Category Archives: Lost World

The idea of Antarctica

Invitation image to The Antarctic Kingdom of Gondwanaland
Invitation image to The Antarctic Kingdom of Gondwanaland by Wanda Gillespie

Edgar Allen Poe’s novel ‘The Narrative Of Gordon Pym’ (1838) evokes the belief, prior to the exploration of Antarctica, that a lost civilisation may be contained within its icy borders. Rather than the black-skinned inhabitants of deepest darkest Africa, this furthest reach of the world would reveal a race of Hyperboreans, with a culture that was foreign but comparable to the civilised West.

Poe’s tale concludes when the hero manages to escape the violence of dark-skinned natives by fleeing further south, until the waters mysteriously grew warmer…

The darkness had materially increased, relieved only by the glare of the water thrown back from the white curtain before us.  Many gigantic and pallidly white birds flew continuously now from beyond the veil, and their scream was the eternal Tekeli-li! as they retreated from our vision. Hereupon Nu-Nu stirred in the bottom of the boat; but upon touching him we found his spirit departed. And now we rushed into the embraces of the cataract, where a chasm threw itself open to receive us. But there arose in our pathway a shrouded human figure, very far larger in its proportions than any dweller among men. And the hue of the skin of the figure was of the perfect whiteness of the snow.

Rather than representing the end of the world, the icy wastes of Antarctica would turn out to be a means of keeping this other civilisation isolated from the rest of the globe.

Installation shot of The Antarctic Kingdom of Gondwanaland
Installation shot of The Antarctic Kingdom of Gondwanaland

Today, the artist Wanda Gillespie has revived this myth in an installation at Craft Victoria titled The Antarctic Kingdom of Gondwanaland. The story behind this work is of the discovery of wooden artefacts in Queen Maud Land, Antarctica, as a result of global warming. It is suggested that these objects are from the same period as the ancient civilisations of Sumeria and Egypt. As the artist statement claims, ‘The meticulously crafted objects recovered from three initial archaeological missions suggest the culture may have been a precursor to such modern-day indigenous cultures of the South Pacific as Maori, Aboriginal Australian, Polynesian and East Indonesian.’

While the faces depicted are undeniably of European origin, the hair styles and demeanour suggest a Pacific culture, such as Maori. Gillespie surmises that these objects refer to a ceremony that attempt to ensure the safe passage of a spirit into the afterlife.

It’s a curious racial fantasy that white people preceded other indigenous groups to the South. It does have precedents, such as the notion that the Lost Tribe of Israel fled south thousands of years ago (shared broadly from Cecil Rhodes to Mormons). While the earlier fantasies had clear a imperial agenda, what does it mean to invent one today?

In Australia, the idea of one’s special relation to landscape has been largely given over to its Indigenous peoples, who are granted a privileged, if symbolic, relation to ‘country’. This is relatively easy arrangement for settler Australians as most live in cities, where there is little engagement with land, beyond real estate prices. But it would be argued that this does leave settler Australians with a undeveloped sense of place. Fair enough to give over country to traditional owners, but then what are you still doing here?

Detail of The Antarctic Kingdom of Gondwanaland
Detail of The Antarctic Kingdom of Gondwanaland

Antarctica seems immune to such issues, as it has no indigenous people. It thus provides a blank screen on which to project speculations about place and culture. One of the notable elements of Gillespie’s Hyperborean world is the prevalence of the banksia. This figures strongly in the early colonial imagination, which populated the bush with mysterious figures such as bunyips. So by this detour south, Gillespie seems to return to where she come from. She manages to imbue an otherwise sterile, commodified and urban world with the enchantment that once belonged to traditional societies, who had an active engagement in rites of passage, and believed there was something more than the sum total of individual interests.

As the world continues to warm, it will be interesting to see what more is revealed of this mysterious south.


