03 de Dezembro de 2000
Myth of Adamastor revisited
When Cyril Coetzee was commissioned in 1995 to produce a painting for
Wits university's Cullen library, he chose to depict the Adamastor myth, but wanted to
avoid a Eurocentric perspective. Here he describes his inspiration
T'kama-Adamastor, by Cyril Coetzee, 1996, oil on
canvas. The painting was inspired by a short novel by André Brink in which the writer
reworked the Adamastor story from a 20th-century perspective
Even as I spoke, an immense shape
Materialised in the night air,
Grotesque and enormous stature
With heavy jowls, and an unkempt beard
Scowling from shrunken, hollow eyes
Its complexion earthy and pale,
Its hair grizzled and matted with clay,
Its mouth coal black, teeth yellow with decay.
Camões, The Lusiads
The figure of Adamastor, which looms large in South African literature, makes its grand
entrance into literary history in The Lusiads, the national epic by the Portuguese
poet Camões published in 1512. Adamastor appears in canto V of this great poem, when
Vasco da Gama and his fleet approach the Cape of Storms on their historic voyage to India.
A cloud in the shape of a monstrous being suddenly towers over them.
The giant reproaches the Portuguese sailors for intruding into his domain, and
prophesies shipwreck, catastrophe and death for all those bold enough to sail around the
In the famous passage of the "epic curse", he threatens to unleash his fury
on those who come after Da Gama. When Da Gama demands to know who the monster is, he
replies bitterly: "I am that vast, secret promontory/ You Portuguese call the Cape of
Then follows an account of Adamastor's unhappy fate. He used to be one of the giants of
Olympus, he says. He fell in love with a beautiful, seductive sea nymph called Thetis, but
she was repulsed, by his extreme size and hideous looks.
Thetis's mother Doris promised to arrange a tryst for him with her daughter. One,
night, as Doris had sworn, Thetis appeared. The passionate giant ran towards her and took
her in his arms, only to find himself embracing a rock. He was transformed into the Cape
into Table Mountain, to be precise.
It is a strange and stirring story, and it has captured the imagination of generations
of South African poets. In his anthology Shades of Adamastor, Malvern van Wyk Smith
collects no fewer than 50 poetic re-interpretations of the myth, from the early 1800s to
the present. There have been some fascinating visual responses to the theme too, including
the 19th-century works by Condeixa and Reis. But the visual tradition, in South
Africa especially, is scant compared to the literary one.
In 1995, I was commissioned to produce a painting for the reading room of the William
Cullen library at the University of the Witwatersrand. One of the challenging things about
the work was its scale: 28 square metres. Another was that it had to complete a trilogy of
works begun 60 years earlier. Two paintings - JH Amshewitz's Vasco da Gama - Departure
for the Cape and Colin Gill's Colonists 1826 - had been hung in the 1930s, but
the third work was never produced. My painting was to fill that tantalisingly blank third
When I began to think about this enormous painting, which would occupy me for the next
three years, I already suspected that Adamastor - or a version of him, at least - might
come to stand at the heart of the canvas, but I needed a visual starting point rather than
a literary one.
Both the Amshewitz and the Gill were painted in England and shipped to South Africa.
Both are heroic versions of episodes in the colonisation of Africa seen from a European
perspective. The archives of the Cullen library are filled with images that record the
colonial encounter in similarly Eurocentric terms: lithographs and engravings of wild
animals by Sir William Cornwallis Harris, Samuel Daniell and Olfert Dapper; depictions of
the Khoi by Peter Kolbe and Johann Baptiste Homann; and fanciful maps by Carrington
Bowles, Georg Seutter and John Senex, to name a few.
Many of these images are stereotypical representations of indigenous people as
primitive and brutal. "Hottentots" are shown holding dripping intestines as if
about to eat them raw, to mention one blatant example. In nearly four centuries of art
from the colonial era one finds the same distorted portrayal of "discovery", as
if Africa had not existed before Europeans appeared on the scene. From the outset I wanted
to reflect on and subvert such images in my own painting.
