Transvaal Scottish: Somnambulist
The first thing we see about this work is that it is created out of a number of intriguing elements, both old and new. What do they collectively tell us?
The title is one of these elements. Titles can provide a vital clue to understanding the meaning of an artwork; they might form part of the story. They might be obvious, but could be obscure. This title, Transvaal Scottish: Somnambulist, seems a bit of a riddle. We need to discover the meanings of its component parts in order to understand it – and thereby, perhaps, begin to understand the meaning of the objects too.
“The Transvaal Scottish” is the name of a regiment or unit of soldiers in the South African army. Over a hundred years ago, young Scottish soldiers were among those sent across the world to the remote Transvaal, to fight in the Anglo-Boer War, or South African War. Many of them died. It must have made little sense to the individuals who came to fight, often to die – in a bleak land so far from home, for a cause so remote.
The name of the unit persisted, and the Transvaal Scottish Regiment exists in South Africa to this day. This unit, in fact, fought in the South African Defence Force in the notorious war in Angola in the 1970s.
And what about “somnambulist”? A somnambulist is one who walks in his sleep (“somn-” comes from the Latin word “somnus” meaning sleep, and “ambulist” from the Latin “ambulare”, meaning to walk).
Look again at the image on the left, and try to link the various ideas you have just been reading about, with what you see. What do these objects begin to tell you?
The khaki backgound sheet is a modern soldier’s groundsheet for sleeping on. This particular one was used out in the field while at war in Angola. Does this suggest to you a link to the word “somnambulist” in the title?
This artwork contains references to at least two very different wars: the South African War (Anglo-Boer War) of 1899-1902, and the Angolan war. Between 1967 and 1989, young South African soldiers were (like the Scottish soldiers) sent to another country – in this case neighbouring Angola – to fight a long war that may make little sense to us now. (The South African government supported Portugal, the colonial European ruler of Angola, in its attempt to suppress Angolan groups fighting for independence. Later South Africa switched allegiances, because it feared “Communists” possibly replacing that colonial power.)
Look carefully. What are each of the little objects, all white in colour? And what do they represent? Where do they come from?
Could they be a clue to the soldier’s dreams while he sleeps (yet seemingly without rest: a somnambulist), far from home?
Or do they represent “values” that these wars were supposed to protect? If so, then whose values, what society, which “side” in these wars, is represented by these objects?
Talk About This
Why are they all white in colour, do you think?
Do these specific wars, have something in common? Or might this artwork speak about all wars?
Write notes as you discuss. Report back to the class.
If you had to research and discover for yourself the kinds of explanations given above (for the title, for example), where would you look?