The River Time.

The River Time.

Making meaning as a reader- an exercise in the death of the Author.

I’m a reader of African stories traditions and African art. I have read many books in the past year on these subjects and so would  like to share with you something that happened in my imaginative mind while I was engaged in this fascinating world.

I invite you to follow my thoughts so I can show this to you. I will do this via four important markers drawn from the texts of Roland Barthes, The death of the Author, 1967,  Indaba, my children by Credo Mutwa, 1964, The People of the Eland, by Patricia Vinnicombe, 2001- (originally published 1976) and African artist 1882 – present from Phaidon, 2021.

Think of this as a reading web.

Without a reader the book is buried, the author forgotten. A reader is the life giving force of books and texts. But without the reader expressing these thoughts and meanings she constructs while reading, nothing comes alive …… yet. Thoughts are just thin air, locked up in a room with closed windows. A book needs the materialization of an expression of a reader to be alive.

These expressions can take the shape of conversations or reviews or retellings in a painting or movie; a reader can choose different kind of resurrections, he can choose to resurrect the author, or he can write or speak a whole new life into a text. So many times have critics dug up the life of the author and tied the meaning of his or her text to that author, the life gives the meaning. This is valuable; but I crave something else, something new and daring. I, as a reader feel the need to create another network of pictures, words and artworks, this is my reading web

So I am going to put together bits and pieces that I have read in the past year that might, or might not, be authorial connected, but for me form new links of connection. Like a spider I am going to create something new, so I invite you to stay with me for a bit while I describe to you the different elements of this web.

The first piece of this web consists of the magical book about the legends and folk stories of Africa, written by Credo Mutwa. Credo Mutwa was a shaman who was introduced to the stories of Africa through his education. I believe that folk stories and fairy tales are an important signifier for what was and is going on in a society. Fairy tales are an important way to pass on knowledge from one generation to another.  To find tales from and about Africa is not easy and I was really excited once I started reading Indaba, my children, not only because of the content, but also because, for me what was the inspiring storytelling itself. Credo Mutwa tells many creation stories and legends from Africa and he explains customs of the African people. Examples for my web might be:

The River Time

The sacred story of the tree of life

The self-created

…Nothingness had been floating

For no one knows how long,

Upon the invisible waters of Time-

That mighty River with

Neither source nor mouth,

Which was-

Which is

And ever shall be.

Then one day-

Or is it right to say ‘one day’?-

The River Time desired Nothingness

Like a flesh-and-blood male beast

Desires his female partner.

And as a result of this strangest mating

Of Time and Nothingness,

A most tiny nigh invisible spark

Of Living Fire was born.

[ ]

But River Time was very cross with what the spark had done

And quickly sent the Spirit Cold to fight the spark outright.

A mighty battle soon ensued, in which the spark,

Now a universal roaring Flame

Which filled the sky with many soaring tongues,

Tried to melt Cold’s Spirit, and devour it complete,

While Cold its icy Spirit blew

Its cold wet breath into the Flame;

But it only turned a portion of the Flame

Onto cold white ash.

And this ferocious battle, which started so long ago,

Today still rages unabating, and shall yet proceed

Till Time shall cease to flow.

And the Wise Men of the tribes relate

That if the Flame one day shall win,

All that exist shall perish

In one consuming Fire,

While if victory goes to the Spirit of Cold

All living things shall freeze to death.

May the Great Spirit who is Lord Almighty

And Paramount Chief of all

Grant that neither Flame nor cold

Shall ever win the War,

Because whosoever beats the other-

The sun, the moon, the earth and starts

And all that live shall cease to be!

May both antagonists fight forth for everlasting Time,

Because on their unceasing conflict

All Life depends.

From the still warm ashes- wounds in Flames existence,

Inflicted in Battle by the Spirit of Cold,

There arose the Great Mother Ma,

Indaba, My Children

Africa Tribal History, Legends, Customs and Religious Beliefs.

Vusumazulu Credo Mutwa, 1964 (pg5)

In his inspiring book, he starts with this image, the River Time, and at the end he comes back to this image:

Ordinary drums generally carry no adornments, inscriptions or motifs. A witchdoctor’s battle drum is normally engraved with the symbol of the River Time, or Eternity. This is the oldest symbol of Africa and it symbolises the repetitive continuity of time and the immortality of the soul. I have pointed out before that the Bantu believe that time is like a river which flows into its own source , and that if it were possible to sail this river with more than just one’s imagination, one could proceed downstream into the future and upstream into the past.

Indaba, My Children

Africa Tribal History, Legends, Customs and Religious Beliefs.

Vusumazulu Credo Mutwa, 1964 (Pg 669)

The comparison of time and a river is powerful this imagery stayed with me after the reading of the whole 700 paged book.

And so the River Time is the first string of my web- it is a story string. 

The second string is visual.

In the book People of the Eland, by Patricia Vinnicombe are many colour photographs of cave paintings present in the Drakensbergen in South Africa. Patricia Vinnicombe, who had a lifelong passion to find and interpret cave paintings describes in detail what the meanings of these paintings are for indigenous people. In one of her chapters she shows a painting that looks like a snake and explains that it shows a snake, or is a snake.

However when I looked at this ‘creature’ and didn’t see a snake: I saw a red string, curled on the surface, with a head that looked like a buck, with ears like a cat. I didn’t see a snake at all. But more than this, I also saw The River Time. There are several more examples of a red string that sometimes, according to the text, does look like a snake or sometimes it is not known what it is to supposed to represent, but I always saw the River Time in these cave images, and now I can’t un-see them anymore. The River Time and the red string are, in my mind, always connected.

The third and last string is from the present and it is an action string.

This string is found in the book African Artist 1882 – present Phaidon, 2021.

Lerato Shadi

Mosako Wa Nako (‘River of Time’) 2014

10 day performance and installation, ‘Giving Contours to Shadows’, Neue Berliner Kunstverein Berlin

“Shadi speaks of the work as a red river: as she sits in the act of crocheting, the blood red carpet that she weaves extends outwards from herself and into the space towards the audience, a visual manifestation of elapsed time containing the artist’s changing state of mind within every stich.” (Pg289)

In my mind the snake in the cave paintings and the red carpet of Lerato Shadi are expressions of the River Time that Credo Mutwa shares with us.

My reading web has three parts and is shaped as a triangle. That I can link them together and give this meaning in this particular way is my right and my power (Roland Barthe).

I can only hope I have explained this clearly enough for you to see it too.

Without me as a reader, giving you my, this expression, the River Time would have been lifeless, hidden.

I believe that all three individual pieces of string are worthwhile as a part of the active knowledge of our society. It is too beautiful to keep hidden. The beauty of this web, I think, is that although the creators of the cave paintings are long gone, the image of The River Time is still alive- in South Africa and it even found a place in Germany, via the performance of Lerato Shadi. 

This expression is based on the following books:

Roland Barthes, The death of the Author, 1967, translated by Richard Howard, Hill and Wang New York, 1986? 

Credo Mutwa, Indaba, my children- African Tribal History, Legends, Customs and Religious Beliefs 1964, Great Britain, Payback Press, 1998.

Patricia Vinnicombe, People of the Eland, 2001- (originally published 1976), Wits University Press, 2001 and

African artist 1882 – present from Phaidon, 2021.