Posts Tagged ‘visual arts theory’

penny siopis

Biography

Penny Siopis is a South African of Greek descent. She was born in 1953 in Vryburg in the northern Cape. She mainly focuses on issues of race and gender, both in history and contemporary society. She also uses many different media and techniques to explore these themes, such as painting, photography, lithographs, film/video and installation of found objects.

Her earlier work, in the 1980’s, is characterized by her still lives, Baroque banquet paintings and ironical history paintings, focusing on questions of race and gender, as represented in public history, and memory. Her later works shows a  concern with shame, violence and sexuality.

Infleunces

The themes of Penny’s work were influenced by the social environment in South Africa and especially by how women were treated and viewed throughout history and in contemporary South Africa. In her earlier work her style of painting was characteristic of classic Baroque style but used purposely as a comment on how the visual interpretation of gender and race in itself was a selective perception, and also a form of discrimination.  By using the tradition of Western painting with its illusion of reality, she focuses our attention on prejudices often visually mis-represented in Western traditional art. Her later work shows influences of Japanese prints and is painted in an Expressionistic style.

Aims and Characteristics

Through her work Penny covers diverse areas of focus, and themes, reflecting the social and political changes in South Africa. She also uses many different media and techniques to explore these varied themes. She also used random objects in her work, to comment on colonialism, gender, and discriminatory practices of all kinds. To Penny Siopis each found object has its own past, and once played a role in someone’s life. Possessions embodies people’s personal memories and experiences, but have also become a part of the wider social history and symbolism.

Brief Outline of Penny Siopis Work:

Cakes: Tapers, 1982, Oil and candles on canvas

Cakes: Tapers, 1982, Oil and candles on canvas

1980”s; Her early work in the 80’s were of mainly of cakes. Her family owned a bakery. Penny Siopis became well known for her Baroque banquet paintings such as “Melancholia” during this period. The subjects of Siopis’s artworks during the mid 80’s were mainly banquets, painted in oil with incredible attention to detail.

Penny_Siopis still life watermelons

Still-life with water-melon and other things, 1985, Rembrandt Van Rijn Art Collection

In these paintings with their rich colour, she copies the texture of lace cloths and doilies, using a domestic icing syringe and literally wove the patterns out of paint. In these Baroque Banquets, the paint becomes the embodiment of emotion. The Paint also becomes a metaphor for the human body, as the thick oil paint dries rapidly on the surface and dries very slowly on the inside, just like emotional hurt seemingly heals on the surface but inside it takes a long time to heal. This also evokes associations with other organic matter, flesh, in particular, that changes in time, congealing, forming skins, and losing its juices.

The impasto brushwork makes real shadows that add to the dramatic painted shadows.

Her work during this time period already showed her interest in  gender issues as well as her interest in objects used as a metaphor, comparing the way in which women’s bodies are offered, to the presentation of food at banquets.

Melancholia, (1986), Oil on canvas

Melancholia, (1986), Oil on canvas

After she returned from her 6 month stay in France,  she painted a series of “Ironic History,” commenting on the mis-representation of history, by Western patriarchal society. Examples of this period is “Piling Wreckage upon Wreckage,””Dora and the Other Woman” and “Patience on a Monument.”  She used random objects in her work, which commented on colonialism, gender, and discriminatory practices of all kinds.

Piling Wreckage upon Wreckage

Piling Wreckage upon Wreckage

1990’s: In the next stage of her development she extended her range of media from oil paints and collage techniques, and incorporated her  love of details, of debris, and of layers of association, to include monumental installations of found objects, film and video.

“Long I have been intrigued with the idea of an object as narrator. As the saying goes, “If walls (chairs, lamps, cutlery, or bowls) could talk, what tales they would tell?”

Reconnaissance (1990-1997), Installation

Reconnaissance (1990-1997), Installation

To Siopis each found object has its own past, and once played a role in a life, and embody personal memories and experiences, but  have become a part of social history. Cumulatively, massed together in wall embrasures, built into mounds or strewn across a floor, the different objects which make up Siopis’ installations become integral parts of a new whole. History and personal memory are dissected, autopsied and diagnosed.  Her film “Verwoerd Speaks” which was produced for the exhibition “Truth Veils” at Wits University, coinciding with the TRC: “Commissioning the Past“. The film shows her interest in the ‘found’ object as symbolic of the transition between public and private.

Definition of Installation art: It can be either temporary or permanent. Installation artworks have been constructed in exhibition spaces such as museums and galleries, as well as public and private spaces. The genre incorporates a broad range of everyday and natural materials, which are often chosen for their “evocative” qualities, thus making a statement about something. Installations also includes new media such as video, sound, performance, immersive virtual reality and the internet. Many installations are site-specific in that they are designed to exist only in the space for which they were created. – Encyclopedia

“The expression of history in things is no other than that of past torment”.

