Heritage Forum

Biography of Landscape: Karoo as Canvas

Apr 29, 2021 | Essays & Opinions, Forum, I: Lectures, Articles and Essays, News

Karoo as Canvas: Assessing the shifts in artistic interpretation and portrayal of the Karoo landscape through a biographical exploration of South African artists inspired by this vast arid interior, including the effects thereof on local identity and activity trends.

By Janine Loubser

Introduction: An Ancient Landscape

“Powerful feelings affect the mind of the traveler in the Karoo. He ponders the self-sufficiency of nature, the insignificance of Man, the mystery of the universe as he moves across the brown desert in shimmering waves of heat.” – James Bryce, Impressions of South Africa 1898 (in Marais & Du Toit, 2009).

Covering almost 40% of South Africa’s land cover, the extensive heartland area known as the Karoo has been traversed for centuries by natives and visitors alike. Deriving from a Khoekhoen[1] word meaning ‘hard’ or ‘dry’, this semi-arid desert area is often cited for its paleontological and archaeological richness (Rubidge, 2009). The Karoo is one of only a few places on earth where conditions were conducive to the fossilisation of fauna and flora dating back more than 200 million years while also revealing evidence to evolutionary process such as key extinction events[2] and symbolic changes in human behaviour.

For millennia stories have roamed the inscrutable Karoo (Biggs, 2004), characterised not only by this unique terrestrial history but also by those who choose to inhabit this unforgiving landscape. Through curiosity and intentional exploration, most who delve here come to find an inescapably intricate, layered landscape of storylines driven by its enduring, often eccentric inhabitants (Marais & Du Toit, 2009).

With its physical terrains typically characterised as ‘untouched’, ‘pristine’ and ‘wide open’ in the South African imaginary (Morris, 2018; Geertsema, 2008), the scattering of small dispersed towns and vast fenced sheep farms across the predominantly agricultural region reinforces this visual association. Windpumps are seen as iconic in status, after its invention in the late 1880’s made permanent settlement and stock farming possible for the first time over large parts of the Karoo. Today this water pumping mechanism symbolises a more quirky, quiet rural Karoo lifestyle, drawing a new wave of creatives and ‘ex-urbanites’ looking to get away from the increasingly tumultuous dynamics of South African cities (discussed in Part 3, see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Book covers about the Karoo continue to portray the ‘classic’ Karoo landscape scene of windmills and farmhouses, such as (from left) Karoo Keepsakes (2013), a series about the heritage of the region; Tales from the Old Karoo (1989) and Secret Fire by Pauline Smith (1997)

An Artist Biography

It is inevitable that the unique sense of place and natural beauty of the Karoo deriving from the expansiveness, remoteness and endless horizons, have inspired many of South Africa’s cultural icons (Orton et al, 2016). But what has been the impact of these cultural depictions and interpretations of the landscape, especially in South Africa where the landscape continues to have unavoidable political connotations? Due to nationalist past agendas driven by ownership and access to land, these tensions continue to dominate depictions especially of the rural landscape where land reclamation processes often lead to contentious court cases and tensions between farmers and the state (Mkhize, 2012).

Figure 2: David Goldblatt – an acclaimed South African photographer who examined the nation’s injustices during and after the apartheid era through a more critical lens – here depicts the fencing of a farming area still known as ‘Bushmanland’. (Goldblatt: 27 June 2004)[1]

Driven by the need to unpack the impact that visual portrayals of a landscape have on local identity or political narratives, this paper aims to explore the way in which artists have depicted the Karoo landscape from a biographical perspective, and how their role has shaped the intended or unintended repercussions of this visual identity. By applying a biographical approach this paper seeks to interpret key artistic figures in relation to their time of occupation or exploration to better understand the human-driven associations and outward projections of the Karoo.

The biographical approach allows for a more nuanced background understanding of current processes of migration, activism and function of this vast yet changing landscape. Similar to Koren’s (2015) assessment of Shanghai through popular culture, a biographical account of Karoo-associated artists give indication of the ways in which artists tried to ‘grasp’ the personality of the landscape in various periods. Due to a long human history stretching back hundreds of millennia, certain key periods were selected for investigation. First a look at the original inhabitants of the region will be unpacked based on Khoi-San rock art interpretations. Secondly, significant artists from the early to mid 20th century will be assessed in terms of their depiction of the landscape in relation to political agendas and imaginaries. Lastly, more recent trends such as desert tourism, festivals and activist art will be interrogated in order to conclude the shifting impacts of creative interpretations of the Karoo.

