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Face Value: Old Heads in Modern Masks: A Visual, Archaeological and Historical Reading of the Lydenburg Heads
Malcolm Payne; essays by Patricia Davison and Martin Hall
Cape Town: Axeage Private Press, 1993
Malcolm Payne’s Face Value is a hand-made book with fourteen copper plate etchings, plus seven etched renderings of his sculptural series, the Mafikeng heads, and essays by curator Patricia Davison, archaeologist Martin Hall, and Payne. The etchings were printed on Zerkal Buetten paper by Paulus Paas. Kathy Abdolaziz set the text in Garamond, and Omega Arts did the lithography. The binding is quarter brown Morocco leather with patterned paper-covered boards, bound by Peter Carstens. The book has a cloth-covered slipcase. Published by the Axeage Press, Face Value fulfills the philosophy of the press: to bridge the divide between art and science. The artist’s book was originally presented as part of an installation at the South African National Gallery in 1993.
Anvils, Hammers, Shovels, and Spanners
Payne plays with imagery of the Lydenburg terracotta heads, which were found outside the town of Lydenburg in Mpumalanga, South Africa, in the 1950s and are now in the South African Museum in Cape Town. They have been dated to 500 A.D. Their meaning is unknown to us today. They remain mysterious and mute. They have been interpreted variously as tokens of dead civilizations or as examples of past cultural accomplishments. Yet these appropriations are unstable and can be pried loose, which is precisely what Payne does.
Payne’s own series of hollow clay heads, which he calls the Mafikeng heads (1987-1988), pay tribute to the Lydenburg heads. With the Mafikeng heads he reduces the inverted pot form of the Lydenburg heads to abstract, minimalist heads, using smooth surfaces unlike the finely decorated Lydenburg heads. While the Lydenburg heads have small top knots or superstructures, Payne’s Mafikeng heads have larger, more complex superstructure sculptures replete with imagery of violence and industry—anvils, hammers, shovels, and spanners.
Creating Chaos Out of Order
Each of the copper-plate etchings presents an ellipse centered on a rectangular background. Circles or rondels are positioned in the four corners of the rectangle and variously, outside the perimeter of the print. The central ellipses inside the rectangles are replete with images such as gorillas, rhinos, rib cages, skulls, spiders, chains, nooses, dice, flames, crosses, gum boots, gears, dollar signs, and, of course, frequent depictions of Lydenburg heads. Collectively, these images and the etchings offer no continuous narrative. Payne borrows images as icons, not for the purpose of telling a story but to let the context suggest histories and connections, “to make language subservient to image.” He is not seeking to celebrate the exquisiteness of the Lydenburg heads or to erase cultural boundaries. His project “examines the historical past, but does so in clear recognition that this will always be ideological. The substance of this project is perhaps to constitute some psycho-cultural sense of this time in South Africa.” 
Payne is interested in South Africa’s mining history, in tunneling, in industrial imagery. His appropriations and juxtapositions of forms are intentionally opaque. The Lydenburg heads have form that can be appropriated but their meaning remains unknown. He believes in “creating chaos out of order” rather than creating order out of chaos. Order is dominating; chaos has a liberating effect of creativity.
Patricia Davison’s essay “Fragments: An Archaeological Biography” (pages 17-28) tells the archaeological story of the Lydenburg heads and walks us through their recent historiography. She elaborates on the museum setting for the Lydenburg heads (the South African Museum) where they have been displayed without context or aesthetic sensibility.
Interpreting the past and ascribing meaning to artifacts such as the 1,500-year-old Lydenburg heads are frustratingly elusive exercises. Davison offers some reasonable propositions about the heads’ symbolic power of chieftainship or as ceremonial objects in initiation rituals. The inverted pots-as-heads may have gendered implications of role reversal. The original significance of the Lydenburg heads cannot be explained, but the aesthetics cannot be ignored.
Tails and Heads
In “Tails and Heads, Bodies and Landscapes” (pages 33-55), Martin Hall discusses the historical interpretations made by outsiders of Great Zimbabwe and other ancient sites and antiquities in southern Africa that presented mysteries. The discovery and reception of the Lydenburg heads in the 1950s lies in stark contrast to discoveries twenty-five years earlier at Great Zimbabwe, which elicited great excitement. The mythologies surrounding the European discovery of Great Zimbabwe in the nineteenth century—which entwined Queen of Sheba, King Solomon, Prester John, and Rider Haggard’s “lost civilization”—were fundamentally racist propositions that Africans could not have built Great Zimbabwe. By the time of the discovery of the Lydenburg heads, the discourse had shifted; the “lost civilization” trope was replaced by the dry analytical Iron Age archaeological framework. But the obscuring veil was not lifted on these silent Lydenburg terracottas.
About the Artist
Born in Pretoria, South Africa, in 1946, Malcolm Payne is a sculptor, printmaker, and video artist and is described as “key figure in [South Africa’s] experimental and conceptual practice.” He majored in printmaking at the Tshwane University of Technology and later trained at St. Martins School of Art, London, 1972. Payne taught at the Johannesburg College of Art, the University of Witwatersrand, and the University of Bophuthatswana before moving to Cape Town to teach at Michaelis School of Fine Art. Payne claims being influenced by Walter Battiss, Marcel Duchamp, and Jeff Mpakati.
About the Authors
Patricia Davison (born 1944), long-time anthropological curator at the South African Museum (later promoted to executive director of Iziko Museums of South Africa), is renowned for her research and publications on South African material culture, history of collections, and museum practice.
Martin Hall (born 1952) is a British archaeologist specializing in southern African history and civilizations. He taught for many years at the University of Cape Town and has been active in the South African Archaeological Society and in the World Archaeological Congress. He has also served in a variety of university administrative posts and is currently the vice-chancellor at the University of Salford in England.
Hall, Martin. “From Lydenburg to Mafikeng: Appropriations of Images of the Past.” In Transgressing Boundaries: New Directions in the Study of Culture in Africa, edited by Brenda Cooper, pages 116-135. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1996. Includes a response by Patricia Davison, "Talking Heads: A Response to Martin Hall," pages 134-135.
Payne, Malcolm. “Art Can Slit the Throat of Discourse,” Art South Africa (Cape Town) 8 (3) (autumn 2010): pages 48-57. [interview]
Payne, Malcolm. “Face Value and Mistaken Identity.” Artworks in Progress: The Yearbook of the Staff of the Michaelis School of Fine Art (Cape Town) no. 4 (1994-1995): pages 26-29.
Payne, Malcolm. “Face Value: Old Heads in Modern Masks.” In Transgressing Boundaries: New Directions in the Study of Culture in Africa, edited by Brenda Cooper, pages 136-140, 219. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1996.
Payne, Malcolm. “The Pleasure of Malcolm Payne: Interview with the Artist Recovering the Present.” De arte (Pretoria) no. 54 (September 1996): pages 43-51.
Powell, Ivor. “Double Jeopardy.” In Face Value: An Exhibition by Malcolm Payne, pages 8-27. Cape Town: Axeage Private Press, 1993.
 Along with the book, there were the seven Lydenburg terracotta heads from the collection of the South African Museum; seven Mafikeng clay heads from the artist’s series (1987-1988), seven supermarket trolleys, seven “context” drawings, and a one meter-diameter black dot painted on the wall.
 Malcolm Payne, “Face Value: Old Heads in Modern Masks,” in Transgressing Boundaries: New Directions in the Study of Culture in Africa, edited by Brenda Cooper (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1996), page 138.
 Malcolm Payne, “Art Can Slit the Throat of Discourse,” Art South Africa (Cape Town) 8 (3) (autumn 2010): page 48.