Model Prisoners, (2002) Lithograph

Model Prisoners, (2002) Lithograph

2000 – 2007: The next stage of her development is represented by her “Pinky Pinky” and “Shame” series which incorporate most of the techniques typical to her artworks;  oil paint and found objects – as well as glass paint and lithographs. In her Pinky Pinky series, she explores issues surrounding gender and the vulnerability of young teenagers in South Africa. ‘Pinky Pinky’ is described by Siopis as an urban legend which is constantly invented and reinvented through the telling of the story. It can be described as a hybrid creature: half human, half animal and being neither female nor male but both simultaneously.

“Pinky Pinky: on all fours,” (2007), Mixed Media

“Pinky Pinky: on all fours,” (2007), Mixed Media

The “Shame”series is visually beautiful because of the free forms and colours, but ugly in its message. The duality serves to represent the beauty and intimacy a girl’s body can encapsulate, but also the violence that can destroy it.

Penny Siopis. Shame series, Mixed media on paper

Penny Siopis. Shame series, Mixed media on paper

siopis06a

In these series of paintings she use thickly applied oil paint to create  almost three dimensional forms, and almost tactile texture to explore her interest in prejudice, shame and “moral panic”. In these works she explores the psychology of ‘shame’ and ‘a poetics of vulnerability’,The predominating colours are pink and red. The effect created by these techniques makes the paintings feel alive with a close reference to flesh and skin. She explains her choice of medium by saying:

“Paint acts as flesh: It dries slowly, and is moist underneath for years. Eventually it cracks and wrinkles”.

One of the films included in the installation, To Walk Naked, is a short documentary about a particular instance in apartheid South Africa in which a group of black woman stripped in front of white policemen intent on bulldozing their homes, using their nakedness and ‘shame’ as a weapon of resistance.

Spirit, ( 2009), Ink and glue on canvas

Spirit, ( 2009), Ink and glue on canvas

2007 – 2009: Her work during this period becomes more Expressionistic and is focused on giving expression to intense emotional states. In a series in which she describes as a ‘human tableau’ she focus on issues of emotional, sexual and physical abuse. She uses the associative and symbolic qualities of both her imagery and her chosen materials, including oils, liquid ink washes and viscous glue, to express her subjects. The process itself becomes important to her explorations.

“I start simply by being struck by an image. Something odd, curious, dramatic. The image can come from newspapers, books, movies, magazines, other art, my imagination or direct experiences. Many of these images are at once violent, erotic, tragic and beautiful. They are atavistic and elemental as well as social and analytical at the same time. Many allegorise deep human experiences like collapse, disorder, decay and formlessness. Process, chance and materiality (literally paint, ink, canvas, paper, glue acting on a surface) excite me, especially when unpredictable. I value this unpredictability. It creates a vital tension or energy between form and formlessness, balancing them on a knife-edge.”

Yoshitoshi yanagibashi, Shinryu nijushi toki (1880)

Yoshitoshi yanagibashi, Shinryu nijushi toki (1880)

Little Flame, (2010), Ink and glue on canvas

Little Flame, (2010), Ink and glue on canvas

2010:  Her work has great changes from the 1980’s and although the female subject is still at the centre of her work, her aesthetic and techniques has shifted dramatically. In her exhibition, Furies, it is evident that the process is becoming increasing more important as part of exploring the subjects of her focus. “Line in particular takes on a real energy in these works, where it defines and dissolves form, burns into substance and bleeds across surface, goes its own way …”

“I am still excited and driven by the challenge materiality poses for depiction. Much of the sense and sensation in the paintings is embedded in the material itself: what floats, floods, flares, falls and fixes somewhere on the edge of form or formlessness. I am fascinated by the strangeness and openness of this process, which is intensified in the way I use my medium, viscous glue and liquid ink – a sort of choreography of chance and control, which offers extraordinary scope for new ways of associating and imagining.”

Some images emerge out of the medium itself. Others are sourced, from Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints and 12th-century scroll paintings (such as ‘hungry ghosts’ and ‘hell’ scrolls), showing scenes of sexuality and states of disaster.

“As remote as these references might appear, they resonate powerfully for me with things we might see or imagine in our contemporary moment. “

Ash, 2011. Ink and glue on canvas

Ash, 2011. Ink and glue on canvas

2011 In her “Who’s Afraid of the Crowd?”, exhibition she continues her  interest in the tension between form and formlessness, figure and ground. In this exhibition she moves away from her predominant use of red and pink, that she started to use in her “Pinky Pink” series. Her new body of work draws on the idea of ‘the multitude’. One source is Elias Canetti’s “Crowds and Power” (1960), where Canetti’s swarms, masses, fires, rivers, seas, forests stimulate her to reimagine the relation between the individual and the multitude, and between the individual part and the mass. As before, her medium and process of working are as much conceptual as they are the means to create an image; both in her ink and glue paintings and her 8mm home movie footage she uses to compose her video. While she uses references from historical catastrophes in these paintings, like the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, she is more interested in in visual analogies suggested by process and medium, than the actual pictorial depiction.

