From ‘true specimens’ to ‘naked Brown people’ – A century of representing ‘Bushmen’ in Cape Town, South Africa

Can we seek to find the truth about the past, or will our own backgrounds at some point always betray us in that endeavor? Is all truth relative or might we still aim to getting closer to the truth, a part of the truth, or at least one kind of truth? I guess these are questions every student of the humanities, in the aftermath of postmodernism, have asked themselves, or been confronted with in lectures, seminars and discussion forums. Are some truths more likely than others? Should we not trust the educated guess more than any random suggestion? If put bluntly like this, I think the answer is obvious. Nevertheless, it is important to keep questioning established truths and everything taken for granted when engaging in scholarly discourse and knowledge production. Knowledge is power and power can be abused, intentionally or unintentionally. The ongoing debate and efforts in the decolonizing academia initiatives is perhaps the latest and an obvious example to this.

«Dancing Nharo women», exhibited in the Iziko South African Museum until 2017. These casts were most probably made in the Kalahari in the early 1920’s, and thus made from people who at that point still lived a life as hunter-gatherers. Some of the bead work adorning the casts was collected by Dorothea Bleek. Photo: Vibeke Viestad

In the following I will use my own research as a case in question, first to point out how posing different questions can give us new insight. Then I will outline how the so-called Bushman[1] people of southern Africa have been represented in the South African public in the course of a century. The aim of this paper is to show how museum and exhibition practices, in the spheres between the scholarly debate and public discourse, have reproduced as well as challenged ideas and perceptions about ‘the Bushman’, and that these practices are still contested ground today. [2]


Why some questions are never asked. A coincidence of changing dress…

First, a confession: When I started developing my PhD project, many years ago, I came from a different place and a different scholarly background. I wanted to understand how the female dress of the Migration period Goths in Northern Europe changed as they took stronghold, under their king Theodoric the Great, in the falling Roman Empire. What happened with that part of their material culture, as they went from Germanic ‘barbarism’ to stately ‘civilisation’?  A lucky coincidence made me change my path both in terms of time, place and group of people. But I kept my focus on dress. I travelled to South Africa and was inspired to try to understand the use and meaning of traditional dress among the historical indigenous hunter-gatherers of the region. Very soon however, I found that my interest in dress, or rather in that dress specifically, was mostly met with a question: How are you going to study the dress of almost naked people?


What does it mean to dress?

What does it mean ‘to dress’? How do we experience and express our body and ourselves through clothes and ornamentations? How does culture, norms and fashion, affect the way we dress, and what can our clothes tell us about our culture? What does it mean to produce what you are wearing yourself? What does it mean to wear what someone made for you? And what does it mean to wear something different, something foreign and exotic from outside your local community? All these questions would have different answers according to who you ask, where they are from, how old they are and what communities they live in or identify with. “To dress is a unique human experience, but practices and meanings of dress are as different as the people populating the world.”[3]

To detach the concept of ‘dress’ from preconceived cultural norms Mary Ellen Roach-Higgins and Joanne B. Eicher developed a definition of dress, more than 25 years ago, that includes both body supplements and body modifications.[4] Body supplements include everything we put onto the body, such as clothing, jewellery, hats, scarfs, bags, shoes, even handheld objects like umbrellas. Body modifications include everything we do with our bodies to modify our appearances: tattoos, scarification, makeup, perfume, hair styles, and so on.

Following the above definition of dress; how would Bushmen of our recent past dress? If we allow for some comparable recurring themes within the multitude of different groups, most Bushmen of Southern Africa would traditionally wear some sort of loin cover (front and back aprons among women and loin cloths among men); a cloak, or ‘kaross’; and a bag for personal belongings and for gathering of food stuff. Apart from this basic dress, women, children and to some extent men, would also wear ornaments of beads, leather, metal and wires, sometimes lavishly decorating their head, neck, waist, arms and legs. During the hunt men would carry a hunting bag with arrows and quiver, and sometimes a skin cap or leather sandals. Furthermore, people would also, often in connection to decisive points in life, make tattoos and cuts in different parts of the body; use buchu, a fragrant herb applied onto the body; body paint, haircuts and so on.

