‘Wonders of Rock Art: Lascaux Cave and Africa’

24 Dec 2018 - 12:00
Caption: ‘Nous sommes des Cro-Magnon. We are Cro-Magnon’. Courtesy of Cynthia Kros


This was the title of an exhibition that ran for four months earlier this year (2018) at the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre in Johannesburg. Historians Cynthia Kros and John Wright (a research associate of the APC) visited it in July. Here they report on their impressions.

Four boys and a cave of wonders

In September 1940 four teenage boys in the hilly Dordogne region of southwestern France stumbled upon an extraordinary archaeological find. Squeezing into a crevice that they thought might be the entrance to a secret tunnel, they found themselves in a deep cave. In the flickering light of their lamp, they could see that the walls were adorned with beautiful paintings. This was Lascaux cave, which has since become widely known as one of the most significant rock art sites yet discovered in Europe. The age of its paintings has been estimated at between 15 000 and 17 000 years. Archaeologists think they were made by what they call Cro-Magnon people, after the name of the cave in southern France where their remains were first discovered.

The site was opened to the public in 1948. From the first, it attracted streams of visitors. The consequent changes in air circulation and in the presence of light caused fungi and lichen to begin spreading across the walls. To preserve the paintings, the authorities in charge of the cave closed it to the public in 1963. But such was the general interest in seeing the paintings that the French government saw fit to fund the construction of a replica of part of the cave in a disused quarry nearby. Opened in 1983, it became known as Lascaux II.

Lascaux II proved so popular with tourists from France and elsewhere that the French government put up several million euros for the creation of yet another kind of replica. Known as Lascaux III, it was designed as a travelling exhibition. It opened in Bordeaux in 2012, and has since been on display in major museums in the USA, Canada, South Korea and Japan, as well as Europe. It came to Johannesburg from May to October this year.

Staged alongside the Lascaux exhibition at the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre was a smaller exhibition entitled 'The Dawn of Art'. Curated by staff of the Rock Art Research Institute and the Origins Centre at Wits University, it highlighted the rock art of southern Africa. Though it was less spectacular than the Lascaux exhibition, it was every bit as thought-provoking.

In both exhibitions, the number of reproductions of paintings on display was necessarily limited by constraints of space, but there were certainly enough to reveal the great beauty of the art (to our 'western'-trained eyes, at least). In the Lascaux exhibition, we appreciated the amount of attention given to discussion of the costly technologies that were used to create the facsimiles of the small section of the cave (manufactured over a period of three years in the Perigord Facsimile Studio) and of the paintings that were on display. Also interesting to us was the attention given to the history of the research that has been done into the archaeology of the paintings. A great deal could be written by qualified commentators on these and other features of the exhibition. Our interest, though, lay more in the contemporary contexts in which the two parts of the exhibition were staged, and particularly in questions provoked by their deliberate juxtaposition.

A shared heritage?

The exhibition was brought to South Africa by the French embassy in Pretoria and the Institut Français Afrique du Sud (IFAS). French ambassador to South Africa, Christophe Farnaud, is quoted in publicity material as having said, 'France is proud to partner with Sci-Bono Discovery Centre to bring the Lascaux International Exhibition to Johannesburg, a first for Africa. As art and symbolism originated in Southern Africa, it will showcase an important part of our shared heritage. The exhibition highlights our long-lasting cooperation in the fields of culture, research and science in South Africa.'

What precisely is the nature of the 'shared heritage' to which the French ambassador was alluding?

The first aspect that struck us about the exhibition was that the Lascaux section, in terms of its physical location in the Sci-Bono museum and the amount of space that it occupied, was perhaps unavoidably foregrounded. This paralleled the 'real' world situation. But there is a certain irony here. While the Lascaux paintings are in underground caverns and more or less invisible to the naked eye, southern African rock art is usually to be found in relatively accessible rock shelters, brightly illuminated by natural light. Yet before the closure of the Lascaux Cave to all but the political elite and highly qualified specialists, the paintings were in danger of being destroyed by the volume of tourist traffic. South African rock paintings and engravings, on the other hand, are often the subject of opposite phenomena, namely ignorance and neglect.

More significant than the relative size of the two sections of the exhibition were the striking differences in approach and curatorial intention between them. As visitors entered the South African exhibition, one of the first installations to greet them was contained in a narrow, vertical, top-lit vitrine. It bore the title: 'San Rock Art 5 000 to 2000 years ago.' The exemplar of a painting of a buck on a piece of rock on the left of the vitrine was described in the accompanying text thus:

Single rhebok in white. Rhebok were special animals to the San of the Maloti-Drakensberg.