Analyses of Works

Patience on a Monument; ‘A History Painting,’ 1988, Oil Paint and Collage (Background to Dora)

Patience on a Monument; ‘A History Painting,’ 1988, Oil Paint and Collage (Background to Dora)

Patience on a Monument; ‘A History Painting,’ 1988, Oil Paint and Collage (Background to Dora)

A black female figure, semi–naked, sits on a pile of natural waste and the debris left behind by civilization – including fruit peelings, a stretched canvas, a dead bird, objets d’art, a skull, models of a pregnant womb and a broken heart, a little handbag, ornamental fittings, an open book, and two views of a bust of a black man. These objects have been compacted into appears to be a vast waste-disposal site. She is enthroned like some heroic statue, and peeling lemons in her lap.

A collage of photocopied images make up the landscape and the heaped debris. The photocopied images reflect entrenched perceptions: stereotypes of naked savages, the Boers, the British redcoats, scenes of pomp and heroism; The Landing of Van Riebeek, studies of political figures, national symbols and tourist souvenirs.

Traditional History Painting (recorded from a dominant white point of view) is satirised. The subtitle ‘ A History Painting’ – placed in inverted commas emphasises this irony.

The overlapping images symbolise the layering of history. Siopis questions history by reversing traditional roles. Patience, a black woman, towers above a history dominated by white supremacy but she sits peeling an lemon – an everyday activity – which undermines the glory of her position. Lemon, bitter fruit, may refer to the bitter plight of black women in history. It is also found in Dora and the Other Woman. Patience is anonymous, but she is 3-dimensional and real compared to the flat chaos of history around her. Patience is “anti heroic, an inversion of Liberty leading the people”by Delacroix . Liberty was a white imaginary heroic woman leading the people of Paris and Patience is black and indifferent to the chaos around her.

Dora and the Other Woman 1988 (Pastel on Paper)

Dora and the Other Woman 1988 (Pastel on Paper)

Dora and the Other Woman 1988 (Pastel on Paper)

“Dora and the other Woman” is an example of one of Penny Siopis’ women in history paintings after she returned from a 7 month trip to Paris in 1986. It can also be seen as a continuation of her earlier style of painting and themes of her detailed Baroque Banquets in which the depictions of extravagant food and accompanying brocades and lacy finery were used as a metaphor, comparing the way in which women’s bodies are offered, to the presentation of food at banquets. Through most of her artworks, she used random objects, to comment on colonialism, gender issues, and discriminatory practises of all kinds.

In this painting she combines the stories of Saartjie Baardman and Dora, a young Viennese bourgeoisie woman from the turn of the 20th century, to make a statement about gender issues. Dora was sent by her father to Sigmond Freud for treatment for “hysterical unsociability” when a suicide note from her was discovered. Her “hysterical unsociability” or her seeming psychological problems were related to her social background, because in that patriarchal  environment she could make no independent choices and she was also used as a pawn in a game between her father and the husband of her father’s mistress; “give me your wife and you can have my daughter.”

The ‘Other Woman’ in the title is on one level a reference to the ways in which hysteria was seen as a symptom of the ‘otherness’ of women in so-called  ‘scientific’ studies of the disorder. To Penny Siopis Dora’s hysteria was seen as a sign of women’s resistance to patriarchal domination and as a protest against the “colonisation of her body.” For her Freud’s comment about female sexuality being “the dark continent” of psychology connects Dora and Saartjie. Africa was known as the dark continent.

Saartjie Baartman “the other woman” was a Khoisan woman shipped from South Africa to Europe in 1810, and toured as a sideshow spectacle in England and France. Penny also sees a similarity in the way the nineteenth-century Europeans interpreted Saartjies’s body shape as a sign of her primitive sexuality, and how they viewed Dora’s hysteria as a marker of dark primal urges awaiting discovery by explorers or scientist of the time. The degrading treatment both Dora and Saartjie received was because of their sex and in Saartjie’s case, her race as well.

The painting has a baroque background, with lavishly draped curtains. Just like baroque paintings that typically had a strong sense of movement, Penny uses swirling spirals and upward diagonals, in the brocade-like drapery with a strong rich colour scheme of golds, purples and orange. Like most of her paintings it has great attention to detail and is theatrical in feel. The whole feel of stage-like setting may also suggest enacted truths rather than the real truth, such as is found in societies with prejudices. The light in the painting is artificial with no daylight, again perhaps suggestion an artificial environment.

Everything in her paintings were chosen to create a certain effect. She for example deliberately uses the rich realistic colour, style and composition found in “classical high art” of baroque as a play on conventions. Even the illusion of reality on a 2 dimensional surface, reflects how she sees the politics of representation;  where the visual interpretation of gender and race in itself was a selective perception, and also a form of discrimination.

