Strategic planning at the Rock Art Research Institute, Wits

21 May 2020 - 10:30

Hundreds of thousands of painted figures can be found on the walls of rock shelters all over southern Africa. They form an archive of visual representations of (changing) ideas about the world and its workings, dating from thousands of years ago until the early twentieth century. Researchers have debated the meanings of these figures since the mid-nineteenth century, but can tell us very little about their historical significance. The figure shown is from Gamepass Shelter in the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg mountains of KwaZulu-Natal. Photo courtesy of John Wright.


Report from John Wright (Honorary Research Associate in the APC) and Jill Weintroub (Honorary Research Fellow, RARI)

The Rock Art Research Unit at Wits was set up in 1986 under Professor David Lewis-Williams in the Department of Archaeology. Over the years the unit earned a reputation as one of the leading international research centres in its field. It became permanently established as the Rock Art Research Institute in 2000. Today RARI is located in the School of Geography, Archaeology, and Environmental Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, with the School being one of nine in the Faculty of Science. The Institute remains closely linked to the Department of Archaeology, and its staff teach undergraduate courses and supervise postgraduate students in the department.

In recent times, like many academic research organizations in South Africa and elsewhere, RARI has had to scale back its research and curatorial activities because of a fall-off of funding. At present the Institute has three full-time members of staff, with Professor David Pearce as director. Both the authors of this report have, or have had, formal associations with the Institute that go back some years.

RARI is currently engaged in a mandated exercise of strategic planning for the next five years. At the beginning of April, the director sent out an invitation to the Institute’s research associates and other interested scholars to participate in an online meeting to discuss planning for the future, and to submit written suggestions to this end. We both sent in suggestions and joined the meeting, which was held on 8 April (using MS Teams software).

Fourteen or so people participated in the meeting, including one in Poland and two in the US. One participant, David Witelson, represented postgraduate students doing degrees in rock art research at Wits. We had expected pertinent documents to be pre-circulated, in particular an outline of RARI management’s own ideas, plus the written submissions that had been sent in. This did not happen; as a result, the discussion was rather desultory. The most constructive points had to do, first, with the importance of RARI’s maintaining, and if possible widening, its existing links with archaeologists at Wits, and with rock art researchers in other institutions in southern Africa and abroad; and second, with the possibilities of more active outreach from RARI to students both at home and abroad. Witelson made the point that postgraduate students in RARI wanted to develop themselves broadly as academics and not simply as trainee researchers. They wanted contact with research fellows in the Institute, and to be involved, even if in a small way, in research projects other than their own. The meeting discussed a suggestion that RARI could set up an annual rock art field school for students, both from southern Africa and abroad. In Britain, we learnt, an African Archaeology Research Day for students has operated successfully for some time. It was suggested that something along the same lines could be set up by RARI.

At the meeting, the two of us were able briefly to point to the suggestions for new research directions that we make in our written submissions (appended below), but there was no opportunity for in-depth discussion. Both of us were speaking and writing primarily as historians; we wonder how far our suggestions will go in a research organization which is rooted in a faculty of science and which, on top of that, is struggling to find further research funding.

A brief contribution to RARI’s five-year strategic planning
Jill Weintroub

These comments are made from my positionality as a historian with an interest in histories of fieldwork, especially rock art fieldwork in southern Africa, and how this has contributed to making the (South African) nation, South African identities, and histories of thought about the country.

1) Future research directions:
I would suggest investigating the potential to make connections with research underway in other sections of the university not already part of RARI’s wider work in the fields of dating and human evolution. Here I think that there is room to broaden research in the direction of the arts and humanities, and to consider, for example, how rock art has featured in South Africa’s art historical canon, and/or the role of rock art within South Africa’s cultural identity/public culture/heritage/national patrimony. How is the archive of rock art being mobilised (or not) in contemporary cultural politics? This would be a way to approach/situate the study of rock art within contemporary cultural politics in a way that deepens the work that has already been done, much of it by RARI associates, in relation to rock art and South African heritage.

