Artist: Chrisél Attewell
Developing RAIN SHADOWS has been a two-year journey. On this journey, there were detours, but you seldom discover new things on paths you have already wandered. At its core, RAIN SHADOWS is an exploration and a response. It is, however, a very specific kind of exploration – one that is not exploitative and does not leave a heavy trail. I liken this specific kind of exploration to Donna Haraway’s (2016:126) idea (borrowed from Hannah Arendt) of “going visiting”.
Haraway (2016:127) urges her readers to train their imagination and mind to ‘go visiting’ by cultivating curiosity and exploring off the beaten path. She explains that one must go visiting with the goal of having unexpected conversations with all other “critters” and “non-natal kin”, both ancient and “up-to-the-minute” (Haraway 2016:2,130). Haraway (2016:127) describes the practice of visiting as something challenging, where the visitor might need to re-visit what they believe they already know:
Visiting is not an easy practice; it demands the ability to find others actively interesting, even or especially others most people already claim to know all too completely, to ask questions that one’s interlocutors truly find interesting, to cultivate the wild virtue of curiosity, to retune one’s ability to sense and respond—and to do all this politely! What is this sort of politeness? It sounds more than a little risky. Curiosity always leads its practitioners a bit too far off the path, and that way lie stories.
The importance of storytelling lies at the heart of Haraway’s philosophy. Telling stories is a way in which we, humanity, are response-able. The two levels of the FADA Gallery facilitate a journey that ‘maps’ my Haraway-like visits in the traumatised Cape landscape, telling a story of ‘polite curiosity’. The works in this exhibition are my response to the places I have visited, they reflect certain histories of the landscape and fears for its future, but they also express my amazement at the resilience and creativity embedded in these already traumatised landscapes. The exhibition is made neither in hope nor resignation, but rather in the belief that partial healing is still possible, for both these landscapes and the people that inhabit them.
Over the past two years, I have been visiting, exploring, listening to, and responding to the Cape landscape, its traumatic histories, and the threats of drought and desertification that it faces. These are global concerns mostly brought on by humanity’s negative impact on the planet’s ecologies. It is however not all of humanity that is to blame. Traumatic colonial and exploitative histories are entangled in the planet’s current ecological crises. At the moment, and over the past few centuries, there has been a disconnect in humanity’s connection with the earth’s natural landscapes. This, however, was not always the case.
When studying the Khoikhoi language, it becomes clear that the indigenous communities had developed a close connection to water in the natural landscape of what is now Cape Town. According to Lesley Green (2020:31), the urban centre of Cape Town was once called Camissa by the Khoena, meaning “place of sweet waters”. The broader area of Cape Town is still known today as ||Hu-!gais by those who speak the Khoikhoi language (Green 2020:26). ||Hu-!gais, meaning “veiled in clouds”, describes the predominant weather patterns around Table Mountain, but Green (2020:26-27) argues that this name is also political and spiritual. ||Hu-!gais was the term used to identify the main Khoena kraal (settlement). It was also a description of the place where the Rain Giver, also known as the one who “looks like” and is “made from” rain, mostly resides. Green (2020:26) continues: “…||Hu-!gais – Veiled-in-Clouds – becomes a prevailing weather, a settlement, and a mountain where rock, cloud, the creator, rains, streams, and fresh growth are one in this rainy, wet, windy corner of an otherwise dry region”.
The spiritual connection with water in the culture of indigenous Southern African people extended further than only the Khoe living in the Cape region. Pippa Skotnes (2007:152) explains that the widely separated San and Khoe-speaking peoples across southern Africa seemed to share a “common vision of the world”. “The Rain” was one of the San’s deities, named !khwa . The |Xam word for water was also !khwa, which denoted a similar deity that appeared amidst a great cloud or whirlwind during a storm. !khwa possessed the power of lightning and thunder and it would roam the land or skies in the shape of a large herbivore, like an Eland or a bull. The deity’s home is a waterhole and !kwha’s true shape is the water itself. When a person died, it was believed that their soul would turn into a star in the sky, which would later fall down into the water of !khwa’s home.
This spiritual connection with the waters of the region was seriously affected when the Dutch East India Company planned to take over control of the Cape’s natural resources. In 1652, after the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck, a stone fort was built around a precious water point connected to the Vaarse River, which was previously in Khoena territory (Green 2020:29-31). The Khoena, who lived there, called themselves the “//Ammaqua or Watermans” and were known as the “guardians of the water” (Green 2020:29). The fort was developed into a stone castle (which still stands today) that constricted the waters of the Vaarse river into its moat (Green 2020:31). Under the new regime of landownership of 1657, the Dutch restricted even more of the Khoena’s movement across the landscape and access to its waters by allocating property to Dutch farmers (Green 2020:31). Green (2020:31) writes that these farmers “recognised nothing of the importance of the care for the springs and water-beings that protected them”. The settler’s disregard for the landscape went beyond their attitude to the water, as their hunting and fishing practices were as exploitative as their farming (Green 2020:31). This exploitative nature, as Green (2020:31) also identifies, reflects the violent and acquisitive spirit of the Dutch East India Company, which was obsessed with capitalist profit, no matter the cost.
The title of this exhibition is partly inspired by the Khoena’s deity, the Rain Giver, and partially by the natural phenomenon, called the rain shadow effect. I engage with the concept of rain shadows both in a literal and metaphorical sense. In the literal interpretation, a rain shadow is a landform that has become desertified due to mountain ranges that block rain clouds from passing over them. On one side of the mountain, healthy plant life can be found within wet weather systems, while the other side is forced to become a desert. Metaphorically, the rain shadow in this exhibition refers to the darker side of human history that divided people into those who prosper and those who suffer.
Haraway (2016:37) writes: “It matters which stories tell stories as a practice of caring and thinking”. She proposes that the words we use matter, the words we use to tell stories matter, and the way we tell stories matters. I would add to Haraway’s sentiment that it matters which materials and methods materialise into which stories. The way we use materials matters. Using the two levels of this institutional space, the exhibition attempts, to tell stories that are both fictional and real, or as Haraway (2016:7) would call it “speculative fabulation” and “speculative realism”. These are stories of materials, histories, and possible real or fictional futures.
Allaby, M (ed). 2010. A Dictionary of Ecology. Fourth Edition. New York: Oxford University Press.
Green, L. 2020. Rock|Water|Life: Ecology and Humanities for a Decolonial South Africa. Johannesburg: Wits University Press.
Haraway, D. 2016. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham: Duke University Press.
Skotnes, P. 2007. Claim to the Country: The Archive of Lucy Lloyd and Wilhelm Bleek. Johannesburg: Jacana.
 The KhoiKhoi or Khoi, also called the Khoe or Khoekhoe (plural: Khoena) is the name for the people who historically spoke varieties of the KhoeKhoe (or Khoikhoi) language in the early Cape (Green 2020:26).
 The difference between the local people and an outsider looking at the landscape is clarified when you compare the Koena’s spiritual description of Table Mountain with Darwin’s 1830 clinical description which only considered the mountain’s rock formations (Green 2020:27).
 The Oxford Dictionary of Ecology describes a rain shadow as “[t]he reduction of rainfall to the lee side of a mountain barrier, which results in relatively dry surface conditions” (Allaby 2010:318).
Website: Chrisél Attewell