Nicolene Swanepoel Dolos Kleiosse | | Art in South Africa
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Dolos Kleiosse

Dolos n. A small object of potency. An animal thing. An ancestral object, an object of magic, ritual, spirit, and imagination. A plaything, an erotic object, an object of desire. A large object that protects against stormy water. (S Afr. Du. dol driven insane, and L os bone).

These creatures are made from clay mouldings of the feet bones of cattle. The feet bones (‘dolos’ bones) of cattle were used by Voortrekker boys as ‘oxen’ to pull the toy sized jawbone ‘wagons’. In South Africa clay oxen (‘kleiosse’) are especially familiar as the creations of young black boys who tend cattle. They are still made, worldwide, by boys and sometimes men who have a connection with cattle. Very seldom do girls or women make them, at least not overtly. In South African indigenous culture the ownership of cattle is a male prerogative, and contemporary cattle farmers still tend to be male. The differing price tags of my clay cattle intend to evoke debate about societal values placed on the various genders. In reality my price tags were based labour intensiveness: My cows are more expensive than the bulls, which are more costly than the oxen.

A distinct memory from my very early childhood is of being fascinated by bleached bones I stumbled across in dry and dusty veld - the skeletons of my grandfather’s cattle, which must have died en masse from an epidemic disease. The beauty and ‘feel’ of these memento mori objects fascinated me. Now, as a professional artist who has studied veterinary anatomy, I am reshaping these clay casts of bones into the bodies of clay oxen. I consider these objects intensely personal creatures, through which I lay claim to my African belonging. As a woman creating these traditionally male-made objects, I refute the patriarchal dominance of our South African culture. I also fuse the indigenous (black) clay ox with the ‘dolos’- oxen of the (white) Voortrekker child, an attempt to reconstruct, in a spirit of optimism, the unfortunate stereotype of conflict between black and white cultures.

To me these little creatures are not simply clay oxen, they represent an important aspect of my identity: A strong, independent white woman living and thriving in Africa, who, despite prevailing societal prescription, will not be denied my right to belong in this country of my birth and of the birth of many generations of my line before me, and to own and do what was traditionally the prerogative of men.

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