Wanda Gillespie acknowledges Rodney Glick and Indonesian carver Made Leno (who produced the heads), writer Varia Karipoff and Alastair Boell from the Melbourne Guild of Fine Woodworking. Her website is

Zimbabwe: The Colossus from the North Finds Ruins in the South

If I had a mother,
Oh Time, leave me alone.
She would offer me food when she ate herself,
Oh Time, leave me alone.
It’s only the gods who know,
Oh Time, leave me alone.
She would say, ‘Here you are my child’.

Patrick Chakaipa[1]

Now we take a sideways leap from the South Pacific to Southern Africa. Both parts of the world have evoked lost worlds and so lent themselves to Western primitivism. These romantic visions mask the often violent political realities of colonisation. But while Tahiti has retained its commodified tourist value, Zimbabwe has become symbolic of all that can go wrong in the South. Is the South inherently less civilised?

The history of Zimbabwe reflects a violent opposition between north and south. Once a thriving empire in its own right, Zimbabwe was crushed by northern colonists and is still yet to recover.

image The name Zimbabwe comes from the phrase, dzimba dza mabwe, which means ‘house of stone’. The legendary city of stone known today as Great Zimbabwe has been carbon dated by western methods back to approximately 600 AD. From the thirteenth century, the Maputa Empire traded gold along the Indian Ocean coast, in exchange for goods such as chinaware and Gujarat textiles. In the late 15th century, the empire split into two parts, Changamire in the south (including Great Zimbabwe) and Mwanamutapa in the north. Arabs still populated the trading towns.[2]

Then in the early 16th century, Portuguese traders began to arrive via Mozambique. In response, Swahili traders began to re-direct trade away from Portuguese dominated ports through alternative routes north. This began the decline of the Maputa Empire. Eventually, the Ndebele, fleeing the Zulu king Shaka, invaded and established their empire of Matabeleland.

image The British arrived in 1880s with Cecil Rhodes’ British South Africa Company. With intimations of the apartheid to come, Rhodes announced in 1887 that ‘the native is to be treated as a child and denied the franchise’

Zimbabwe was a special prize for Rhodes. He subscribed to the myth of the lost tribe of Israel in which the South is seen to contain remnants of Biblical stories. The legendary city of Ophir, the source of King Solomon’s wealth, was presumed to be that of Great Zimbabwe. The quest for biblical wealth became the subject of the novel King Solomon’s Mine by Ryder Haggard.

After having appropriated the Promised Land for Britain, Cecil Rhodes was given a burial that reflected both black and white cultures.[3] His body was carried north by train along his own railway in Bechuanaland (called by Rhodes ‘the Suez of the South’). The body of Rhodes was placed immediately after the engine, ‘so that even in death the great leader still led the way northward’. He was eventually buried in the Matopo hills, a traditional manner signifying his status as a deity of the land. In his will and testament, Rhodes proclaimed a universal Anglo-Saxon world government that would reunite Europe and the USA.

Rhodes’ colleague Lord Baden-Powell pursued the theatre of empire in Rhodesia during the Second Matabele War, when he established the art of scoutcraft to be taught to young boys. It was here that he fashioned the fleur de-lis as the emblem of his movement, so that the boys would always know the way north, no matter how far away they were from England.

Rhodes’ land eventually became Rhodesia, notorious for the apartheid rule of Ian Smith. In 1950, Doris Lessing’s first novel, the Grass is Singing, evoked the hatred fostered between black and white:

When old settlers say ‘One has to understand the country ‘, what they mean is, ‘You have to get used to our ideas about the native.’…

When it came to the point, one never had contact with natives, except in the master-servant relationship. One never knew them in their own lives, as human beings. A few months, and these sensitive, decent young men had coarsened to suit the hard, arid, sun-drenched country they had come to; they had grown a new manner to match their thickened sunburnt limbs and toughened bodies.[4]

image In the midst of this cold regime there were attempts to celebrate Shona culture. In 1966, the free-spirited Frank McEwen arrived from Paris where he brought a passion for primitivism to his new position as Director of the Art Gallery of Rhodesia. Seeking to engage the local culture, McEwen encouraged some museum guards to start carving soapstone and then started exhibiting their dreamlike creations. For Thomas Mukarobgwa sculptor McEwen, their ‘adult child art’ drew from the dormant cultures of Great Zimbabwe.[5] Freed of art education, their creations were ‘born directly, locally, from natural elements in the virgin ground’. McEwen organised successful exhibitions of their work in Europe and thriving market for their work ensued.

