Arts and Culture 2007-2015


HALF ART: "Sex at Dawn" and "Daughters"

First appeared
Friday, 03 July 2015


The neat summaries supplied by media coverage of books tend to do a disservice to complex topics or arguments. This certainly applies to Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality. The book, by spouses and co-authors Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethà, is often presented as an academic endorsement of promiscuity – based on the idea that our ancestors didn’t practice or advocate monogamy until the advent of agriculture some 10 000 years ago.

The image thus conjured is of troops of peace-loving, libidinous proto-hippies living in nomadic foraging communities where everyone slept with everyone and it didn’t matter who was the father of which child. Enter farming, the concept of land ownership, the passing of property from father to son, and – over time – the patriarchal-capitalist complex that continues to degrade and disempower women. 

In an interview with The Daily Maverick published last week, Ryan was careful to assert that a long view of human sexuality (and comparison with the sexual behaviours of other species) can help couples to “reframe their relationship. People who haven’t read the book think it advocates polyamory or swinging, but ... we are not arguing against monogamy ... Once you understand your nature, and where sexual feelings come from, it is easier to control them if you choose to.”

Ryan and Jethà’s book seems, then, to offer two unobjectionable contributions to discussions about human sexuality. On the individual level, it suggests that monogamous marriage and parenting “can be an excellent decision morally, ethically, health-wise and on many different levels” (Ryan draws an analogy between monogamy and vegetarianism) but that it is a decision undertaken, at least in part, in conflict with our sexual hardwiring.

On the collective level – perhaps one could say on the level of historiography, socio-economic analysis and even political activism – it suggests that there was a time when human societies were not structurally unequal in terms of sex and gender: when male sexual jealousy and violence, and female objectification and subordination, weren’t an inevitable consequence of commerce. 

As noted by reviewers who are familiar with the existing scholarship on which Sex at Dawn draws, or to which it is a response, Ryan and Jethà may be painting a rather-too-rosy picture of what life was (or is, or would be) like in foraging or non-agrarian societies practising “partible paternity”. There are plenty of examples to demonstrate that inter-group warfare and gender-based violence are universal and not linked solely to notions of property and possession.

Nonetheless, these connections do exist; in a South African context, they cast new light on the relationship between land ownership, sexual conquest, sexism and racial identity – both in the colonial past and the neo-apartheid present. They manifest in particularly interesting and poignant ways in new works by Heike Allerton Davies and Robert Hamblin, exhibited simultaneously at Lizamore & Associates (Jan Smuts Avenue, until 27 July).

In Daughters, Allerton Davies continues her engagement with the contradiction-ridden farmlands of the Western Cape: from one perspective a rural idyll, from another a concentration of centuries-old exploitation and misery (she lives in the Dwarsrivier Valley, between Stellenbosch and Franschhoek). Streaks of cobalt-turquoise blue connect her paintings aesthetically and thematically.

There is the blue of the sea on which colonial ships sailed. The blue of broken Delft porcelain, shards of which are churned up from the soil in the valley during ploughing, dates to the era of slavery in which the race and class dynamics of the region were established. Then there is the blue of Allerton Davies’ eyes, which she has bequeathed to her daughter, but which they also share with some of the “coloured” farm labourers – testament to a history of sex undermining formal segregation.

Hamblin’s Daughter Language reflects on what it means to encounter racial barriers in a different way: as the adoptive (white) father of a (black) child “of Xhosa descent”. Superimposed on portraits of Hamblin and his family are handwritten entries from an old Xhosa-English phrasebook once used by missionaries in the Eastern Cape.

These tender and intimate but not sentimental images of parents and daughters demand of the viewer a sympathy and a critical acumen beyond the phallocentric anxiety about “the boy child” presented by Sex at Dawn.



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