During my PhD research, I would come to realize that in a late 19th century /Xam Bushman[5] context, dressing the body would mean to partake in the world at large, to initiate and maintain social relations between animals and humans, perceived essential to uphold life and society.[6]


What does it mean ‘to dress’? How do we experience and express our body and ourselves through clothes and ornamentations?


Nearly naked?

Then, why that question? When I dug into the available research material — colonial museum collections of artefacts, photographs, field notes and recorded oral myths and narratives – it was rather evident that Bushmen were not naked. Thus, the curious question puzzled me for some time before I started to work my way through the earlier literature of the field. Eventually I came to understand this idea of ‘the nearly naked Bushman’ as a prevailing myth, originating in the very first travel accounts and adventure literature from southern Africa, lingering on into the professionalized and established academic discipline of ‘Bushman studies’ in the 20th century. I have argued elsewhere that because of this myth, there has been little interest in earlier studies of Bushman culture to look at dress specifically and in more detail.[7] Nevertheless, in a museum context, Bushmen were exhibited to the public by means of their traditional material culture – first and foremost clothing, ornaments and bags.[8]


The history of the presentation of Bushmen at the South African Museum in Cape Town

In the 1870s the philologist Wilhelm Bleek, and his sister in law, Lucy Lloyd undertook a vast recording project of one of several Cape Bushman languages, through /Xam stories, myths and beliefs. The project was made possible by the cooperation of the Breakwater prison in Cape Town, among whose inmates at the time counted several /Xam men. Some of these men were made part of the Bleek household over different periods of time, serving their sentences as informants and domestic workers.[9]

Bleek’s recording project coincided with an official request from the British Secretary of State for the Colonies to provide Sir Thomas Huxley, president of the British Ethnological Society, with anthropometric photographs illustrating the ”peculiarities of the various Races within British Possessions”.[10] Due to his interests in, and personal contact with the Bushmen, Bleek was asked to take on the project in the Cape, where the study of racial types was considered a matter of urgency before ‘pure-bred’ Bushmen and Hottentots would disappear all in all.[11] The photographs were taken under meticulously ‘scientific’ instructions, placing the ‘object’ naked in front of the camera with measuring facilities attached to ‘it’, both in frontal and profile view, so that all the typical characteristics of the race would be obvious, and comparable, to other just as ‘scientific’ anthropometric photographs.

Racial studies like these were at the time considered a legitimate branch of science, and they continued well into the 20th century. The tradition of collecting skulls and skeletal material for scientific reasons was another practise of the period.[12] At the South African Museum (SAM) in Cape Town, a casting project of Bushmen was undertaken between 1907 and 1924; a project that can easily be associated with the same intellectual context.[13]

The casting project, initialized and supervised by Dr. Louis Péringuey, the director of the SAM between 1906 and 1924, is described in A history of The South African Museum 1825-1975 by R. F. H. Summers from 1975. Péringuey wanted to make ”the most accurate physical record” of what was considered to be ”the dying race of Bushmen”.[14] James Drury, a Scottish born taxidermist, perfected a method of making casts from the living subject. 68 people were eventually cast, photographed, described and measured anatomically[15], and the final figures have been used in different installations and exhibitions at the museum up until the last casts were removed in 2017 (jeg har et bilde fra den permanente utstillingen, der tre av disse “body cast” var utstilt fram til 2017 jeg har selv tatt bildet, så det bør være greit å bruke, hvis det holder god nok kvalitet da..). Summers was in praise of the figures that were ”so lifelike that it is sometimes difficult to convince visitors that the Museum does not go in for human taxidermy!”[16]. He included anecdotes from the process of casting that for readers today give witness to the obvious de-humanising approach to the subjects/objects of this practise:

A Bush-Hottentot woman had been taken in charge of soliciting, and as she was extremely steatopygeous (accumulated fat around thighs and buttocks) the police telephoned the Museum to enquire whether a cast was required, so Drury and the Director went down to Caledon Square. They asked the woman if she would be prepared to have a cast made, and offered her a fee of ten shillings, the usual payment in country districts. With every appearance of injured pride she pointed out that she could get two pounds any night in Buitenkant Street. So the Museum had to pay an enhanced fee![17]

The documentation of  ‘the physical type’ was of major concern throughout all the scientific projects during late 19th/early 20th century and was apparently even in 1975 accepted as such. As Patricia Davison has pointed out however, Péringuey’s correspondence with officials enlisted to find suitable subjects for the project shows that he chose to cast people with features that were already assumed to be typically Bushmen.[18] If they were too large, too dark or didn’t have the right head shape, one could assume they were not ‘pure-blood’, and should therefore not serve as a ‘true specimen’. Instead of enforcing scientific objectivity, the project simply reinforced the existing stereotype.[19]


Racial studies like these were at the time considered a legitimate branch of science, and they continued well into the 20th century.


Fabricating cultural heritage?

The stereotype of the Bushman was not only physical, however. In 1998 Davison emphasized the underlying power relations of colonial collecting practices:

Objects held by museums constitute a material archive not only of preserved pasts but also the concerns that motivated museum practice over time. These concerns can seldom be separated from relations of power and cultural dominance. Museums have often been described as places of collective memory, but selective memory may be a more accurate description.[20]

The quote reminds us that most ethnographic museum collections were selected from a western colonial perspective of culture, and that rather than presenting ‘true’ and encompassing indigenous ways of life they might be seen to fabricate cultural heritage out of bits and pieces of selected artefacts. Whatever is not there, we might never know.

The so-called ‘Bushman diorama’ that could be seen in the South African Museum in Cape Town up until 2001, when the public controversy around the exhibition resulted in its closing, exemplified this in several ways. It was built in 1959 as a ‘natural habitat’[21], made up of the life-size body casts Péringuey had initialized in the beginning of the century. Davison emphasizes the construct of the Diorama as well as the Bushmen it exhibited; “If the casts seem at home in the contrived realism of a diorama, this is not surprising since both are constructs of museum practice, re-presentations that mediate the memory of people classified as Bushmen”.[22]

In the early 20th century, Dorothea Bleek (daughter of Wilhelm) collected specimens of Bushman clothing among different groups of Kalahari Bushmen. We know that Bleek’s travels were partly funded by Péringuey, the driving force behind the casting project. Bleek was in other words most probably collecting clothing particularly in order to dress the casts[23], which they did for the many decades that the casts were exhibited.  As Davison points out, most of the people that were cast were however indentured /Xam Bushmen from the Northern Cape, who long since had discarded their ‘traditional’ clothing. The Diorama thus fabricated an idealized life of a 19th century hunter-gatherer encampment of the Karoo, with no reference to the history of violence, displacement and resistance that had been going on for centuries already[24], and that the same people who were models for casting had experienced throughout their life.

The controversy around the Diorama started in the 1980’s, and it was initially museum staff who first tried to contextualise the harmonic presentation of ‘typical’ or ‘authentic’ Bushmen set outside of all time and place. From questionnaires filled out by the visiting public we know that the Diorama was up until its closing the most popular exhibit of the museum.[25] The static and aesthetic approach of the diorama was similar to exhibits of indigenous cultures all over the museum world, not to say the other ‘natural habitats’ of the museum, featuring stuffed animals and fossils. As described by Pippa Skotnes in a publication from 2001 there were no “evidence of the history and lore, the photographs, letters, narratives and drawings” that the museum archive in fact also did preserve of particularly /Xam culture, and that would have altered the presentation and image of the Bushman drastically if drawn upon in a museum exhibit.[26]