“I work within the tradition of Western painting in ways which attempt to turn its own values
against itself, to show that it is not only representation of politics that is an issue, but the politics of representation as well.” Penny Siopis

Saartjie Baardman

Saartjie Baardman

She further emphasizes this aspect through the nineteenth century illustrations of Saartjie pinned to the drapery on Dora’s body, and scattered on the floor. These illustrations show Saartjie being looked at from all angles, often with an aid of a magnifying glass or telescope. It was mostly through optical means that Europeans had access to the ‘exotic’ other. To Penny Siopis these pictures also shows how prejudice operates in visual representation of a subject. To the 19th century Europeans these images of Saartjie were objective, harmless or “natural.” For her Dora and Saartjie epitomise those kind of (mis)representation of cultural identity, gender and race.  This aspect of selective perception, in my opinion,  is further emphasized by the box cameras, and empty frames that are scattered on the floor.

Objects such as shoes, purse and a jewelry box are also scattered on the ground, referring to women as an adornment or discarded possessions, a theme she also explored in her earlier banquet paintings. The open jewelry box can also refer to sexual disclosure. To Penny looking may also be seen as a way of possessing or colonising.

Detail of  hands peeling

Detail of hands peeling

Just visible from behind the curtains on the lower left hand corner of the painting are two black hands peeling a lemon. This could perhaps allude to a bitter history as it is also found in another of her ironical history paintings of the time “Patience on a monument,”or may refer to the bitter plight of black women in history, or it could allude to unpeeling the layers of misrepresentation of women in history. The way that the hands are also half concealed by the curtains could also suggest the hidden sexual discriminations against women in history.

The focal point of the composition is Dora standing on a box as on display. Her face and most of her body is covered by a white drape and one feels as if she is hiding from the viewer in her humiliation, but one also wonders whether Penny is also using this to show the dehumanizing aspect of sexual stereotypes, where the individual personality is not important.

Slings and Arrows (2007). oil and glue on canvas

Slings and Arrows (2007). oil and glue on canvas

Slings and Arrows (2007). oil and glue on canvas

In “Slings and Arrows” Penny Siopis directly refers to Frida Kahlo’s  “ Wounded Deer.” Both artists dealt with feminist issues and in these paintings in particular with pain and a feeling of helplessness in the face of fate.

Frida Kahlo’s  “ Wounded Deer.”

Frida Kahlo’s “ Wounded Deer.”

The title “Slings and Arrows” is derived from Hamlet’s famous soliloquy by Shakespeare.

To be, or not to be, that is the question:

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

It is part of Penny Siopis’ 2007 exhibition “Lasso”, which was described as “intimate narratives that express the poetics of vulnerability”. The Expressionistic series of paintings explores the pain experienced by victims of extreme trauma and focuses on the stories of disempowered women and children. The subjects deal with childhood sexual and physical abuse as well as feelings of displacement and prejudice that many women are forced to experience at the hands of others.

Depicted in “Slings and Arrows”, is an image of an animal-human hybrid wounded by arrows – a body of a deer with a human head. A deer is normally seen as a gentle innocent creature but also a creature that can be mercilessly hunted without any regard to its its feelings. In this Penny may be referring to the aspect of objectification of women’s bodies, which leads to the physical abuse of women and children. The hybrid creature also refers to to the themes she started to explore in her “Pinky Pinky” series where violent physical encounter left the victims as something “half-animal, half human, half woman, half nothing.”

”Exposed to the trauma of extreme abuse, a person’s soul is left torn and depersonalised.”

Penny uses an Expressionistic style, with loose expressive brushwork, to express a feeling of pain and hopelessness in the face of fate. This is further emphasized by broken rope around the deer’s neck, as if it tried to escape its fate and the pain inflicted by the arrows of fate. One almost feels as if the deer was already wounded while helplessly held in captivity.

There is no background or depth in the painting and the creature faces the viewer against a backdrop of pinks,red and grey colour brushstrokes, that gives the feeling that the hybrid animal is engulfed in a sea of emotion. In my opinion, the lack of space in the painting helps to focus the feeling of the creature being trapped and emphasises the intensity of emotion. It is visually like moments of intense fear or pain, where everything else disappear and everything becomes focused in that emotion.

Penny also uses the characteristic pink and scarlet tones, started in the “Pinky Pinky” series, evocative of blood emanating from open wounds to bring emphasis to the overall  feeling of pain. The technique she used to depict the image in itself also becomes expressive; a visible expression of the emotions. The film of polished glue once dry resembles the surface of human skin that is vulnerable and prone to tearing. By allowing the paint and glue to curdle and drip beyond the edge of her surfaces, she captures the excesses of emotion that characterises the subject of her painting. While enamel applied to ink or paint serves to sharpen the image, it also allows the emotions and tensions that exist within image to be heightened.

The painting is visually beautiful because of the free forms and colours, but it is ugly in its message. The duality seems to represent the beauty and intimacy a girl’s body can encapsulate, but also the violence that can destroy it. This seems to reinforced by the predominant pink colour which is generally the colour associated with little girls but here Penny uses it to show wounds, and broken skin.

