Imagination as Weapon

Lucinda Jolly | Cape Times, 26 June 2015

It Begins with Battiss, an exhibition featuring works by Walter Battiss in conversation with works by AVANT CAR GUARD, WILLEM BOSHOFF,WIM BOTHA, FREDERIC BRULY BOUABRÉ ,NORMAN CATHERINE, JULIA ROSA CLARK, CHAD ROSSOUW, CECIL SKOTNES ,GERALD MACHONA curated by Candice Allison and Kirsty Cockerill at The New Church Museum  until August 25.

“Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere”. Albert Einstein

The idea for the exhibition “It Begins with Battiss” began, as the title suggests, with works by the artist Walter Battiss. At first the curators Candice Allison and Kirsty Cockerill were going to exhibit only Battiss’s work. But the subsequent conversations around his importance as an artist and his relevance to contemporary South Africa shifted this idea to include other artists who were in some way connected to Battiss whether thematically or in approach. All artists on show are from the African continent at large and South Africa specifically.

In “It Begins with Batiss” the six rooms that comprise The New Church Museum gallery have been thematically conceived and laid out. The first two front rooms introduce the exhibition. Battiss’s untitled “Abstract” and “Athens” paintings with their schematic figures, shapes, squares, squiggles lines and dabs are indicative of Battiss’s early fascination with San art and its abstracted schematic renderings whose purposes are still not entirely clear. Battiss wrote two significant books on San art. He lived among these first people and copied many original rock paintings whose importance has increased given that some of the originals no longer exist. At the time of copying them he was criticised and questioned- in keeping with the prevailing ethos of the era- for wasting his time on what was pejoratively termed “primitive art.”

The ethos of the second room is around the esoteric and spiritual and includes Wim Botha’s “Machine” a suspended winged sculpture with Botha’s signature, a clamped and layered head bust and Cecil Skotnes’s drawing “Robben Island” from the Robben Island series in which Christ’s crucifixion parallels the sacrifices and fates of political prisoners on the island.

Fook Island- an imaginary island- was created by Battiss in the early ‘70’s after a visit to the Seychelles at the height of South Africa’s oppression. It had its own creatures, an alphabet based on Southern Arabic and San rock art, language, currency and passport.

Seminal to the third room is the juxtaposition of Avant Car Guard’s “Done” with “Cosmic Fookism” by Battiss. “Done” is a satirical statement written on an irregular fragment of cloth which mocks the process of the take- itself-too -seriously art world. “Cosmic Fookism”,a handwritten manifesto by Battiss, explains the fundamentals of Fook Island. Battiss would probably have been amused at their summary about him in primary coloured rough text, similar in content to graffiti. It reads, Walter Battiss = ker-razy white + dead x fat.

The main room is conceived around the geographical layout of the island. The curators have cleverly partnered an early watercolour of mine dumps by Battiss with a later silkscreen of the imaginary island showing the influence of the mine dump shapes on the volcanic shape of Fook Island.

Establishing imaginary places seems to be part of the human psyche, a phenomena not restricted to nationality or culture. There is even a dictionary of imaginary places. Cote Ivorian Frederic Bruly Bouabre may not have invented an imaginary island but invented his own phonetic alphabet and religion after receiving a vision. A series of post card size drawings (of which he made hundreds) is displayed .All places imaginary or real need a flag and Gerald Machona’s “Flagged Nation” provides a satirical flag made from decommissioned Zim dollars anchored in a pile of pristine white sand the kind found on paradisical beaches as does Julia Rosa Clarke’s mixed media “Midnight Flag” (the Spoils) or “White Flag” (the Squall).

The main upstairs room is structured around the theme of words featuring Battiss’s “Island Alphabet” based on Southern Arabic and San rock art in conjunction with other pieces such as Willem Boshoff’s “Blind Alphabet”.  Chad Rossouw’s work known for creating puns and irony by fictionalising existing places through  inserting foreign elements and playing with historical time periods is  seen in  his work titled   “6.18pm,2014” engraved in ancient Roman script on a faux piece of marble.

The upstairs balcony exhibits the “Fook Book” snug in its bible black button down material cover. The very act of opening it becomes synonymous with a seduction, button by button.  In lieu of handling the actual book the viewer is invited to examine it via a video where each page is turned by the gloved hand of the curator. In this context the experience takes on the feel of a peep show. Considering that the subject matter involves images of naked adolescent boys and girls defaced in a Pop art style. No doubt all very innocent on the part of the artist. Given the increasing and ongoing exposure of abuse of adolescents by media and sports giants and clergy, these pieces take on a disturbing and uncomfortable edge.

For the most part, Battiss’s subject matter shies away from the dark with the exception of the undated painting titled “Pretoria” where his usual abstracted dots lines dabs and squares suggest that something threatening looms.

Of what relevance is Battiss to the contemporary, technologically advanced generation where inventions such as Oculus Rift, a device that allows the wearer to experience, as if first hand, virtual reality? Highly relevant. His approach reminds that all technology begins in the imagination.

Battiss who was known to reject conventionality and to challenge boundaries believing that “conforming often gives people a certain security…And I like living in insecurity “and who disregarded most contemporary art of the time except Pop art  described Fook Island as “the island that is inside all of us” . He was not a political animal and the island was “not intended as an overt political statement” but Battiss would have been aware and troubled by the social and political climate of the time .The idea of investing energy in an imaginary island at a time when the majority of South African’s lives were at risk may have seem an absurd response to an equally absurd conditions. But it has its own logic. Fighting the absurdity of an inhumane system with absurdity of the imagination is a bit like a homeopathic remedy. The spaciousness of imagination becomes a powerful weapon where anything is possible for as the old saying goes if you can dream it…..  When autonomy or the sovereignty of the self and vision are compromised by circumstances the democracy of the imagination reminds us that inner autonomy is sometimes the only thing one has and that it cannot ever be taken away.

Battiss may be considered an innocent in in his openness but he was never naïve. In an interview with Elaine Davie 34 years ago Battiss said “Some look upon my art as a fun thing, but the fun is only the surface of something very much deeper… I’ll leave it to the future to discover that it’s much more than that.”

That future is here. At a time in our own history where vision and scope are ignored, absent or severely compromised it’s vitally important that we revisit imagination for solutions. This is a good place to begin, with Battiss.

Go see.