Skotnes wanted to adjust for this bias in the representation of the imagined Bushman, thus, in 1996 she opened her own installation called “Miscast: Negotiating Khoisan History and Material Culture” at the South African National Gallery, the neighbouring building to the South African Museum. Her intentions were twofold; to confront visually the diorama, and to put the archive and the storeroom on display.[27] “The primary aim of [the] exhibition, [was in other words] to challenge how ‘Bushman’ peoples have been represented historically”.[28]

In so doing Skotnes drew heavily on the more hidden parts of the colonial archive, like the detailed measurements of different body parts, photographs of naked people posed to accommodate for anthropometric comparisons and so on. Skotnes had also found pictures of starved and imprisoned people, beaten and even dead bodies. The publication following the exhibition published the photographs of stuffed Bushman heads, most probably collected as trophee heads sometime in the beginning of the 19th century. All true and horrible records of violence, suppression and marginalisation, that the Diorama had been criticized to omit from its idealised image of a Bushman culture that was thought to have disappeared because of it.  


Whose heritage to exhibit?

But Bushman culture is not dead, nor dying. Bushman groups of different languages and different ways of life live all over southern Africa, and some of Skotnes’ harshest critiques were representatives of the !Hurikamma Cultural Movement:

We are sick and tired of naked Brown people being exposed to the curious glances of rich whites in search of dinner table conversation. […] As the descendants of the Khoisan, we must protest at the continuing objectification and exploitation of Brown people.[29]

“The naked Brown people” referred to the anonymous people exhibited as body parts, stacked in the middle of the venue to reflect directly back to the making of the Diorama at the South African Museum. The !Hurikamma representatives found it offensive, to yet again be confronted with “Brown breasts and penises”. “The naked Brown people” were also referring to a Bushman family from the Kagga Kamma nature reserve whom also had been invited to the opening and who had come, wearing their traditional clothing. As Stuart Douglas and Jennifer Law comments, the Kagga Kamma Bushmen make their living “from commoditizing and performing their identity” [30], in many ways similar to how the Diorama portrayed their ancestors. In the “Miscast” publication Barbara Buntman analysed the representation of the Kagga Kamma family through the advertisement material and the guided Bushman tours that were offered, and she concludes;

Here, the visitor remains enlightened, liberal and ‘civilized’ whilst the Bushmen are represented as ethnically and culturally pure so-called ‘primitives’. They are misrepresented as part of nature – the small and innocent child-like people. Not only is this a patronising and disempowering process, it does not recognise the dynamics of the group or its social dilemmas and needs. The romanticised presentation of the lives of the Bushmen at Kagga Kamma and the images in the brochure help to keep them in a nostalgic role.[31]

If we agree that the Diorama exhibited a fabricated image of the ‘typical’ Bushman, are the  Kagga Kamma Bushmen necessarily wrong to act on those same kinds of stereotypes? The !Hurikamma representatives seem to have thought so. They were however not happy with Skotnes’ effort of revisioning this image, as the “Miscast” exhibition was read, by many, as moving Bushmen from the category of “pristine children of nature”, to the perhaps equally problematic category of “victimized natives”. Expressed by Douglas and Law: “’Miscast’ consequently accentuates and extends representations of ‘Bushmen’ as the product of a very specific, singular history and experience, as the victims of a rapacious West”. [32]

Nicholas Thomas has raised concern about whether the re-contextualization of colonial collections under certain circumstances in fact risks to yet again emphasize European agency, rather than that of the indigenous producer of the artefacts.[33] Acknowledging the fact that many of these collections still holds a great deal of significance for the indigenous communities that produced them, or their ancestors, he suggests that emphasising the European contexts of collecting and curating, rather than indigenous contexts of production and use in a curatorial process of exhibition, will not necessarily detach the collections from their colonial legacy.[34]

Seeing Thomas’ concern in light of the Miscast exhibition makes me think of an elderly Romani man who was asked to contribute as an informant in the first ever exhibition of Norwegian Romani culture at the Glomdal museum in the 1990s. When asked why he refused to include in the exhibition the horrors of lobotomy, vasectomies and the forced relocation of Romani children in the past, he answered quite simply; “that is no part of Romani culture, that is part of Norwegian culture.”[35]


“Obsession with naked black bodies” or “regard for our democracy”?