Penny is well known for her layers of associations of symbolism and in making such direct reference to Frida’s “Wounded Deer” she may also be referring to the fact that although Frida portrays her own experiences, and her personal pain, Frida’s personal pain also “have wider social and cultural symbolism. “ In other words, Frida’s personal suffering becomes symbolic of the suffering and helplessness of women worldwide.  Which Penny describes as “ objects that are emblematic of a merging of private and public worlds.”

Bibliography

African Success

http://www.africansuccess.org/visuFiche.php?id=576&lang=en

Answers.Com

http://www.answers.com/topic/installation-art#ixzz1vOBm7aD9

The Artists Press

http://www.artists-press.net/penny-siopis/penny-siosis.htm

ArtSpace

http://artworksartspace.blogspot.com/2011/04/grace-kotze.html

Artthrob

http://www.artthrob.co.za/Reviews/2011/04/Lloyd-Pollak-reviews-Whos-afraid-of-the-crowd-by-Penny-Siopis-at-Stevenson-in-Cape-Town.aspx

http://www.artthrob.co.za/02sept/listings_gauteng.html#goodman2.

http://www.artthrob.co.za/99sept/artbio.html

http://www.artthrob.co.za/Reviews/2011/04/Lloyd-Pollak-reviews-Whos-afraid-of-the-crowd-by-Penny-Siopis-at-Stevenson-in-Cape-Town.aspx

Camwood

http://www.camwood.org/salah.htm

Gender in Art – Twentieth Century – Artist, Social, Female, and Roles – JRank Articles http://science.jrank.org/pages/9461/Gender-in-Art-Twentieth-Century.html#ixzz1vCoF9RwO

Marry Carigal – Blogspot

http://corrigall.blogspot.com/2010/09/siopis-at-brodie-stevenson.html

Resistance Art in South Africa, Sue Williamson, Double Storey Books, Cape Town, 2004

Stevenson Art

http://www.stevenson.info/artists/siopis.html

http://www.stevenson.info/exhibitions/siopis/index2011.htm

Writework

http://www.writework.com/essay/art-essay-penny-siopis

Portrait of Willie Bester by Enzo Dal Verme

Biography

Willie Bester was born in the town of Montagu near Cape Town in 1956 to a Xhosa father who was a migrant labourer and a mother classified coloured. Under the Apartheid laws,Bester was classified ‘other coloured’ because his parents were defined as a mixed race couple. His siblings, were classified as black and registered in the name of their father, Vakele. Under apartheid law, mixed race families were not allowed a home in the “Coloured” areas of Montague. The only lodgings available to migrant workers, in Montague as elsewhere, were single-sex hostels in large compounds behind high fences. Therefore, the only circumstances in which the family could be together during Bester’s childhood was to live in informal accommodation in other people’s back yards.

 Bester displayed his talents early in life when as a young boy, he began making toy cars out of recycled wire, which was common enough among children at the time. However, Bester’s wire cars were covered in metal and expressively decorated. He began experimenting with painting by the time he was seven.

http://www.mennonitemission.net/STORIES/BEYONDOURSELVES/PROPHETICPURSUIT/Pages/Racingtocommonground.aspx

The draadkar, a well-known toy on the African continent, is a wire car crafted from found items rejected as scraps.

Although a promising student, Bester dropped out of school after the ninth grade to help the family economically by making and selling shoes and crafts. However in his late teens, Bester, like many other unemployed youth from the townships and rural areas at the time, were “drafted” to the Eersterivier Cadet Rehabilitation Center for a year, where they were forced to do army-type of training . There however, he was introduced to painting as someone gave him art materials. (Ref)

(untitled) Truck

The racism he experienced in the apartheid army and the real consequences of the war he witnessed, influenced him deeply and was to have a decisive impact on his life. He was forced to confront the racial self-hatred that was engendered by being part of the apartheid army, fighting his own people. (Ref)

Social Engineering 2

After working as a dental technician’s assistant for 15 years in Cape Town, at the age of 30, Bester was drawn to his childhood love for art. In 1982, he held his first solo exhibition. His early work were street scenes and landscapes.

South African street scene, 1995

He began to attend part-time classes at the seminal Community Arts Project (CAP) in District Six in 1986. In the context of the heightened political resistance of the mid-1980s, Bester found an intellectual home with the community of socially committed artists he began to associate with. He began to express his developing political conscience through his art. As part of this collective of artists, Bester played an active role in the anti-apartheid movement.

http://www.brundyngonsalves.com/exhibitions/2011/implemented-environments/

Zwelethu Mthethwa and Willie Bester, Experiment 5 … Wat ga’ aan

At CAP, Bester honed his technique and developed his characteristic use of mixed media to express his political views by using a combination of photographs, paint and found materials in layered symbolism  By the late 1980s, Bester began to achieve a measure of success as an artist and he turned professional in 1991. Bester emerged as one of South Africa’s most important resistance artists. He is recognised internationally for his ground-breaking anti-apartheid work.  (Ref)

Influences

Since its invention by Picasso and Braque in the period of Synthetic Cubism,the rubbish collages of the Dadaist Kurt Schwitters and the early Pop assemblages of Robert Rauschenberg, representation of the real world through the combination of found objects, is a theme that has been explored many times. However, opposite to what used to occur at the time of historical avant-garde, his use of waste material do not belong to the anti-art dimension but it is actually a structural part of the themes that he explores. He uses found objects to form an integral part of the social statements he makes through his art and so forms a personal iconography. 