The selection of specific artistic fields ranges per period due to the changing nature of art mediums per era. In the Stone Age period rock painting and engraving served as the primary medium of the first inhabitants of the Karoo, while from the 18th century onwards mediums of drawing, painting, print, sculpture and ceramics dominated the South African stylistic movements, initially influenced by European settlers and later adapted to a more diverse range of local styles and materials. This allows for a systematic assessment while acknowledging shifting mediums and in turn shifting portrayals of the landscape.

Figure 3: Whereas most maps include additional areas such as the Succulent Karoo or the Grassy Karoo to the east based on geographical conditions, this map indicates the more culturally associated boundaries of the Little and Great Karoo, with illustrated icons of each sub-region (from https://www.karoo-information.co.za/routes/maps – artist unknown).

As previous studies concur (see Henschel et al, 2018; Ingle, 2010) there continues to be little consensus around the exact demarcation of the borders of the Karoo. These borders are overlapping and blurred, with decisions as to its precise contours dependent on the purpose of the exercise. Various maps and sources were investigated to arrive at a delineation of an area that would deem appropriate for the purpose of this study – illustrated in Figure 3. It is to be noted that, even though the Karoo landscape’s scale leads to a potential lack of definition or focus, the homogeneous association with the broader Karoo landscape confirms a cross-cutting visual identity that makes spatial exclusion of certain areas almost impossible.

Part1: Landscape of Engraving and Otherworldliness

“The first artists to make their mark were the Khoi-San who interpreted this arid ancient stretch of territory on the walls of caves and rock faces.” – quote by Mr. Steiner, Karoo local (in Berger, 2018).

Before the establishment of civil authority in Southern Africa, the ‘Bushmen’ or San tribes – one of the last surviving Stone Age peoples – started inhabiting the Karoo around 2000 years ago as they spread southwards from Botswana in search of sustenance and water (Morris, 2003). Traversing the land and its sparse springs and fountains, these nomadic hunter-gatherers made their homes under rocky outcrops and in the scarce sheltered valleys of the Karoo. The San are often paired with the KhoeKhoen who stemmed from the San tribe but had a more pastoralist lifestyle led by chiefs.

Both these indigenous tribes, collectively called the Khoi-San, had an intimate physical as well as spiritual relationship with the landscape due to their livelihood dependence there upon (Orton et al, 2016: 16). This relationship manifested itself through a multitude of stone artefacts, rock engravings and paintings depicting insights into living conditions and materials used (Parkington et al, 2008). Noteworthy examples are Wonderwerk Cave[1] showcasing early evidence of the habitual use of fire and, at Kathu, the technology of stone tool hafting[2].

Beyond initial belief of recording daily life, modern interpretations indicate rock art as more than just narrative or descriptive, with deeper meaning linked to trance rituals (Marais & Du Toit, 2009). Rock art is therefore often regarded as repositories of the supernatural vigour that San shamans needed for spiritual interactions (Parkington et al, 2008). This hypothesis is supported by the powerful substances used to create the art, like eland blood and gall, egg whites and other animal-derived liquids, giving their images potency. These engravings or paintings also often occur in seemingly significant yet sacred places such as on hilltops, supporting this relational ontology (Morris, 2018).

Figure 4: Two Shamanistic dance scenes depicted through rock art paintings (Trust for African Rock Art Gallery https://africanrockart.org/rock-art-gallery/south-africa/)

A clear spiritual association with the harsh climate of the Karoo can also be derived from stone engravings. Rain is considered sacred and personified in Bushman mythology as a rain animal (Orton et al, 2016) and gives special meaning to our understanding of prehistoric ‘sense of place’ (Rust and Van der Poll, 2011, in Orton et al, 2016). This continuous relationship and codependence on water remains a defining feature of human response to desert landscapes such as the Karoo. But how did this relationship change after the arrival of European settlers? And have shamanistic experiences in altered states of consciousness been lost in the vastness or are artists rediscovering this desert imaginary?

Figure 5: Colonial images of horses and wagons (Parkington et al, 2008)

Part 2: Landscape of Deprivation and National Identity

“Pierneef had so intensely made the South African landscape his own, had interpreted it in such a way, that South Africans learnt to see their country through his eyes.” – Rina de Villiers (1986): J. H. Pierneef: Pretorian, Transvaaler, South African.

In the mid 17th century the Khoenkhoen were the first native people to come into contact with Dutch settlers. As the colonial frontier expanded and Dutch settlers slowly took control of the land, conditions worsened as violence and conflict increased (Orton et al, 2016). The Khoekhoen were eventually dispossessed, exterminated, or enslaved and therefore mostly eradicated from the Karoo.

As colonial settlers infiltrated the area, so did their habits, materials, knowledge and culture. But so also did their depictions, which would inevitably take over the Karoo- and in turn national narrative. The Karoo harshness and desolation were often remarked upon by early European explorers and writers, while European landscape painting also influenced a new genre and medium for interpretation which continued well into the 20th century.