20 years after the ‘Miscast’ exhibition at the National Gallery student protesters gathered in front of a steel and scrap metal sculpture in the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) main library. The life size sculpture, made by Willie Bester, represents the Khoisan[36] woman Sara Baartman, whose body was dissected and put on display at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris, after her death in 1815. The last 5 years of her short life she had been exhibited as an “extraordinary phenomena of nature”[37] in fairs and freak shows in London as well as Paris. In 2016, in the aftermath of the #RhodesMustFall events at the UCT and other South African universities, the student protesters ‘dressed’ the naked body of the sculpture, draping her in cloth and a head scarf, in an effort to give her back her dignity.[38] In early 2018, a white male staff of the library (William Daniels), ‘disrobed’ her again, under pretence of fighting for the freedom of expression and against the censorship of arts.[39] His actions lead to public outcry, praising as well as condemning his efforts:


All who passed, bore witness to the violation of Willie Bester's art, yet few said anything and no one lifted a finger. Until an American, William Daniels, for whose guts and regard for our precarious democracy let us all give thanks.[40]


 Missing the point about the so-called covering, he was applauded by the conservative corner at UCT.  Daniels is hailed as a hero for insisting on the pathological obsession with naked black bodies in visual culture.[41]


Without commenting further on the background of the protests, nor the work that has been done in the aftermath to “transform” the UCT[42], I think the incident goes to show how the continued objectification, or perceived objectification (?)[CA1] [VMV2] , of the (Bushman) black body is still a highly controversial issue in contemporary South Africa (and beyond). The questions of representing people and culture; whom, how and for what purpose are likely to remain controversial for a long time to come. If we cannot agree about how to disseminate and represent our many stories and multi-faceted human experience, we should still try to accommodate for our differences. Only then will we be able to continue the effort to rewrite established histories, and asking new questions. As such, ‘colonial collections’ can perhaps make part of our search towards understanding better how we try to understand each other.


Vibeke M. Viestad is Senior Lecturer of Archaeology at the University of Oslo. In 2018 she wrote the book Dress as Social Relations. An Interpretation of Bushman Dress



[1] ’Bushmen’ is a generic term for the indigenous hunter-gatherers of southern Africa. It is not derived from any of the many different Bushman languages, rather, it is a name first used by European colonists. As none of the generic terms (Bushmen, San, Basarwa) are without negative connotations, there is no clear consensus within academia which term is most appropriate. I use ‘Bushman’ as this relates to my primary sources as well as the historical discourse of Bushman studies. However, I distance myself form any derogatory implications this term might carry in other contexts. For further discussion see “note on nomenclature” in appendix 1, Viestad, Dress as Social Relations.

[2] Some sections of this paper were initially written as part of the research historical background to my PhD thesis, reworked and eventually published as Dress as Social Relations - An Interpretation of Bushman Dress, Wits University Press 2018.

[3]  Viestad, Dress as Social Relations, 2.

[4]  (Eicher and Roach-Higgins, “Definition and Classification of Dress”; Eicher, “Introduction to Global Perspectives”)

[5] /Xam is one of many different Bushman languages. The /Xam Bushmen lived in the Northern Cape of South Africa at the end of the 19th century. There are no /Xam speakers left today, but due to the recording project of Wilhelm Bleek and Lucy Lloyd (see below) we know a lot about the language and its cultural context (

[6] Viestad, Dress as Social Relations.

