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Material: Belfast Black granite from Boschpoort Quarry, Mpumalanga

Manufacture and sandblasting: Frans Haarhoff

Stencils: Lena van der Merwe

Size: 4310 mm X 3200 mm X 450 mm

Weight: 21 ton

Installation: TCB Machine Moving and Rigging

Collection: University of the Free State (UFS)

Facilitator: Angela de Jesus, Johannes Stegmann Gallery, UFS

Location: UFS campus, Bloemfontein, in secluded garden to the left of main building

Thinking Stone

  • Thinking Stone


    THINKING STONE is a singular granite sculpture that pays homage to the astonishing rock engravings of Driekopseiland, a major South African heritage site, where a collection of an estimated 3,500 of the world’s most important prehistoric marks are fast vanishing.






    This important site of prehistoric petroglyphs consists of three large, rather flat rock areas of dark Karoo sandstone that crop out of the course of the Riet River near the town of Plooysburg, about 75 kilometres south-west of  Kimberley in the Northern Cape province. The name Driekopseiland (Island of three heads) calls to mind the three rocks that have a soft, rounded appearance, rising gently and looking distinctly different to the rugged surrounding river area, much like the tops of three large heads.


    In 1942, the upper part of the site was dammed-up, causing permanent submergence of an estimated 150 engravings. The resulting change in flood dynamics and silt accumulation patterns increased reed growth and an invasion of eucalyptus saplings across silted parts of the site.


    For most of the year the Riet River is an idyllic little stream, and only some of the engravings are submerged. When heavy rains fall in the catchment area of the Gariep river an enormous deluge of debris causes serious damage to the site. This has happened repeatedly in recent years and each time more irrepairably. These catastrophes were set in motion because irrigation policies, indifferent to issues of major cultural importance, necessitated the damming-up of more and more significant upstream water bodies for use to the arid farming areas.


    Although Driekopseiland was declared a National Monument in 1944 it is, till today, not nearly afforded the official recognition, care and attention a site of its importance deserves.


    The Driekopseiland petroglyphs


    My first-hand experiences of the aniconic petroglyphs on the bedrock of Driekopseiland set my thoughts racing with excitement. I enjoyed taking many photographs at the site and I look forward, with all enthusiasm, to future associations. Sculpting the THINKING STONE gave me good reason to begin to pay proper tribute.


    It is estimated that the petroglyphs were made 1500-2000 BC, but we do not know who made them. Many theories are offered about the meaning of the petroglyphs and there is no consensus. The interest in them is intensified because they are so cryptic and their origin shrouded in mystery.  Frederick Soddy said: “It is curious to reflect, for example, upon the remarkable legend of the Philosopher's Stone, one of the oldest and most universal beliefs, the origin of which, however far back we penetrate into the records of the past, we do not probably trace its real source.”


    The earth will always be the residence of the ancestors, the ‘old people’. Through accubation we share our food with them. Accubation is a way of sharing food and ideas by lying down, usually with company, next to food placed on the ground, as was the custom around the Mediterranean of 2,000 years ago and as is the custom of many in traditional Africa. In Latin a is ‘towards’ and cubare ‘to lie down’. When we move away from where the ancestors reside, we leave them behind.


    Ho tseba lefatse o tle o hate naha – to know the world, you must tread the country (Old Sesotho proverb)


    The ancients of the land went about barefoot, and unlike modern, shoe-wearing travellers, their feet always touched the earth. Traversing the landscape by foot means that one is constantly leaving familiar earth behind as one ventures into new areas. The sky, that is day sky or night sky, on the other hand, always seems to remain overhead as we walk and while it has changing atmospheric displays, it remains with us, forever renewed to its ‘eternal’ state, even when we are not walking. In a sense, travelling constantly provides new territory under the ‘same’ sky. The sky of today will always appear to be the same sky above us as the sky that the ancients enjoyed.


    The peoples from long ago shared and passed their knowledge on orally. The /Xam spoke of ‘thinking strings’. Others carried collections of objects in small pouches as ‘speaking bones’. Like us they collected knowledge and tactics dealing with disease, hunger and social interaction. Although a great deal yet needs to be discovered and understood about their somewhat lost thinking processes, these are broadly referred to as indigenous knowledge systems, some would say embedded knowledge. Thankfully the cryptic residue of mental intent at Driekop’s Eiland is legible, even though defiant of our best attempts at decipherment.