His art works are a combinations of found objects which he gathers from the very townships he depicts. Willie sees rubbish dumps as symbols of the community in which he lives. (Ref) Just as people often regard those living in the townships as rejects of society, his works in themselves symbolises the falseness of that perception. To show people that something unexpected, something valued can come from what is regarded as rubbish, he assembles his art works from it. His works  also comment on everyday life in the township of people in the Western Cape.

Township Scene, 1994

Before he joined the  Community Arts Project in Cape Town, in 1988, he was painting and creating artworks  in the Western art styles. He believed that art meant depicting the natural surroundings. He was unaware at that stage that a message could be created through a work, especially a political one. He wanted to further his art studies, since he knew from a young age that he wanted to create art, but he found that most art institutions were reserved for white people only.

At CAP, his fellow students were expressing themselves and their feelings about Apartheid. Like many South African Artists of the time, they were actively involved in the political struggle against Apartheid, creating posters and having discussions on issues beyond the borders, such as the cross border massacres of the SADF. It was within the that environment that Bester realized  how he could contribute to anti=apartheid movement through his art. His special focus was on the townships and the lives of the people in it.

Characteristics and Themes

He became known for his signature mixed media creations, using scrap materials – acquired from local dumps – combined with the use of oil paints and photographs, often taken by himself. Over the years, Bester enlarged the scale of his compositions and started using a greater range and variety of discarded material to build up surfaces and increase the sense of spatial extension. These technical developments were accompanied by a growing concern to record the complex experience of township life and his own history within it.  His works are all linked, because their subjects, if they are not themselves set in the environment of the Western Cape townships, are invariably represented in that context.

Bester’s conscious use of these materials is a homage to his past, and the many compatriots who find creative ways to house themselves and to survive. With these, he expresses the textured themes of his work, which include forced removals, township life, gender oppression and the brutalisation of South African society. (Ref)

He uses the leftovers of the society he depicts in order to retrace the political history of South Africa. Like an archaeologist, Bester reconstructs the fabric of this history to reveal the hidden faces of the South African township. His works are vivid collages, juxtapositions of odds and ends, of rubbish found in the townships: shoes, bones, tin cans, newspaper clippings, pages of books, scrap metal. (Ref)

“People have built up a resistance to anything that addresses the psyche of mankind or people or themselves. I believe that we must protest against that which is wrong. There is no form of escape; remaining apolitical is a luxury that South Africans simply cannot afford.”(Ref)

In more recent years, Bester has explored contemporary themes arising from the challenges of post-apartheid South Africa such as crime, greed, poverty and corruption. For him, resistance to apartheid was fundamentally about humanity and human rights, which he continues to be vigilant about.

“What I try to get behind is why it is so difficult for people to change from their old ways. It hasn’t worked out the way I imagined. People who thought they were superior before haven’t really changed. I try to find out through studying history what gives people the right to think that way. I try to find a solution, not to be disappointed, to reach an understanding. The Truth Commission seemed to be one of the answers, but now I find that even the Truth Commission is a trap. It has done more damage than good, because the ANC was favoured over the Afrikaners. I want to do a series about it.”

Over the last decade Bester’s focus has shifted to combine fresh conceptual directions with familiar themes and materials. His latest works consists mainly of waste metal and other debris of industrial, agricultural and domestic activity. His art fuses new ideas into works that comment powerfully, occasionally humourously, on diverse socio-political issues, some global, some uniquely South African.

Bly Uit Oortreders Sal Geskiet Word, 2004

Bester for example uses a technique of creating see-through constructions in order to magnify inner worlds which is exemplified by Bly uit Oortreders sal geskiet word. A galvanized petrol can is flayed open like an anatomical model. An intricately wired interior world suggestive of an electrical station, a computer or a petrol pump is contained and exposed by a glass barrier. This inner world is guarded by a doll dressed as a watchman, obviously Caucasian, probably made in China for consumption by children in the so-called West. It stares at the viewer through an ominous threat in Afrikaans, as a comment on the global oil-based technology and its social impact. Through this work and other works in his ‘Metalized’ (2005)  exhibition, Bester examines some of the power dynamics that are currently at play in the new South Africa. He questions the state’s concern with maintaining a balance between freedom and security in works that are conceptually dense, while presenting us with intimate depictions of people struggling to be free. (Ref)

Willie Bester SECURITY GUARD

Small metal tiles and objects are fused into a remodelled and reshaped “skin .” Utilitarian objects are re-contextualised into relief works or monumental freestanding figures with forceful messages, for example, the  Security Guard so familiar to anyone accustomed to the South African urban life. While the figure’s uneasy stance, sideways glance and partially exposed skeletal frame of cogs and bolts convey an underlying tension, indicative of profound and complex paradoxes in capitalist society.

