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On the Trail of Qing and Orpen Exhibition

 On the Trail of Qing and Orpen Exhibition
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In December 1873 a party of armed men from the Cape Colony and its north-eastern borderlands travelled through the Maloti highlands of Basutoland. They had been sent out by the colonial authorities to track down the Hlubi chief Langalibalele kaMthimkhulu, who had fallen foul of the Natal colonial government and taken refuge in the mountains. Among the members of the party were the British official Joseph Orpen and a young Bushman guide named Qing. In the course of their travels through the broken country of the Senqu valley, they passed a number of rock-shelters whose walls were decorated with paintings. Although the party had an essentially military purpose, the exchanges between Qing and Orpen on the topic of the art have become the most famous result of its operations.

Orpen recorded what Qing told him about the painted images in terms of the myths of the surviving Bushman communities in the region. Orpen also made field sketches of some of the images. From these materials, he published an illustrated article in 1874 in the Cape Monthly Magazine. As the only known source of ‘insider’ knowledge of the subject, the article has become a canonical text in southern African rock art research. It has been read and re-read and used countless times in interpreting Bushman rock art, but it has not yet been subjected to comprehensive, in-depth textual analysis and historical contextualising. This exhibition and book aim to make such a contribution, based on an investigation of the particular circumstances in which the original encounter between Qing and Orpen took place, and in which the text was produced.

In the book, Orpen’s manuscript is annotated in detail by José M. de Prada-Samper, drawing from fieldwork conducted among ?Xam communities of the Upper Karoo, and showing that the distance between the published text and the preparatory manuscript is significant. Historian John Wright writes about the lives of Qing and Orpen up to the moment of their intersection. The Orpen article includes two-dozen words from Qing’s own language, which linguist Menán du Plessis examines for what they tell us about the languages spoken by Qing and the peoples of the Senqu valley among whom he lived. Archaeologist Jeremy Hollmann presents the three sites visited by the expedition – Melikane, Sehonghong and Pitsaneng – describing a wealth of rock art over and above the few images copied by Orpen, as well as artefacts going back tens of thousands of years. Art historian Justine Wintjes considers earlier appearances of the art in the literate world, providing insight into the kinds of references that may have been familiar to Orpen. Historian Jill Weintroub examines the after-life of the text for the ways in which it has been used in the literature since the time of its first publication, and how it has continued to participate in various disciplinary formations.

The exhibition aims to extend this work beyond the textual mode, and beyond the confines of the academy. It is an opportunity for the members of the Qing-Orpen Project to give prominence to other elements in the story of Qing and Orpen – landscapes, material objects, pictures, people, ideas – in order to widen the context within which the text’s origins and resonances can be understood. All of the material displays point towards more immaterial threads of meaning and representation that are necessary to appreciate the value of Orpen’s text as a unique archival document. These objects enrich our understanding of that original encounter in 1873, how it has been imagined since, and why it remains significant in the present.

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