On the other side of the glass case, the text below the painting of red fish on a rock fragment read as follows:

A school of fish spoke to the San of a world under water. San rock art was a profound expression of religious beliefs. San rock painting, Klipfontein, Eastern Cape, South Africa.

The vitrine and the position of the interior lighting (as Nessa Leibhammer's work causes one to observe) were clearly supposed to induce in the visitor the kind of awe, if on a smaller scale, that the French have striven for in the replica of the Lascaux cave. In the latter, intermittent illuminations suddenly reveal images to visitors as they follow the meandering path through the darkness, much as the paintings might have appeared to the four teenage boys who first explored the cave with a makeshift lamp in September 1940.

The publicity blurb confirms that the makers of the Lascaux exhibition had this kind of effect in mind:

This new space welcomes visitors, inviting them to contemplate the works and experience the authentic emotion felt at the discovery of the cave, to observe, to enquire into the reasons for its existence and to reflect on the environmental and cultural context in which it was decorated. Notably, visitors are encouraged to engage in contemplative, reflexive and experiential activities. Although the French exhibition contains a great deal of detail on the kinds of research and analysis that scientists, other scholars and artists have conducted in relation to Lascaux, it mostly refrains from telling visitors what to think or how to interpret what they are shown. Here there was quite a marked difference from the general tenor of the South African part of the exhibition.

In the latter, we felt, visitors were being told how to 'read' the buck and the fish. They were invited to examine the paintings on the rock fragments more closely through the positioning of a magnifying glass in the vitrine, but not so much to 'contemplate' the works. We felt that the captions tended towards being prescriptive. In contrast, the Lascaux Cave component opens up to, and allows for, a high degree of visitor autonomy.

There is a very interesting debate about 'authenticity' waiting to be taken up here, which, however we will allude to only briefly. The South African exhibition asserted authenticity through the authority of the expert, which rests on presumably credible 'sources'. In contrast, the publicity blurb for Lascaux quoted above advises the conscientious visitor to whom it is addressed to prepare to 'experience the authentic emotion felt at the discovery of the cave'.

We are not sure what is meant by 'authentic emotion', but it suggests that the authors are concerned to present visitors with the opportunity for experiencing something personal. If so much about the origins and symbolic meanings of the Lascaux paintings is still obscure, as it may forever be, the exhibition suggests, at least the visitor will be able to connect with them through 'authentic' emotion.
Interestingly, the adjective chosen by the author of the South African text for the painting of the school of fish was 'profound'. This might have been nothing more than an attempt by its author to embellish a text that was in danger of appearing too austere. But it is unlikely that the choice of 'profound' was a randomly chosen qualifier for the phrase 'expression of religious beliefs'. It is much more probable that it was carefully aimed at trying to dispel what is proving to be a largely intractable colonial legacy of racist ideas about what the exhibition (not unproblematically) called the 'San' or the 'Bushman'. Not only were the 'San' portrayed as expressing religious beliefs through their paintings, these were profound beliefs. 'Profound' was meant to stand in stout opposition to stereotypical notions of the 'San/Bushman' as simple and childlike.

As another text from the Dawn of Art exhibition plainly insisted:

… misconceptions about rock art abound and there is more to the art than meets the eye. The San did not merely paint images of things in their everyday lives. They were actually depicting their beliefs and religious practices.

In the Dawn of Art part of the exhibition, visitors were told authoritatively what rock art scholars have 'deciphered' from three 'sources'. These were listed as, first, beliefs of 'San Bushman' people from the Drakensberg; second, ǀXam 'San' people from the Karoo in the 1870s; and third, 'the beliefs of modern Kalahari Bushmen'. It was explained that 'not all these groups are identical' and that they 'spoke/speak different languages'. However, the slash effectively blurs or makes incidental the distinction between past and present. Furthermore, while the authors of the texts acknowledge that there are some differentiations between 'San Bushman' groups, they conclude that 'so many of their practices and beliefs are similar in structure that we can draw useful comparisons'.