2) Future collaborations
I think the seminal work that RARI has done over the decades makes it a valuable partner for research that may be under way in, for example, the School of Arts (heritage studies/curation and display), and in the History of Art/Digital Arts departments. I am aware that RARI has collections of historic copies, and that many are fragile and require specialist conservation and may not easily lend themselves to display. As was achieved in 2016/17 when RARI raised funding to cover the costs of curating and exhibiting its Battiss collection, it might be possible to draw in students of curation (from the School of Arts?) to work on ways of displaying copies, and of making the history of RARI’s archive, including its documentary archive, available to the public (either digitally or in exhibition and installation work). This would go beyond what was achieved within RARI in the SA Rock Art Digital Archive (which to my mind had an expressly scientific purpose).

3) Postgrad students
Rock art researchers are working with visual material: can they be encouraged to think about rock art in visual ways and develop pertinent curatorial skills, so that the material held in RARI collections can be made available for public display? Thinking about the art visually and in the context of its disciplinary history would be a way to broaden understandings of the art and make it meaningful to a greater range of scholars. Having myself participated in several cross-disciplinary exhibitions (‘On the Trail of Qing and Orpen’, Standard Bank, Johannesburg, 2016, being the most relevant to this discussion), I have personal experience of the rich learning environment this offers to graduate students.

Suggestions for RARI research directions
John Wright

I am writing as a historian interested in rock art as an archive of southern Africa’s past before colonial times. I make two suggestions here.

1. The study of rock art as archive
The notion of rock art as archive is well established at an informal level. As far as I know, it has not been much addressed in southern Africa in theoretical and methodological terms, either by scholars in rock art studies or by scholars in archival studies. Students of rock art in southern Africa are uniquely well placed to take this issue up as a field of research. Not only do they have large numbers of collections of representations of rock art to work with; they also work in a context where archival studies as a discipline, or sub-discipline, is well established in various forms. I think here not only of documentary archival institutions but also of certain libraries, museums and galleries, as well as of institutions like the Archive and Public Culture Research Initiative at the University of Cape Town.

Three related lines of questioning suggest themselves to me:
a) What collections of original rock art (very few, I imagine) and of copies of rock art (much more numerous) are available to researchers, and where? What precisely is their content? What is available? What omissions are there? What forms do the copies take?
b)  What is the provenance of these collections? In other words, who was concerned to make them, when, where, and why? How did they come to be collections?
c) How precisely have they been curated in the past, and how are they being curated in the present? In archival terms, this shapes the forms in which they come to be viewed by the researcher.

These are very different issues from the question of what research has been done on rock art in southern Africa – there are plenty of bibliographies that cover this subject. They are also very different from the question of how collections of copies of rock art have been catalogued and indexed to enable access by researchers. They have to do, rather, with the historicizing of processes of knowledge-making in the field of rock art studies in southern Africa. For many scholars, it is these collections, rather than the original paintings and engravings in the field, that basically shape what knowledge they have of rock art. Knowledge of how they have been put together as collections, and how and why the copies they contain differ from the originals, is of basic epistemological importance. It is like the difference between working with original documents and working with edited renditions of them.

There is scope here for drawing in students not only from archaeology but also from history, art history, information studies, museum studies, heritage studies and archival studies. And for RARI staff to work closely with colleagues in these fields.

2. Regional diversity in rock art
Ideally, historians with an interest in rock art as archive would love it if rock paintings and engravings could be dated, even if only approximately. They have long since accepted that this is not going to happen any time soon to anything but a minor degree. But of great interest to them is the question of how rock art varies across space in subject matter, style, theme, and motif. The question has long been taken up by scholars of rock art at a descriptive level, but as far as I know it has attracted little by way of theorizing. More recently, a number of (mostly) younger scholars have begun publishing articles that point intriguingly in this direction: I would urge RARI to throw its considerable weight into promoting more systematic studies in this field. This is not to ask for a formal delineation of ‘regions’ of diversity; it is to ask for theorized discussion of how and why regional differences in the art might have emerged, and, as far as possible, what the historical implications might be.