    Almost all of the Driekops ideoglyphs are a collection of aniconic marks (marks not obviously identified as images of animal, human or insect origin) that accumulated over time. We speak of an ideoglyph or ideograph as a graphic symbol expressing an idea, unaffected by different languages. The ideography of traffic signs, for example, is understood by all language groups. It is remarkable that each one of the Driekopseiland ideoglyphs is uniquely different. They are like a collection of entries in a compendium or lexicon (an ideocon perhaps?). Every entry has an individual standing, formatted matchlessly when compared to the other marks around it, and is also never repeated. Thought and care about the rendering of the each drawing schema becomes obvious upon careful study and comparison.


    We traditionally store information in books made up of pages. We speak of compages as a unified whole, constructed from various well-integrated or compacted parts. The compages of the human body is its complex, solid structure formed by the compagination of all the parts. In Latin pangere is ‘to fasten’. The bedrock of Driekopseiland provides a compaginated network of thousands of splintered-up, oblong, linear blocks that serve as ‘recording’ surfaces. These provide a spectacle such as when one might detach all the pages of a book and exhibit them simultaneously in an all-at-once exposition.


    The ancients did not encounter the idea of a page as we do today and they did not therefore subscribe to the idea of ‘top’ (of the page), ‘bottom’, ‘left’ and ‘right’. All sides might therefore be equally important. In the configurations at Driekopseiland the notion of horizontality becomes meaningless because no specific reference to an horizon seems to exist in the confidently carved items, each one uniquely outlined by its own cracks in the rock. We cannot help ourselves, when trying to make ‘sense’ of the extraordinary visual presentation scattered about in the middle of nowhere, but to impose an a priori concept of the ‘artist’s drawing’ or of the ‘author’s written page’. We tend to reach for a sense of of up, down, east and west, not realising that these are relative conventions that enforce our own Guthenbergian, alphabetic stereotypes.


    If we were to take up a position at the north pole then we will only be able to look south. East, west, and north for that matter, will cease to exit. Words like orientation and disorientation have to do with an awareness of where the ‘east’ is situated. It should therefore be equally possible to be disoccidented when one is uncertain of where the ‘west’ is. In Latin orient is ‘rising’, as the sun does in the east and occident is ‘setting’ as the sun does in the west. Furthermore, if we were to view the earth from a position far away, in outer space, its small sperical appearance will seem to be detached from any sense of north, south east and west. The individual petroglyphs at Driekopseiland are formatted and aligned in accordance with the cracks provided by the bedrock. They differ fundamentally from iconic art in that they do not have a top (sky, head) side or a bottom (earth, horizon). As soon as one assumes, for example, to recognise the outlines of a human figure or animal, that recognition is subverted as one moves to the opposite side of the image. There seems to be no specific direction from which any image ‘ought’ to be viewed.


    The ancients of Driekops were ideologues or visionaries. Ideologues initiate worthwhile strategies or arguments and their ideoglyphs are devices for a specific type of engendering and management of thought, whether the ideogyphs were deployed as an initiation strategy or as entoptic realities or something else. An ideogenetic climate, action or speech is an idea-producing one.




    The oldest campus


    I propose my sculpture THINKING STONE as an ideoglyphic device alluding to the formulation, storage and processing of knowledge such as universities are intent on doing. I wish for my work to bring to mind the oldest campus in South Africa, as constituted by the early petroglyphic remains at Driekopseiland.


    I have inserted modern texts in the emphasized cracks of the THINKING STONE sculpture and these contain specific figures of speech as is prevalent in the diverse social make-up of South Africa and the Free State University campus in particular. I have collected, from my own resources and from ideas submitted by those who have a vested interest in the project, a list of expressions on ‘rock’ and ‘stone’ that are noteworthy and typical of as many group interests as possible. To this end I have collaborated over time with the departments of African and/or modern languages at the Free State and other universities.


    These texts are:

    • Ilitye lifakwe nzulu ngeenkumbulo zolwakheko lomhlaba kunye nembali. (Andy Goldsworthy in Xhosa and translated in English: A stone is ingrained with geological and historical memories.)
    • Kodwa ke leliphi elona litye elixhase le bhulorho? (Kublal Khan in Xhosa and translated in English: But which is the stone that supports the bridge?)
    • Eba lerole – mme o tla lahlelwa moyeng; Eba lejwe – mme o tla lahlelwa kgalaseng. (Muhammad Iqbal in Southern Sotho and translated in English: Become dust and they will throw thee in the air; Become stone and they will throw thee on glass.)
    • Marothodi a pula a etsa lesoba lejweng, eseng ka dikgoka, empa ka howa kgafetsa. (Lucretius in Southern Sotho and translated in English: The drops of rain make a hole in the stone, not by violence, but by oft falling.)
    • Uma iqanda liphikisana netshe yiqanda elahlulwa njalo. (Zulu proverb, translated in English: When arguing with a stone an egg is always wrong” )
    • Waphendula wathi, Ngiyanitshela uma bethula, komemeza amatshe. (Luke 19:40 in Zulu and translated in English: I tell you, he replied, if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.)
    • Wathint(a)’ umfazi wathint(a)’ imbokodo. (Zulu idiom, translated in English: If you touch a woman, you touch the grinding stone.)
    • Lefoko le letlapa fa o ka di tlogela, o ka se tlhole o di bone. (Spanish proverb in Tswana, translated in English: A word and a stone let go cannot be recalled.)
    • Letlapana mo nokaneng sephiring le ipona e le letlapa la botlhokwa. (Japanese proverb in Tswana, translated in English: The pebble in the brook secretly thinks itself a precious stone)
    • ’n Klipstapel is meer as net ’n hoop klippe die oomblik wanneer ’n enkeling daaroor besin met ’n katedraal in sy geestesoog. (Antoine de Saint Exupery in Afrikaans and translated in English: A rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment a single man contemplates it, bearing within him the image of a cathedral.)
    • ’n Dwaas gooi maklik ’n klip in ’n poel water waar ’n honderd wyse manne dit nie kan uitkry nie. (Saul Bellow in Afrikaans and translated in English: A fool can throw a stone in a pond that 100 wise men cannot get out.)
    • Civilization began the first time an angry person cast a word instead of a rock. (Sigmund Freud in English)
    • Anger is as a stone cast into a wasp’s nest. (Pope Paul VI in English)


    I see my THINKING STONE as a place of gathering, of sharing ideas (as universities must be). It’s tabular surface does not have a ‘top-of-page’ sense, but it is legible from whichever side one approaches. The word ‘university’, from the Latin universitas ‘the whole’, develops the idea of ‘society’. Universitas derives from uni ‘one’ and versus ‘turned’ – a society from diverse walks of life, turned into one and assembled for the same purpose, of learning, researching and experimenting with information together, of getting to know each other’s values and ultimately, of getting to know oneself.


    I was further influenced by the landscape of Lesotho, the Free State, the east and north-western Cape and the Karoo. This landscape was shaped when the waters of the prehistoric Panatalassa receded, when glaciers impacted upon the land and when layer upon layer of topsoil became deposited and eroded over time. This landscape casts a certain spell over me and I feel deeply indebted to it.




    Belfast black granite


    In my sculptures I mostly use Belfast black granite, an igneous material formed by magma or lava (molten rock) cooling and becoming solid. This means that, at some point in time immemorial, granite was a liquid. By polishing the natural rock I take it back, to some degree, to its molten, amorphous constituency. The ultimate shape of my stone sculptures should look as if it has something to do with the rock’s history, with its own ‘memory’ of its liquid essence being moulded and settling in a place. The soil, the bedrock and the earth contains a record (some would even say memory) of past events. Andy Goldsworthy says: “A stone is ingrained with geological and historical memories.”


    The Belfast Black stone is selected from Frans Haarhoff’s farm Boschpoort, where a worked-out quarry contains thousands of granite stones, abandoned and littering the landscape. I derive a great deal of satisfaction when I eliminate some intrusive stones and in the process cause a degree of landfill and rehabilitation of the terrain. I rejoice in returning the mining wasteland to the way things were before its mess began, to be a landscape once more. Belfast Black granite is one of the most impervious stones. It is highly prized and its marked value exceeds that of most other granite materials.


    In geological terms Belfast Black is a black Gabbro from Mpumalanga. In natural stone trade, Belfast Black is often simply called a Granite. Since the name gabbro is relatively unknown to the man in the street, all exporters, traders and manufacturers of stone products conveniently refer to the material as ‘Belfast Black Granite’ or ‘Absolute Black Granite.’ Gabbro is a dark, coarse-grained plutonic rock of crystalline texture, consisting mainly of pyroxene, plagioclase feldspar, and often olivine.


    The town of Belfast is often advertised for its well-known black ‘granite,’ which is a highly valued product as it is the only known and purest ‘granite’ deposit in the world of its kind.


    Willem Boshoff




    See the second half of the photographer  David Goldblatt’s Youtube talk on THINKING STONE:   David Goldblatt: The ultimate portrait:

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