Now Up

Native Art and Architecture


Author:EATON, Norman

I thought of it again as I strolled the other day through the wandering, irregular streets of the Coloured Quarters behind the hill at Colesberg. The more I thought of it the more depressingly ominous became this whole question of the way in which the needs of Native and Coloured life and living were being tackled today. Even as I enjoyed the charm of this little informal town with its limitless visual surprises its constant reminders at every turn that individuals, human individuals, using the natural local resources of the earth and the hillside, had such expressed, here, their humble needs of the moment unselfconsciously, unostentatiously and with a certain simple beauty, even as I enjoyed this and felt the rightness of it all, I knew it was doomed. From experience one has learnt to know, today that it is only a matter of time when some cold, inhuman, paper-planned, grid ironed system of identical housing units, cutting with marshalled and soulless force across the natural characteristics of the countryside in the name of health and economy, will destroy it all. And this prospect was not improved by the fact that the demand would probably come from the inhabitants themselves who, like most others of their kind living close on the fringes of the European towns today have readily absorbed the self-conscious ways of the white man and have learnt to appreciate that his Government - unlike God - can be persuaded to spoon-feed those who no longer help themselves. Colesberg Coloured Village was dilapidated and, through sheer neglect, was falling about the ears of its people. But the basic form was there and I wondered why it could not, with a little encouragement by way of repair and renovation at first, continue to grow; continue to change and expand through individual demand by individual effort in a natural, effortless, age-old way as time went on. Surely this would be the most economic way, too, to provide this housing. To start the ball rolling it seemed to me that groups of the more skilled workers of the village should themselves be induced by attractive wages and a supply of the basic materials to rebuild the tumbling houses one by one keeping their established shapes and character and merely making them safe and easy to keep clean. Fresh, piped water to central fountains in the squares; simple surface drains in individual houses to conserve waste water for gardening and simple sanitation might also be installed - but simple, simple, simple in the way these things are kept simple on farms and not in the elaborate, uneconomic and invariably ugly way that local authorities insist upon where they have the say. A Village Council of its own respected people might be established to keep reasonable and gentle order and lime-white simple, honest-to-God lime white should become the material and the cleanly symbol of its firm but unassuming authority. Though it was more a Coloured than a Bantu Village I was exploring, it was really the fate of Native Art and Architecture generally in this country that was uppermost in my mind in Colesberg. I remembered my visits from time to time to many little family kraals scattered in a wide arc round Pretoria which had been built by the Mapogga people in whom, for some inexplicable reason, there has become concentrated a strong and special zest for artistic expression in building, decoration, dress and every branch of the domestic Arts. I remembered how beautifully these kraals had combined in themselves all the essentials of simple human living - so beautifully in fact that I was conscious of experiencing, a sort of revelation in the art of living in one of its purest forms and in a way that gave - as simple music and the motions of animals often can - a sudden insight into the innermost truths of these things. What I saw and felt became a scathing commentary on our own European way of life today as manifested in the complex, disharmonious, ostentatious and chaotically ugly ensembles with which we have surrounded it. Against this background of false values - (phony is the popular expression which sums it up so well) - one little kraal at Baviaanspoort in particular, shone out for me. Self-contained, woven out of and almost wholly dependent upon the earth and the products of nature from which it drew its materials, its food, its colour and its shapes, one was struck by a sort of warm aura of contentment that surrounded it, and by a sense one had of its fitness, its inherent wholeness. Time and again these Native ensembles have made me conscious of the same thing; of the quiet grace with which they grow out of and yield to the natural beauties of their surroundings, whereas ours, by comparison, fill me invariably with a sense of their conceited clumsiness; of their capacity, collectively, to spread like ugly alternately through Native and European Areas constantly comment upon these same contrasts - how the one is harmoniously of the landscape and the other is imposed upon it usually in a detracting way. This humility, this receptive attention to the great natural truths which is the basis of all true beauty and therefore of Art and Architecture is a quality which is still a natural part of the native of this country but it has become lost to us Europeans as a whole. Our common man no longer has the instinctive feel for the appropriate in Art and building he used to have. Free education has bred among us a vast body of expert opinion - architects and others by the thousand - whose theoretical intelligence and trained insight supposedly fills the gap. It is sad fact, however, that as far as the greater bulk of our Architectural and Artistic effort is concerned and notwithstanding endless research and relentless official control - (perhaps because of it!) - there is no evidence that there has ever before been, in the artistic history of man, so much concentrated ugliness, so much ruthless exploitation of the inappropriate in the name of good, so much expressed concern for the welfare of man and yet so little understanding of the true essentials of decent life and living beyond its materialistic needs. All the time the flesh is being appeased to the detriment of the Spirit with what future result we can only guess. But this was not always so in our country. During the 18th and early 19th Centuries at the Cape, before our discontented forebears struck at the roots of peaceful natural growth and trekked for the sake of trekking to become unsettled nomads in the physical as well as spiritual sense: before these disasters had destroyed the continuity of a wonderful tradition that had been established at the Cape, the creative efforts of our so called Cape Dutch ancestors - for whom I feel an unfailing pride - produced works of purity and appropriateness unrivalled in their field by any other before or since. We have sold this birthright for a mess of lucrous potage. Few of these works remain but such of them as our vandalism has left, or will still leave, stand out as some of our most treasurable possessions - not to be copied be it quickly said, in the name of South African Art or Architecture for use as an background to a different way of life, but to be studied for the vital lessons in human creative behaviour they will yield, so that with this knowledge we may return to a new purity of approach in dealing with the problems presented by our changed condition. These comparisons may not be the subtlest way of expressing my appraisement of the Native Art and Architecture, but as a lesson to us who in our highly complex and confused way of life today lose sight of the values it brings into such sharp focus. In his creative behaviour the Native is uncritical, he acts instinctively according to the laws of nature; he is the momentary vehicle for subjective expression of the spirit which flows from a source largely beyond his control. He records little upon which others beyond direct experience of this activity, can build. The concrete evidence of his Art and Architecture is, by its nature transitory dissolving back into its original source as easily and as quickly as it first flowed out. This transitoriness is its special quality and a very apt and beautiful one in the natural cycle of things, though frustrating, perhaps to us whose monuments of past achievement, good and bad, remain everywhere about us. That my approach to the subject was by way of expressing the concern I feel that Native life and living around our towns is being debased by European-inspired schemes has an obvious connection with the same comparisons, I half apologise about above and it is my constant hope that the outcome of all the present financial difficulties in providing this accommodation in a European way will be that the innate capacities of the Native, as I have described them, will be used in such a manner as to recreate the qualities of living he has so gracefully achieved in the outlying areas in the past. In the face of all the forces that are operating today this is probably a flimsy hope but it underlines the importance I place on the qualities being lost - qualities which I believe neither of us can afford to lose if civilization in its best sense is to survive.