A great deal of scholarly work has been done on these issues. Van Wyk Smith has shown
that the colonial response to Africa was determined partly by preconceptions dating back
to Dante, and beyond him to Homer.
From the earliest times, the journey down the west coast of Africa was presented as a
descent into hell, a nightmarish region where dogheaded or headless monsters were thought
to live. It was believed, until the time of Dias, that anyone venturing into the
"torrid zone" would be consumed by flames.
Under the influence of this work, I had the initial idea of painting a reconstruction
of the European "discovery narrative", which would use the clichés of the
colonial worldview in an ironic and fantastical way. It would be playful, but also present
a serious critique. I decided to draw on the images found everywhere in, the Cullen
library where there is an evident mental struggle in the European artist to fit Western
classical iconography to the unfamiliar raw material of the African encounter. I was
particularly fascinated by the allegorical images of Africa created by Dapper and De Bry
The travel engravings of the Frankfurt-based De Bry company are remarkable. The Cullen.
has several copies of the Petits Voyages, which, together with the Grands
Voyages, were a great artistic and commercial success towards the end of the 16th
Theodore de Bry, with his sons Johann Israel and Johann Theodore, assisted by Matthieu
Mérian, were prolific publisher-engravers of this period. Each volume of the Voyages opens
with a magnificent frontispiece decorated with exotica.
These title-pages were publicly displayed at fairs and used as publicity panels by
vendors. The books themselves were marketed widely in Europe.
While the De Brys were working on their travel books, they were also, illustrating
alchemical works such as Michael Maier's Atalanta Fugiens. It interested me that
they borrowed wholesale from the stock of imagery in these alchemical books, transplanting
dragons, stags and various emblematic devices into the landscapes of the
"exotic" territories that were the subject of the travel books.
An intriguing possibility cohered around the notions of voyaging and the colonial
encounter. My painting was going to hang directly opposite Amshewitz's in the reading
He showed the departure of the Portuguese from Lisbon. Perhaps I could show their
arrival in Africa, seen not through the eyes of the Europeans but, metaphorically at
least, through those of an indigenous people? More specifically, seeing that Amshewitz had
interpreted canto IV of The Lusiads, perhaps I could tackle canto V?
The Appearance of Adamastor by E Biel
And so I met up again with Adamastor.
Stephen Gray has described the Adamastor story as the "root of all subsequent
white semiology invented to cope with the African experience". But, as Gray himself
comments more wryly, it is also "after all, only a highly decorated way of explaining
the largeness of Africa and the roughness of rounding the Cape on a bad night". This
was the ironic tone I hoped to wield against an overpowering myth.
I began to prepare the cartoon, working with visual material taken from the De Bry
travel books, especially scenes depicting contact between Europeans and indigenous peoples
of the "new lands". Representations of the Dutch arriving in west Africa
or Asia show clearly how soon the colonial narrative became entrenched in visual clichés.
Similar images can be found over and over again.
I searched for a way of reworking the Adamastor theme, looking at the poetic responses
documented by Van Wyk Smith. After some experimentation along these lines, I realised that
if the proposed painting was going to work as a narrative, I would need a detailed and
intricately structured storyline. How else could the imagery in such a large, long canvas
be made to "read" from left to right?
It was then that I had the idea of doing a computer search to see whether there was
anything useful in the recent Adamastor literature. To my surprise, I found André Brink's
short novel, The First Life of Adamastor. Tkama, Brink's central character,
is a Khoi chief and also a reincarnation of Adamastor. In a parody of the
"discovery", he retells the story of the original colonial encounter "from
the perspective of the 20th century". It was exactly the kind of contemporary
reworking of the story of Adamastor that I had been fumbling to invent!
In time, as I wove material from Brink's book with various visual elements, a new
hybrid figure emerged: Tkama-Adamastor - the latest, but surely not the last, in a
long line descended from Camões's giant.
- This is an edited version of Cyril Coetzee's
account of the beginnings of his painting Tkama-Adamastor which appears in
Tkama-Adamastor: Inventions of Africa in a South Africa, a book of essays on the
painting and theme, edited by Ivan Vladislavic and published by the University of the
© 2000 The Sunday Independent