Walter Battiss retrospective at the Standard Bank Gallery
by Robyn Sassen
In one of the downstairs exhibition spaces of the Standard Bank Gallery in Johannesburg, there is a small sequential silk-screened image of a flower being ravished by an elephant. Or is it the elephant being ravished by the flower? It is this delightful, sexual nonsense that sets the tone for the Walter Battiss retrospective. Entitled 'Gentle Anarchist', the exhibition is an astutely curated showcase of the many faces and abilities of Battiss.
Conceived along the lines of the Chagall, Mirò and Stern exhibitions of the last few years, the Standard Bank's Battiss retrospective is both a showing of Battiss' work and the promotion of the visual arts to a mainstream public. In 2000, the Chagall exhibition drew a record 800 visitors to its opening event and over 13000 visitors during the show's run. This October, the Battiss show welcomed over 1000 guests on opening night.
Curated by Professor Emeritus Dr. Karen Skawran - who was a student, colleague and friend of Battiss - the show is comprehensive and manifests a fittingly joyous celebration of Battiss' digressions from formal fine art. The gallery's upper storey contains a broad chronology of Battiss' development. Its central space is adorned with tapestries by Marguerite Stephens, interpreting selected Battiss works. One downstairs space is dedicated to photographs of the artist and Fook objects, including the inimitable typewriter altered by Battiss in Fook irreverence. The other downstairs spaces contain silk-screened works.
Born in 1906 in Somerset East, Battiss only attained a formal degree in Fine Arts at the age of 32, which was also more or less the time that he first travelled overseas. The more formal his status became in the artworld - he eventually became professor and head of the Fine Arts department at Unisa, where he remained for several years - the less formal became his art. This dovetailing of subversion and maturity relate to Battiss' awareness of the destructive censorship in South Africa, which grew ever tighter under the apartheid régime.
It was at the height of apartheid in the mid-1970s, that Battiss promulgated Fook - a celebration of freedom in a fantasy place. Naming himself King Ferd III, Norman Catherine as Norman King Norman and Linda Givon of the Goodman Gallery as Queen Asteroa, Battiss grew Fook from a name he found randomly in the telephone book. From these Dada-like beginnings he developed a litany of Fookianisms which spilt delightfully over into happenings, art objects, bureaucracy and erotica. There were Fook passports, recipes, currency and stamps, linguistics and poetry, to name just a little of the richness of this culture.
In many respects, the Fook legacy in Battiss' found objects, watercolours and screen-prints is more of a drawcard than his earlier works. Fun to look at, conflating elements of taboo in the complicated figure compositions, which offer an orgiastic sense of colour together with its variously contorted and co-mingled sexualised bodies, the later work represents a culmination of Battiss' thinking processes and belief systems. That said, the curator doesn't allow this element of the show to topple its focus. The exhibition, comprising close to 300 works, achieves a didactic yet fresh balance of insights into Battiss.
It is accompanied by two publications - an anthology of essays, edited by Skawran and written by scholars and Fookians in the field, and a learners' supplement. Written by Philippa Hobbs, this provides an overview into the life and times of Battiss, not pulling punches, quite surprisingly, with the erotica. This booklet is devoid of the playful quirkiness of its predecessors, however, but the charm of the work itself carries the publication.
One comes away from this exhibition with a sensual happiness that is coloured by Battiss' unadulterated sense of possibility. The work avoids cliché or trite by virtue of its gentle sense of taboo and its often ludicrous manifestation of sexuality in all shapes and forms. Perhaps this reflects on today's spirit of permissiveness, but perhaps it reflects on how far Battiss as thinker and optimist was ahead of his times. He died in 1982.
Opens: October 20
Closes: December 3
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