s claw had already left an indelible scar on the land and its people. The line had been crossed, leaving behind a great rift, with the freeze-frame irrevocably fractured.
     Of course, there is a counter-narrative to this almost dystopian scenario. Some tribal communities, such as the Karo, have embraced the picture painted by the apologists of progress: the lure of electricity, schools, accessible health care, employment opportunities. But for many, the reality is at odds with the official propaganda. To clear the land, the Ethiopian government has embarked on a policy of forced removals to ‘model villages’, where the traditional communities will have to find alternative livelihoods.
     Most have been relegated to the status of cheap labour on the heavily guarded cash crop farms – the cotton and sugar plantations -that have started to dominate the landscape. There exists the risk that over ó million traditional livelihoods have been plunged into crisis and any resistance to resettlement or plantation labour is met with force – a situation that Slingsby likens to modern-day slavery or on the edge of the precipice.
     It is within this context that we should approach Slingsby’s In/dependence installation. It is a nuanced, meditative requiem encapsulating the devastating consequences wrought by the construction of the dams in the Omo Valley. The funereal references to this remote region also serve as eulogies to the loss of species worldwide and the desecration of nature’s once-inviolable rights. Yet the installation is also infused with preternatural symbols of hope, regeneration and renewal.
     It comprises multiple components, including a concrete sarcophagus-shaped chest of drawers – a reference to ancient Egyptian tombs – and the structural components of dam building. Strewn on the gallery floor are sprigs of over a thousand hand-blown, yellow glass flowers, reminiscent of those in Slingsby’s photographs of the Omo Valley. Except that the flowers have been made in China, a reference to the commercialisation and degradation of authenticity within the valley, not to mention China’s growing influence in the region.
     Slingsby’s choice of materials and media are crucial to an understanding of the contradictory sociocultural matrix framing his work. Glass evokes the fragility of the promise made by proponents of the dam to deliver prosperity to the now-ravaged landscape. The flowers peppering the region are actually an invasive species that originated in Mexico that has adapted to, and flourishes in, the arid conditions in which few other plants can survive. In bloom they form an exuberant carpet of yellow; but their seeds are robust, oval and adorned with sharp, vicious-looking, vertical-facing thorns, hence the plant’s infamous name of ‘Devil Thorn’.
     Slingsby has cast a series of these thorns in bronze – a medium that imbues them with an imperial permanence; evoking the sense of a perilously ’thorny’ future for the remaining inhabitants of the Omo.
     ‘But one shouldn’t interpret the forms too literally’, Slingsby cautions. ‘They are primarily vehicles of thought, catalysts towards greater awareness of ourselves, the planet and our place within it.’ For Slingsby In/dependence does not simply occupy a physical space. It constitutes another, multivalent place of consciousness that demands interaction, navigation and interrogation. The most astonishingly adept components of the installation would be just as appropriately displayed in the Smithsonian Institute as an art gallery. For example, Slingsby has constructed a colossal spiral sculpture, constructed from plywood that resembles the double helix of DNA or a Stargate – a customised portal to parallel universes. For Slingsby the spiral holds scientific, supernatural and archetypal significance, serving ultimately as a symbol of universal connectivity.
     Another component of the installation is a life-size cattle horn, also fashioned from plywood. It’s most literal association is of course ‘Horn of Africa’ – the easternmost extension of the continent that is home to the countries of Djibouti, Eritrea, Somalia, and of course, Ethiopia, whose cultures have been linked throughout their fractious history. But, of course, its symbolism is inextricably linked to the centrality of cattle in the lives of most ancient African societies, further reinforcing the thematic and philosophical continuums that continue to inform all of Slingsby’s work, whether among the arid landscape of the Richtersveld, the ravaged earth of the Omo or the vast topographies of the Great Rift Valley.
     If we had to allocate an appropriate natural emblem for Slingsby’s 50-year creative odyssey it would be a river, at times ebbing or meandering, but mostly swelling in rapid, tumbling torrents that slice through hills and mountains, its currents sweeping up silt, stone and gravel and offloading them along the riverbeds. And there are two rivers that form the principal tributaries of Slingsby’s trajectory. The first is the Orange or Gariep – South Africa’s major river that rises in the Drakensberg, among the Lesotho mountains, where it is known as the Senqu, before snaking westward into the Atlantic Ocean at Alexander Bay, adjoining Namibia. The Gariep is Slingsby’s River Jordan, his initial site of baptism and spiritual crossing into the alternative cosmos of ancient societies. It is a space where, for the artist, water, earth, sky and spirit align. For several decades, the Gariep’s surrounding terrain – particularly the Richtersveld, has served as Slingsby’s dictionary, the rocks as his syntax, while the geometric signs and symbols engraved onto their surfaces have become the personal alphabet of his visual dialect.