Bester is a strongly intuitive colourist whose painting remains as clear and incisive as ever. He still works in a grass roots environment where, in many ways, little has changed. This is why his comments on society’s ongoing injustices, like abuse of women and children, continue unabated. Metal is a powerful medium conveying a powerful message. His painted panels, contrasting so strikingly with the galvanized metalwork, combine almost seamlessly in the constructions, adding a world of socio-political inquiry. His unique way of combining painting with sculpture acts as a silent metaphor for the unique ways in which Willie Bester straddles the worlds of high art and every day life, never losing sight of socially sensitive concerns.

Materials

 A major part of all Bester’s works to date are the found objects he gathers from townships near his house and includes in his collages. The discarded materials are rich in symbolic meaning, and Bester creates an original iconography from the most varied and unlikely sources. He uses a motley array of objects such as machine parts, old sacking, sticks, various tin cans, sheep bones and wire netting. These objects are chosen not only for the way they convey the texture of the townships, but also for their symbolic significance which he discovers within them

Kakebeen (1993), Wood, bone, metal, lether, oil paint and newspaper on board

The materials themselves are very significant. Bester often includes newspaper photographs and text to illustrate a work. However, because the photographs and text are from a newspaper, they also illustrate that what is depicted is a newsworthy event. Bester also often includes photographs that he has taken himself. The meaning of these pictures is more representational, but they show that the artist was present in the environment, and shows his personal identification with the events photographed.

Domestic Worker

http://williebester.net/portfolio/domestic-worker

Domestic Worker 2

Technique

http://www.vgallery.co.za/2002article10/vzine.htm

Bester pays minute attention in equal measure to conceptual visualization, selection of parts, physical construction and final finishing of his works. Current political or social incidents provide the impetus for him to visit his “art shop “, a local scrap yard, where he spends days selecting every detail for the “anatomy ” of his planned subject. Back in his studio in Kuilsrivier the pieces are carefully laid out on the floor before building begins, usually from the feet up, ensuring a strong substructure. As the work proceeds, balancing metal forces, dictated by the laws of gravity, unite into form and idea. (Ref)

Current political or social incidents provide the impetus for him to visit his “art shop “, a local scrap yard, where he spends days selecting every detail for the

When a sculpture is complete, it is transported to an industrial galvanizing plant where it is galvanized to prevent future deterioration. Having worked in the international art world and dealt with major museums and collectors around the world, Willie is aware of conservation concerns for artworks in collections and therefore expends much time and care on the final finishing of his works.

http://www.vgallery.co.za/34long/metalized.htm

Willie Bester Security Guard (detail) 2005, recycled metal

Analysis of His Works

Forced Removals, 1988

As a part-time student at the Community Arts Project in Cape Town in 1988, the blatant attacks on the Apartheid system in the work of his fellow students, was an eye opener to him. The critical environment of the art school inspired him to produce two works, Forced Removals and Don’t Vote, that protested the  injustices of the Group Areas Act and the racial composition of the apartheid voters’ roll. The medium that Bester chose to express these themes of protest was a collage of waste material and conventional artistic forms that has since become his hallmark. The success of these first explorations with “mixed-media collage” and in the physical and symbolic use of township waste, encouraged Bester to pursue his career as an artist.

In Forced Removals, Bester depicts a scene common to many township and squatter camp residents during the Apartheid era: the forced removal of people from their makeshift or permanent homes at the hands of the government. The removals were usually sudden and violent, with police and soldiers entering the townships. This was often a very painful and emotional time for those families forced to leave their homes with only the possessions they could carry. Townships such as Sophiatown in Johannesburg and District Six in Cape Town are two examples of flourishing communities that were completely destroyed by the Apartheid government. (Ref)

Destruction of houses during forced removals in District Six Destruction of houses during forced removals in District Six Cape Town, South Africa, 1974

Sophiatown residents waiting for the trucks after the force removals in 1956. Photography Jurgen Schadeberg.

The focus of the composition is the bright yellow bulldozer in the process of destroying District Six, with callous disregard to the inhabitants feelings. The bulldozer in itself becomes a symbol of the brutality involved in the destruction of a once thriving community. Bester uses photographic cut-outs for the two people standing behind the bulldozer, which brings the reality of the situation home to the viewer. They appear to be in a state of shocked numbness. By using photographs of actual people Bester effectively brings home the message that forced removals wasn’t just some distant event in history that affected  anonymous people, and personalize the suffering the inhabitants experienced. To the left, a man appears to attempting to salvage some possessions, and one gets the feeling that that the bulldozers did not even wait for the the people to remove their possessions.

