Sharmini Brookes: The Wits Art Museum exhibition on Walter Battiss (6 July – 9 October 2016) is displaying over 700 works from the private collection of Jack Ginsberg.

Jack Ginsberg, a long-standing collector and supporter of contemporary arts in South Africa and founder in 1997 of The Ampersand Foundation (TAF), came from a literary family but developed an interest in art and started his collection of Battiss in his teens. At that time Battiss, a larger than life figure, was not formally political but was anti-censorship; believing that apartheid could not have existed without censorship. His ‘erotic’ artworks were produced specifically to challenge the apartheid censors.

Warren Siebrits, well-known Johannesburg art consultant and dealer and publisher curates this exhibition. Taking on this task was somewhat nerve-racking even for someone with his knowledge and experience as there have been 53 books published on Battiss. Luck was on his side when he came across 103 letters by Battiss to his 36-year-old male confidante in London. It proved to be a treasure trove documenting his life away from art and revealing information about the making of the work. These letters had never been published before but provided a way into presenting Battiss, the artist and the man, to the public. His decision to present the work chronologically avoided having to speak on behalf of the artist; instead he has allowed the work and its development over time to speak for itself. As someone who visits museums I find this an admirable way of presenting an artist’s work as contrary to the current popular trend where curators impose their view of the work by organising around ‘themes’ that are currently in vogue, this perhaps more old-fashioned way of presenting an artist’s work allows the audience to make up their own minds by situating the work in its specific social period and picking up on contemporary influences on the artist.

The exhibition takes us through 5 distinct phases. We see his initial interest in primitivism and rock art that grew from his early childhood spent swimming in streams and climbing the ravines and kloofs around the family farm in Koffiefontein in the south western Orange Free State. There are also some very good black and white photographs on show. Battiss is meant to have said ‘All I wanted in life was to be a good landscape painter but I kept reinventing myself.’ As we move through the exhibition we see the variety and exuberance of his many talents: drawing and printmaking (Giraffes in the Rain), delicate watercolours (the pink flamingos), conceptual art, silk screens, inventing his own ‘Fookian’ language and Imaginary Fook Island as a kind of escape from the apartheid censors and ending with his protest against what the censors thought most offensive in a room showcasing his erotic art. Having been one of the only South Africans to have met Picasso in Paris in 1949 and being one of the rare few invited to his studio, he realised that one could work comfortably in six to eight different styles in one day. The lithograph ‘Yellow Afternoon’ and the silkscreen ‘Basuto Village’ show this influence in his works. He made the colourful oil on board painting of ‘African Paradise’ in the 60’s inspired by his travels in around Africa and Arabia. It’s one of the largest canvases on display and has the look of a work of tapestry. The exhibit of 50 silk screens recreated here from the pages of a book was a result of his trip to Greece.

In the display cabinets one finds many other memorabilia of interest – books, sculpture, found treasures like the dark chocolate coco de mer which he also painted because of its erotic suggestiveness.

This is a wonderful exhibition of modern art from one of South Africa’s foremost modern artists and is a tribute too to the exuberance of the collector Jack Ginsberg and the knowledgeable curatorship of Walter Siebrits. At a time when those in power appear to be bringing back censorship and when so many people seem to take offence so easily, a visit to the Battiss Exhibition may remind us all why we should stand up free expression and the right to offend.

The exhibition ‘Walter Battisss: ‘I invented myself’ is on at the Wits Arts Museum and open to the public from 6 July – 9 October 2016.

The exhibition is accompanied by a 340-page illustrated book at a cost of R1500 but is available for the duration of the exhibition at a special price of R1000. Battiss merchandise such as scarves, T-shirts, crockery, wrapping paper and postcards will also be on sale and a screen-print of Battiss’ Fook Script in a numbered edition of 100 will be sold for WAM fund raising and the collection will become part of WAM’s permanent holdings to form the nucleus of a major Walter Battiss archive available for research purposes.

A second exhibition ‘The Origins of Walter Battiss: ‘Another Curious Palimsest’ will also be on display at the Origins Centre from 9 June.

Sharmini Brookes
Freelance writer
078 477 6938