In his article about the imagining of the Karoo landscape, Geertsema (2008) identifies certain aspects of renowned early 20th century South African writers in relation to their contribution to a “aesthetico-political perspective’ of the Karoo which in turn played a key role in shaping and negotiating settler identity (2008: 95). This ‘white imaginary’ was reinforced in a similar manner through the representation of the Karoo as a ‘sublime’ landscape of privation, creating an ‘overwhelming sense of disorientation and vulnerability’ (2008: 98). The settler became marginalised, the landscape de-historized and writers in turn attributed to serve as inspiration in white Afrikaners’ struggle for self-worth in the contested landscape of colonised Africa.

In the process of ‘clearing’ the land of native inhabitants, various artists also contributed – intentionally or unintentionally – by depicting an empty landscape of mountains, rivers, clouds, trees and rural farmsteads (Mkhize, 2019; Peffer, 2005). Indeed, the country’s early collection of landscape paintings were “dominated by scenes of wilderness, quietude and ecstasy” (O’Toole, 2015). Most significant of these were Jacobus Hendrik Pierneef, a South African landscape artist whose distinctive style is widely recognised in the way in which he reduced the landscape to simple geometric structures resulting in a formalised, ordered and often monumental view of the South African landscape, uninhabited and dramatised through light and colour (Rupert Museum information board, visited January 2020 – see Figures 6 and 7).




Figure 7: Pierneef’s 1932 ‘Karoo’ (Photographed by author during visit to Rupert Museum, January 2021) as an example of a landscape ridden of people and dominated by an expanse of sky with a heroic stack of clouds, or a mountain silhouette taking up two-thirds of the frame – a scene often referred to as ‘Pierneef territory’. His 1937 ‘Farm buildings and trees in autumn showing a less dramatic yet simplified landscape (http://www.artnet.com/artists/jacob-hendrik-pierneef/62)

As South Africa’s first international artist, Pierneef’s style led to many artists following in his footsteps. Many painted and continue to paint similar landscapes but with a more realistic view, such as Shelagh Price, Pieter Hugo Naudé, or Piet van Heerden. Some artists chose a different approach, such as Maggie Laubser, who together with Irma Stern were considered to be responsible for the introduction of Expressionism to South Africa, depicted the landscape of the Karoo during similar periods to Pierneef but in a more abstract manner.

Many believe that his influence played a crucial role in evoking the national spirit of the Afrikaner as “an earnest crusader for the cause of Afrikaner art and culture” (Berman, 1983, quoted in Peffer, 2005:47), and no artist could compete with his presence. Walter Battiss, who was born in the Karoo and heavily influenced by the archaeology and rock art of his youth in Koffiefontein, is today considered South Africa’s iconic abstract painter, but his artistic voice was not prominent enough to influence national agendas.

Interestingly, Pierneef initially also found inspiration from ‘the artists of the rocks’, as Battiss described the Khoi-San, through regarding their work as a potentially “ideal basis for a new national style” (O’Toole, 2015). However, he quickly ventured back to his simplistic landscape depictions, and eventually infiltrated national propaganda, later heightened by his membership of the Afrikaner Broederbond, a secret brotherhood dedicated to the advancement of Afrikaner interests.


Figure 8: Walter Battisse’s 1967 Symbols of Life (https://www.sahistory.org.za/node/122565) vs. Pieter Hugo Naude’s early 20th century Mountains near Worcester (http://www.artnet.com/artists/pieter-hugo-naud%C3%A9/).

Part 3: Revived Landscape of Inspiration and Activism

“Some people say there’s never been a more exciting time to be in the Karoo, either as a resident or as a traveller.” – Marais & Du Toit (2009)

The Karoo today is home to fewer than 2% of the country’s population, of whom the majority live in one of the roughly 100 small towns and scattered settlements. Although its history, aridity and sparse population have rendered it a politically and economically marginal region of South Africa (Walker et al. 2018), the relative isolation has nurtured distinct identities and often strong attachments to place among Karoo residents, while also posing new tourism opportunities (see Proos & Hattingh, 2020; Atkinson, 2016). According to Ingle (2010) the coupling of creativity with the countryside can be dated back to at least the 1870’s. However, a significant influx of newcomers and associated variety of creative small enterprises bear testimony to a revived interest in this rural heartland (Hill & Nell, 2018).

In several regions of the world desert tourism has grown steadily because of a postmodern fascination with remoteness, barrenness, silence, and solitude (Proos & Hattingh, 2020). This trend correlates with new migrations patterns of ‘pioneers’ moving to the peripheral Karoo spaces in search of new identity and retreat. These pioneers are often creative souls with an urge for revitalisation, restoration and creating something new and in turn fostering emerging economic opportunities (Ingle, 2010). Prince Albert, for example, a small 18th-century Karoo town, is now home to more than 30 painters, sculptors, designers and crafts makers, whose works increasingly attract visitors and new inhabitants (Berger, 2019).