Whereas the curators of the Lascaux installation intentionally confront the visitor with 'a tangle of rooms' without straight walls, the southern African rock art exhibition was put up in a rectangular room that was mostly furnished in the conventional museum mode with display cases and text panels. As they themselves say, the Lascaux curators are creating conditions for an 'immersive and personalized experience'. Whether we turn to the facsimile of the cave or the partially recreated studios of the copyists, photographers or animators respectively, the audience is invited in to share the excitement of the discovery, to appreciate the 'prehistoric' artists' extraordinary grasp of perspective, or to be party to post-1940 scientific processes and hypotheses. In the Dawn of Art, with the exception of a space where visitors could try their hands at mixing pigment and creating their own 'prehistoric rock art "masterpiece,"' the tendency was more towards keeping them as onlookers.

'Gosh! They look just like us!'

This brings us to what seemed to be the essential message of each of the components of the overall exhibition. As we moved through the replica of Lascaux Cave, there was a moment when we were looking at a superbly crafted model of a Cro-Magnon mother of perhaps 15 000 years ago painting her daughter's face. In the group next to us, a young white South African visitor exclaimed, 'Gosh! They look just like us!' The Lascaux curators would have been delighted. In one of the panels outside the cave, after explaining that the Cro-Magnon people were 'modern' and where the term originates, the text runs thus:

Cro-Magnon were like us: same body, same brain and the same intellectual capacities. If they were dressed in modern clothes, you would not notice them on the street.

If indeed the Cro-Magnon looked like the models in the mother-and-daughter tableau and were dressed in modern attire, nobody would give them a second look, say for example on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. It is possible that at Paris Fashion Week they might even be able to carry off their undeniably chic 'prehistoric' garments without anyone remarking that they were 15 000 years out of time. Visitors are evidently supposed to believe with conviction that the Cro-Magnon were people just like 'us'.

But who are the 'us' being referred to? A telling statement is made in the heading at the top of the panel which has the French version of the text. It is: Nous sommes des Cro-Magnon (We are Cro-Magnon). This harks back strongly to the declaration Nous sommes Charlie which appeared on placards in the streets of Paris in January 2015, when large crowds of people gathered to protest the murder by terrorists of twelve journalists and cartoonists who worked for the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. For anyone who saw the widely televised images of the demonstrations, the resonances are unavoidable.

For their part, the protesters seem to have been saying, 'As French people, we stand together in our defence of free speech. We will not be divided by religious or other differences. Whether we are Christian or Muslim or whatever, we will continue to maintain that we are all the same in spite of our superficial differences.' We do not know precisely when the caption to this part of the Lascaux exhibition was composed, but it leaves the impression that the curators are trying to address rising European racism through their insistence that even the Cro-Magnon people, who in some ways seem impossibly different from us, and removed from us, are essentially the same as we are.

The overall point is that the Lascaux exhibition invites active and even critical and creative participation from the visitor, as well as identification with the makers of the cave's spectacularly beautiful art. But it must be said that the 'we' represented in the several tableaux in the cave have a very distinctive physiognomy. Disenchanted youth who are the children of immigrants living in the banlieue (suburbs) on the outskirts of France's major cities might not see themselves as part of the 'Nous' in 'Nous sommes des Cro-Magnon'.

We would be interested in knowing how visitors respond to the invitation. What the curators are building on is an entrenched French republican philosophy which holds that every citizen is of equal worth and entitled to the same rights in the public sphere. This partially accounts for the local popularity of the Lascaux paintings in the first place. Sociologist André Micoud has been quoted as saying that a visit to a site protégé (a protected or heritage site) 'is not just a walk in the park, but [is] to identify yourself as being French'.

South Africa's political and intellectual trajectories are quite different. They come out of a history of European colonization and of the ways that Africans sought to resist it or adapt to it. Discourses which divided people on racial and ethnic grounds into categories of 'us' and 'them' became, and remain, deeply entrenched. The curators of the Dawn of Art were clearly concerned to move on from colonial-made stereotypes of race and ethnicity, but, in contrast to the Lascaux section, this part of the exhibition tended to keep visitors at arm's length from the makers of the art. The curators consistently separated off the makers in ethnic terms ('San' or 'Bushman'), and referred to them throughout in the third person as 'they' and 'them'. There was no visible move to think of the artists as part of 'we' and 'us'. We wonder if this would have been the case if the exhibition had been curated in Cape Town rather than Johannesburg, and by people who might identify with the artists by claiming a common Khoisan descent.


Nessa Leibhammer, 'Modalities of meaning: light and shadow in archaeological images', in C. Papadopoulos and H. Moyes, eds., The Oxford Handbook of  Light in Archaeology, publ. online June 2018. DOI 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780198788218.013.32

Bauer in Cultural Tourism in Europe edited by Richards, 112.