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           Joanesburgo   ·   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 Cape.

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 Storms..."

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 wall.

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 century.

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 room.

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. T’kama, 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: T’kama-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 T’kama-Adamastor which appears in T’kama-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 Witwatersrand



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