A closer look at "Swartkops"

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Andries Fourie (South African-American, b. 1968), Swartkops, 2013, mixed media on cradled panel, 36 x 48 in., courtesy of the artist, Salem, Oregon.


Swartkops is the result of collaborative research performed in the summer of 2013 with Dr. David Craig, an ornithologist and ecologist at Willamette University, and botanist Richard Cowling from the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.

This work studies the Swartkops river estuary, located on the eastern edge of the city of Port Elizabeth (my hometown). River estuaries are inherently and productively unstable ecosystems where salt and fresh water mix, causing the death of vast numbers of small organisms, and creating a nutrient-rich “soup”. The estuary serves as a nursery for marine life and supports a very rich diversity of species including fish, waterfowl, plants, mollusks and crustaceans.

The work aims to achieve a more nuanced understanding of the significance of this place by inventorying key plant and animal species, identifying the main ecological dynamic, and considering its cultural history as well as the human factors that currently threaten it. The Khoisan shell midden located to the west of the river’s mouth, and the stone tools and pottery shards found in the vicinity bear witness to the fact that the estuary’s natural resources have been exploited by humans for many millennia.

Today the estuary is surrounded by informal settlements and industrial development. Untreated sewage runoff from the informal settlements and industrial waste from surrounding factories are a significant threat to the health of the estuary’s ecosystem. The estuary is an important source of food and income for the residents of surrounding settlements, where poverty and unemployment are rife. Residents earn income by harvesting worms and molluscs on the tidal mudflats and selling them to sport fishermen, but the practice has strained the health of the estuary. Estuary plants are gathered by the Xhosa, Pondo and Mfengu communities for medicinal use, or for use in traditional animist rituals. Xhosa boys live in huts in the dense bush along the estuary while they undergo the required isolation period that forms part of their traditional initiation ritual.

- Andries Fourie