[7] For a review of the argument concerning ‘the myth of the nearly naked Bushman’ see Viestad, Dress as Social Relations, pp. 6-15.

[8] For further notes on this apparent paradox, see Viestad, Dress as Social Relations, pp. 29,78.

[9] For more information on the Bleek and Lloyd archive see for example; Bank, Bushmen in a Victorian World; Deacon, “The /Xam Informants”; Skotnes (ed.), Claim to the Country; “The Digital Bleek and Lloyd”, Centre for Curating the Archive, University of Cape Town.

[10] Cited in Bank, Bushmen in a Victorian World, p. 106.

[11] Bank, Bushmen in a Victorian World, pp. 106-107; Davison, “Typecast. Representations of the Bushmen at the South African Museum”, pp. 10-11.

[12] Morris, “Trophy Skulls, Museums and San”.

[13] Davison, “Typecast. Representations of the Bushmen at the South African Museum”, pp. 10, 12.

[14] Summers, A History of the South African Museum, p. 103.

[15] Davison, “Typecast. Representations of the Bushmen at the South African Museum”, pp. 12-13.

[16] Summers, A History of the South African Museum, p. 104.

[17] Summers, A History of the South African Museum, pp. 104 -105, the explanation in italics is not part of the original text

[18] Davison, “Typecast. Representations of the Bushmen at the South African Museum”, p. 14.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Davison, “Museums and the reshaping of memory”, p. 146. Italics are not part of the original text.

[21] Summers, A History of the South African Museum, p. 186.

[22] Davison, “Museums and the reshaping of memory”, p. 143.

[23] Viestad, Dress as Social Relations, pp. 47, 58, 78.

[24] Davison, “Museums and the reshaping of memory”, pp. 143-144.

[25] Davison, “Museums and the reshaping of memory”.

[26] Skotnes, “’Civilised Off the Face of the Earth’”, p. 313.

[27]  Ibid.

[28] Douglas and Law, “Beating around the Bush(man!)”, p. 86.

[29] Bregin “Miscast: Bushmen in the twentieth century”, pp. 87-88.

[30] Douglas and Law, “Beating around the Bush(man!)”, p. 102.

[31] Buntman, “Bushman Images in South African Tourist Advertising”, p. 279.

[32] Douglas and Law, “Beating around the Bush(man!)”, p. 87.

[33] Thomas, “Epilogue”, p. 277

[34] Ibid

[35] I remember this quote from a later exhibition (in 2014) at the Intercultural museum in Oslo; «Norvegiska roma'- norske sigøynere». The man in question was probably Leif Larsen, who established Romanifolkets Landsforening (Taternes Landsforening since 2006). Pers. com. Mari Møystad (Glomdalsmuseet) 25.02.2019.

[36] ‘Khoisan’ is an umbrella term including the indigenous hunter-gatherers (Bushmen/San) as well as herders (Khoikhoi), speaking a variety of related click languages.

[37] From the Morning Post, 20 September 1810, cited in Strother, “Display of the Body Hottentot”, p. 25.

[38] BAC WOMNX’S COLLECTIVE, “The Place of Sara Baartman at UCT”, University of Cape Town.

[39] Natalie Pertsovsky and GroundUp staff, “Quarrel over Sarah Baartman sculpture at UCT”, News 24.

[40] David Goldblatt cited in Pertsovsky and GroundUp staff, “Quarrel over Sarah Baartman sculpture at UCT”, News 24.

[41] BAC WOMNX’S COLLECTIVE, “The Place of Sara Baartman at UCT”, University of Cape Town.

[42] See for example Pityana, S. M. and Phakeng, M. “Renaming Memorial Hall Sarah Baartman Hall”, University of Cape Town.

Av Vibeke M. Viestad (førstelektor i arkeologi ved Universitetet i Oslo)
Publisert 12. apr. 2019 12:40 - Sist endret 12. apr. 2019 12:40