But these new inhabitants, and their forms of creative expression have also served as a powerful tool against recent environmental threats to the landscape, such as proposals for the exploration of fracking opportunities across a large extent of the Karoo. With many residents strongly opposing shale gas activities due to its potential impacts on water sources, contentious art exhibitions started emerging as a key form of anti-fracking activism, such as ‘Karoo Disclosure’ and ‘Fear & Loss – Industrial Karoo’ (see Figure 9). This creates a poetic contrast to the previously silenced landscape of forced removals and suppression, while allowing for new forms of art such as ceramics, pottery and other more indigenous mediums and materials to take centre stage.

Figure 9: Scenes from ‘Karoo Disclosure’ a multimedia collaborative art project that focused on the effects of shale gas exploration on the land, the people and the environment. Collaborators included artists working in performing arts, photography, costume, sound, video, installation and sculpture. (Oliewenhuis Art Museum, 6 April – 14 May 2017)

Similarly, symbolic acts of defacement such as an artist’s overpainting of landscape scenes by Pierneef (see Peffer, 2005) as well as controversial exhibitions driven by access to land[1], continue to take place. This indicates an underlying need to “come to terms with the problems of political and artistic representation” within past ideologies of apartheid (Peffer, 2008:45). Other forms of more spiritual expression have also emerged, such as AfrikaBurn, a yearly gathering of more than 10 000 people in the Tankwa Karoo where the individual is encouraged to “discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources”[2]. Creative cooperation and collaboration are the key drivers towards a “radically participatory ethic” with transformation and spiritual engagement achieved through art installations and ritualistic acts of fire. The main sculpture is usually called the San Clan – designed to resemble a San-style rock art glyph that is championed and interpreted by different artists each year.

Figure 10: AfrikaBurn scene of temporary artworks constructed – some of which are symbolically burnt – and attendees wearing elaborate costumes or masks. (https://www.hamajimagazine.com/)

Conclusion: Landscape of Continual Change

“Before it can ever be the repose for the senses, landscape is the work of the mind. Its scenery is built up as much from strata of memory as from layers of rock.” – Schama (1995: 6-7)

This paper has demonstrated the ways in which artistic depictions of the Karoo landscape have changed over time. Previous subtle representations of political agendas and power have been replaced by impactful actions of change, vocality and spiritual connectedness. While symbolic linkages can be traced back to native imprints on the land, and while trends towards a broader attraction to desert spaces are apparent, our understanding of what exactly contributes to such a vast landscape playing such a powerful role in new economic as well as spiritual trends remains to be further unpacked.

As Ingle (2010) correspondingly questions, identifying specific visual cues that attract ‘creative’ people to a locale can range from a certain style of architecture to colours of the landscape to an untouched rural authenticity. However, what is clear is that the strong creative and in turn entrepreneurial values characterising many of the region’s newcomers are leading to new economic opportunities (Ingle, 2008) while allowing for the acknowledgement of past injustices.

Through an exploration of the mind of the Karoo artist, this particular biographical approach has allowed us to better understand the role of artistic representations on the attractiveness and functioning of the Karoo landscape from a socio-economic, cultural heritage and environmental perspective, while also setting the scene for a potentially improved strategy towards future planning and more place-appropriate interventions in the region.



[1] Khoekhoen, previously referred to as the KhoiKhoi, are the traditionally nomadic pastoralist indigenous population of southwestern Africa.
[2] the end-Permian (252 million years ago) was responsible for the elimination of 90% of species living in the sea and 70% of species living on land, followed by the end-Triassic lesser extinction pulse period (200 million years ago) – see Rubidge and Day (2015) research https://theconversation.com/why-south-africas-karoo-is-a-palaeontological-wonderland-43045
[3] https://placesjournal.org/article/david-goldblatt-and-the-indeterminate-landscape-south-africa/?cn-reloaded=1
[4] While these sites fall beyond the Nama-Karoo biome, they are located within the drier western interior of South Africa, in landscapes not radically different from the Karoo and, as such, provide relevant pointers for understanding more strictly Karoo settings.
[5] An ancient process by which an artifact, often bone, stone, or metal is attached to a handle or strap.
[6] See ‘Conversing the Land’ exhibition (https://www.news24.com/citypress/trending/visualising-the-land-debate-20191103) And ‘The Land of the Loom’ exhibition (http://archive.stevenson.info/exhibitions/land/index.html)
[7]As expressed on the official event website https://www.afrikaburn.com/about/guiding-principles

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