image While successful abroad, Shona sculpture is seen as disconnected from the political realities of life in Rhodesia.[6] A new generation of writers sought to depict the tensions between black and white, urban and rural. Charles Mungoshi’s The Setting Sun and the Rolling World reflects changes and separated generations. The father tries to convince his son to work the land, though he knows there is no future there

The sun was setting slowly, bloody red, blunting and blurring all the objects that had looked sharp in the light of day. Soon a chilly wind would blow over the land and the cold cloudless sky would send down beads of frost like white ants over the unprotected land.[7]

image Such divisions also separate writers themselves. Charles William Dambudzo Marechera was widely celebrated when he arrived in Europe brimming with negritude. He would say, ‘If you are a writer for a specific nation or a specific race, then fuck you.’ This nihilism was criticised in turn as an embrace of European modernism and denial of his roots.

image On the other hand, the playwright Ngugi wa Mirii remained in Africa to pioneer community theatre, particularly in Kenya. Until his recent death in a car accident, he was one of the most revered writers by the ZANU-PF movement.

While deeply divided over allegiances to global north and south, Zimbabwean culture has its own internal bearings. Shona traditions located the realm of the departed in two different regions.[8] Kubashikufwa is the land of ghosts deep underground, while Kwiwi is the land to the East is where the creator resides.

The South itself has particular meaning for the Venda, who journeyed into South Africa.[9] Their trek was accompanied by a drum called Ngowtu-lungundu, seen to play a role similar to the Arc of the Covenant. It was critically important that the drum never touch the ground in their southward journey.

image From the West, there are few countries in the world that seem as dysfunctional as Zimbabwe. The dispossession of white farmers and officially condoned violence seems to fulfil the worst prejudices of previous generations. Some allowance needs to be made for the fear and distrust that brewed during apartheid. But the challenge now is find a voice for Zimbabwe beyond fear and pity. The Chinese don’t seem troubled by this, and are happy to get down to business regardless of politics. When will the western world be open again to the words, songs, images and objects that emerge from this historic land?

The idea of South in Zimbabwe begins with a mythical lost world, which then unravels to a hell of violence and misery. Can we see beyond this idea to find a Zimbabwe of the future?


Thanks to David Jamali for his advice and encouragement. As the Zimbabwean proverb goes, ‘An elephant’s tusks are never too heavy for it’.

Next: Uruguay

[1] G. P. Kahari ‘Tradition, and Innovation in Shona Literature: Chakaipa’s Karikoga Gumiremiseve’ Zambezia , 2: 2, pp. 47-54

[2] Randall L. Pouwels ‘The Medieval Foundations of East African Islam’ The International Journal of African Historical Studies (1978) 11: 2, pp. 201-226

[3] Terence Ranger ‘Taking Hold of the Land: Holy Places and Pilgrimages in Twentieth-Century Zimbabwe’ Past and Present (1987) 117, pp. 158-194

[4] Doris Lessing The Grass is Singing Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1961 (orig. 1950), pp. 18-19

[5] Frank McEwen ‘Shona Art Today’ African Arts (1972) 5: 4, pp. 8-11

[6] Carole Pearce ‘The Myth of ‘Shona Sculpture” Zambezia (1993) 20: 107, pp. 85-103

[7] Charles Mungoshi The Setting Sun And The Rolling World : Heinemann International, 1989, p. 93

[8] Denys Shropshire ‘The Bantu Conception of the Supra-Mundane World’ Journal of the Royal African Society 1931, 30: 118, pp. 58-68

[9] A. G. Schutte ‘Mwali in Venda: Some Observations on the Significance of the High God in Venda History’ Journal of Religion in Africa Vol. 9, Fasc. 2. (1978), pp. 109-122.