Arts Festival

Cattle to believe in

SHE STANDS WITH the kind of poise that catches you in the throat, and once you’ve made contact with her eye, you cannot move on without feeling that something within you has changed. Is it in the sheer beauty of her coat, speckled by God himself? Or is it the simple dignity of her presence, that makes you want to kneel down and worship? Maybe it is in the curve of her horns, almost idiosyncratic in the calligraphic arc it implies. She is just a heifer. One of the Nguni of the Makhathini Flats, honoured and celebrated by Ed Schroeder in a particularly magnificent publication.

The Nguni of the Makhathini Flats is a coffee table book which was arguably one of the imperative must-haves at this year’s Hilton Arts Festival. Schroeder also exhibited a body of photographs printed on canvas of these truly magnificent beasts and he presented a talk about his generations’ long association with them. This is a work made in celebration of the heritage of love and understanding of these gentle and significant creatures that his father instilled in him.

And you may step back and think cows are cows and self-published vanity projects are often flawed by the blind passion that their makers put into them. But you would be 100% wrong on every level here. This publication, designed by Ryan Wiggill and a labour of love on the part of Schroeder, is an artwork in its own capacity. One that skirts all possible cliches about photographs of animals and raises your understanding of the Nguni cattle, their story and their unabated beauty, to notches that touch the spiritual.

It’s an odd idea, in our rough and tumble world where production and cash oil the mechanisms of everything, that an ecotype of cattle has been bred through centuries and has strengthened and survived. These herds are not based on their milk or their meat. They are cherished and grown because of the heritage they offer this country, and also, because of their unique adaptability in an excessively harsh environment. They’re much more than only beautiful faces or pelts. They are creatures who have walked the length and breadth of this country and survived. It’s a unique political story where the voices of unfamous and hardworking farmers are king, and whether the photographs of cattle and those who love them are so powerful, they will stop you in your tracks.

But this book is not just a celebration of beautiful bulls and heifers and hard working farmers. It is a sophisticated and potent plea for awareness, along the lines of Marguerite Poland’s astonishing research and writing in The Abundant Herds, which features illustrations by Leigh Voigt. That rough and tumble money-oriented world we know elbows its way into a lot of things where it shouldn’t belong, and the ecotype itself is in danger of being diluted. This book is an important record of one of this country’s most gorgeous heritages.

In large format coffee table books which contain lots of photographs, there is always the dreaded double page spread and the possibilities that image is compromised in the cleavage of glue and thread that holds the signatures of pages together. Even this detail has been taken into consideration by the book’s designer and printer and every page contains the kind of almost holy beauty that makes you believe there is more out there than you and I understand.

This is something to have. And to cherish. Like the cattle themselves.

  • The Nguni of the Makhathini Flats by Ed Schroeder is published by Otterley Press, Pietermaritzburg (2022) and features contributions by Marguerite Poland and layout and design by Ryan Wiggill. Copies of this book are available from Ed Schroeder or via the publication’s website.

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