     The second of Slingsby’s rivers is Ethiopia’s Omo – which he first crossed in 2013. To even begin to understand his navigation, one must embrace these two river lands. They signify the junction from one state to another (both physical and psychic) as well as the re-imagining and intersection of the African diaspora. Both rivers are emblematic of multiple territories and identities – personal and collective, past, present and future. Each waterway represents a channel and a spatial-temporal continuum. Yet simultaneously both are sites of displacement, dispossession and calamity, representing stolen legacies.
     Slingsby’s research has focussed on the Anthropocene era. This term denotes the geological period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment and the scale of the former’s impact on the latter. These can be gleaned from clues extracted and deconstructed from the ancient layers of the earth. But his voice is not that of the interventionist; it is the more meditative expression of the artist. And his findings have been rendered in paintings, sculptures and in the case of In/dependence, installations that comprise intricate, monumental and meticulously detailed homages to indigenous societies and their environment.
     Firmly grounded in his empirical experience of this world, Slingsby’s art is the product of meticulous research into the ancient mark making of indigenous communities who have been marginalised through colonialism, apartheid and economic imperialism. As with his lifelong focus on ancient societies, in this work, Slingsby exposes the ways in which inequality is manipulated, legislated and institutionalised to suit an elite. He confronts the issues of ethnic identity and identity politics, as well as the attendant problems of patronage, and the distortion of good governance. He also acknowledges the inherent instability of fixing or freezing social categories and their susceptibility to the overlapping dynamics of culture, economics and politics. And through his work, he expresses outrage at the uneven trade-off between history, identity, livelihood and the often bitter fruits of so-called civilisation which, for the poor and the marginalised, often bring servitude, displacement and the status of exiles even within their own lands.
     For example, In/dependence includes rows of cabinets displaying scores of Mursi lip plates. Mursi women are one of the last groups in Africa to cut the lower lip in order to wear large pottery or wooden lip-plates. This occurs when a girl reaches puberty and serves as a symbolic rite of passage from childhood to womanhood. It is, therefore, a signifier of a new identity’ After a year of stretching by inserting increasingly larger plugs, she receives her lip plate fashioned from river clay that seals her status as a mature woman, ready for marriage and child-bearing. But not only does the lip-plate signify womanhood; it also represents strength, self-esteem and unswerving allegiance to their cultural identity.
     Slingsby believes that the lip plate binds the community, thereby according significant power in this circular piece of clay worn by the Mursi women. It can be considered the glue cementing the female role as bride and mother, as well as her relationship with cattle and the spirit world.
     On the one level, this component of the exhibition provides a scathing critique of the fate of the Omo Valley: the decimation of indigenous cultural identity in the wake of land grabs by multinationals and super-powers. All that remains of the once-resilient communities are their lip plates – reduced to the status of relics or artefacts in a museum display cabinet.
     But Slingsby’s museological references are deliberately ambiguous. As sterile as these repositories of culture might have become, they nevertheless serve the function of protecting and preserving fragments of history and art that would otherwise be lost. The tragic irony is that the object accrues value and socio-cultural capital only after the annihilation of the societies who produced them. The lip plates vary in size and the intricacy of detail denoting the wearer’s marital status and lineage. Each piece functions as a unique personal and social narrative, much like the bodily scarification practised by both the Mursi and Kara.
     Slingsby observes that most the tribes ‘dominating’ the planet, have written records of their history. But ancient societies practising oral traditions, like the Omo Valley communities, have embedded their spiritual and scientific knowledge in their art. The fact that we are unable to ‘read’ it does not minimise or detract from its significance of as a cultural record of their history.
     ‘To the Western eye, their bodily modifications represents disfigurement, but it is through this so-called disfigurement that we learn about their relationship with cattle, each other, their social cohesion and commitment to their community.’ He adds: ’As with all markings of the body, scars or anatomical modification delineate significant intervals in your life, whether they be rites of passage or specific achievements. Like contemporary tattoos, each marking tells its own story inscribed onto the skin of its maker.’
     These communities who are “living in different centuries simultaneously” once perceived themselves as occupying the moral and physical centre of their world. But now they are witnessing it being snatched from them, reducing them to small, disempowered minorities pushed further onto the margins of society. Slingsby acknowledges the slippery ideological slopes one encounters when entering this terrain. But he is at pains to underscore his respect for communities who genuinely exist in communion with one another and their natural environment. This has always constituted the nexus of Slingsby’s art: the documentation and depiction of communities struggling to preserve centuries-old ways of life, in the eye of an unrelenting tsunami of industrialisation. Drifting effortlessly between diverse cultures and localities, he has waged an unflinching protest against the rupturing of ancient rites and the scarring of physical spaces while acknowledging the polarities of wounding and healing, desecration and restoration. And in so doing, he advocates for the construction of an alternative global narrative that transcends the power of social control and environmental exploitation, one that serves as a homecoming of sorts – a reunion of the self, the other and the natural world we all inhabit.