Linking language, art and culture

A tool, a hurdle, a weapon. An inescapable part of our lives. Language is all that and more.
It is also part of our identity as distinct human beings.

Research has shown that when we are born we think in pictures. Eventually, we link the pictures to the words we hear spoken around us. Our cognitive processes are thus all linked to our birth language and, therefore, language and culture are inextricably linked.

Language is an emotive issue with economic, social, educational and political implications, according to Professor Kathleen Thorpe, head of German studies in the School of Literature and Language Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand.

The best example of the political implications of the use of a particular language, was the 1976 Soweto uprisings when pupils refused to be taught in Afrikaans, which the government had tried to force on them. Language—the use of one’s own mother tongue in particular—is a basic human right entrenched in the Bill of Rights in our Constitution.

Thorpe says the undervaluing of the humanities is having a disastrous effect on the general standard of education in South Africa. Young people are being deprived of learning to think critically, construct an argument, tolerate and appreciate difference—as well as improve their language and communication skills, a matter increasingly mentioned by employers, she says.

“The perceived hegemony of English is doing everyone a disservice,” says Thorpe. “South Africa seems woefully unaware of the value of foreign languages—a surprising fact in the light of the upcoming World Cup, at which hundreds of thousands of Europeans are expected. Neither in schools nor at university level, is the awareness of the value of learning a new language very high. Learning a foreign language will change your consciousness,” she says.

Alida Poeti of Wits’ Italian department says: “Language studies broaden one’s thinking and hone critical and interpretative skills.” She says learning a language is a way to gain new knowledge. “The knowledge inherent in each culture is woven into its literature.”

“Language is not a tool that describes reality in a secondary fashion, but in fact creates the reality in which we live,” says Frik Potgieter, professor of art history at Unisa.

“Art in visual form is also a language, albeit more bodily directed and less mediated than discursive language. Over time, art forms transform into conceptual clarity, into new discursive language. Therefore a picture is much more than just an image the viewer looks at,” he says.

He explains that art schools aim to instil in students the understanding that visual art operates in a space where new possibilities that cannot be foreseen are created.

“This is why the study and expression of art is integral to the process of creative change our country is in at the moment. Artists are people who are prepared to think experimentally—a vital skill in any job situation. Many art students end up being entrepreneurs because they have this ability,” he says. 

Art and language are implicit in the cultures that shape our human identity. Our culture determines our values, beliefs and understanding of life.

Helene Smuts, a visual arts educator and writer has been running the Africa meets Africa project for several years. She says: “Culture expresses itself through the lives and creative imagination of peoples. In the hands of our master weavers, beadwork-makers and painters, as they innovate with the traditional forms of objects of everyday use, a visual language emerges which is both sophisticated and appealing.

“This visual cultural expression is also the dynamic medium within which people negotiate change and address the fundamental challenge of earning a living.”

Smuts has worked closely with arts educator Jannie van Heerden, mathematicians Dr Chonat Getz and Jackie Scheiber, historian Dr Sekibakiba Lekgoathi (Wits), and architect Professor Peter Rich to develop resource books for teachers and learners. The project is wholly original in its pragmatic approach: the knowledge embedded in indigenous South African arts skills is used to solve contemporary learning problems in schools. The visual language of familiar arts styles serve as entry points to the abstract language of mathematics: even the theorem of Pythagoras is laid bare within the symmetrical patterns on a basket.

“The arts, and in particular the visual arts, can transcend language while holding language and concepts within its presentation,” says Lekgoathi. We have studied the development of visual art expression among the Ndebele women. We were able to trace the paths of this ill-defined ethnic group. Their art was a product of the expression of landlessness, as this group was scattered among white Boer farms around the turn of the previous century. As a result of the scattering of the people, art was emphasised much more than it would have been, and resulted in the crystallisation of the identity of the Ndebele people.”

Says Potgieter: “The interrelatedness of art, language and culture is becoming clearer, and while we are now living in a world where tension exists between globalisation and regionalism—a healthy tension—those working in these fields are able to understand and embrace the challenges caused by this tension.”