Bester treated the rest of the painting as a realistic painting of township life and in doing so, the viewer feels even more poignantly that soon the bulldozer will destroy the colourful scene forever. The bulldozer becomes not just the focal point of the painting, but also a disturbing element in what would otherwise just be a depiction of a street scene.

willie bester forced removals detail

At the bottom right hand corner Bester enigmatically stenciled the words “Made in England,” giving a visual impression that it could be part of an old packing crate found on a rubbish dump. This use of stenciling is both reflective of the reality that the scene will soon just be rubble, a rubbish dump and perhaps also a comment on the economic system itself.  Like Bester’s other works, Forced Removals may be read both across and below the surface, and he successfully combines the subject matter with a richly textured whole within the resonance of its symbolic content.

Family Unit, 1993

Family Unit, 1993 (For full analyses click on images)

Four of Bester’s works from 1993 are dedicated to victims: two record the sufferings and privations of ordinary South Africans, and two commemorate assassinated political leaders. Bester wants all of these subjects to be understood as casualties of a morally bankrupt system. Institutionalized poverty and systematic  degradation created an entire population of oppressed people.

These paintings, and the series of which they are part, reflect a change in the direction of Willie Bester’s art, from his early work, and may be said to represent scenes of life in the townships as illustrations of the effect of a generation of apartheid laws.  While these works appear to draw on this experience in order to celebrate the indomitable spirit of the oppressed people of South Africa, his early paintings consist of individual scenes of township life represented realistically with the several techniques at his disposal, these are symbolic in content and in pictorial structure.

This series from 1993 are composed through the combination of many different scenes and events which may or may not be realistic representations  in themselves, but focus around the principal theme. This pictorial language allows Bester a  more direct voice in the work, through which he express fragments of his own biography and his strong feelings about the issues he is addressing.

Beyond thematic coherence, surface unity is assured by the use of distinct color combinations and the related techniques of scattering anonymous stencil marks and dribbling pure colors throughout the length and breadth of the painting. An exploration of the depth of Willie Bester’s works involves the literal re-creation of perspective distances through the media of photography and illusionist painting, and the forward extension of these fictive spaces through the incorporation of three-dimensional objects on the surface.

Another strategy that Bester employs is to translate imagery from photographic sources – his own or newspaper reproductions – into the medium of paint. The people he represents in this manner, who are usually the principal forms of the painting, appear to gain significance in the process: shifting from an anecdotal reality that is defined in terms of time and space, they acquire a kind of symbolic status.

 These paintings celebrate the lives and achievements of their principal subjects. But the artist makes clear that these lives have been led under the most dehumanizing circumstances: apartheid South Africa systematically degraded its oppressed people and eliminated their leaders. Bester makes these points not simply by illustrating in his unique way the appalling conditions in which huge sections of the population are obliged to live, but also through the use of symbols.

The system of racial classification is referred to by images of both Pass books and, metaphorically, machine parts that spew out the rigid identities into which South Africa divided its population. The scattering of stencil numbers and lettering throughout the works suggests the arbitrary methods of classification and the reduction of human individuality to ciphers. Similarly, the tin cups that form such a consistent feature of Willie Bester’s iconography relate through their numbering to this sense of reduced humanity, but they extend this idea by evoking the Cup of Gethsemane. The necessary acceptance of suffering that is suggested by this reference is communicated in a slightly different way by the many musical instruments that Bester uses in his work. Beyond their several suggestions of social harmony and vitality, the guitars and other instruments are intended to illustrate the Afrikaans expression “Jy sal moet dans soos die musiek speel,” which translates roughly as “You have to dance as the music dictates.

Semekazi by Willie Bester

Migrant Worker, 1993

In Migrant Worker, Bester shows his concern for the conditions in which migrant labourers were forced to live in Apartheid South Africa, and that after years of work for a company, they received no pension and no prospects for a secure retirement, reflective of his personal experiences in a family whose father was a migrant labourer.

Analysis by Michael Godby and Sandra Klopper

Semekazi, the subject of Migrant Labourer, had retired from construction work but continued to live in the township of Crossroads in order to support his wife and four children in the Transkei. He had no house or even room of his own in Crossroads but simply rented a bed in a hostel for R6 a month. When he applied for a pension from the construction firm for which he had worked for many years, he was told that he was listed as dead and therefore was not eligible. To supplement his monthly state pension of R60.74 for himself and his family, Semekazi collected and sold scrap materials in the township. He was murdered by gangsters six months after Bester completed this commemoration of his life.

Migrant Labourer is primarily about the life of Semekazi, but it also records the life experiences of all migrant laborers. The central motif of the painting is Semekazi’s bed, which doubles as a prison for the man looking out from behind it. A lock and chain connect the bed to a Bible at the bottom right, a reference both to Semekazi’s religious convictions – he used to give R5 to his church every month – and to the fact that South Africa claimed to be run on Christian principles. The irony in this reference is underlined by the Bible’s proximity to a second book seen to the right of the bed: a replica of Semekazi’s Pass book. Fearing prosecution and police harassment, Semekazi continued to carry his Pass book even after the Pass laws were repealed in the late 1980s.

Semekazi by Willie Bester

To the left of the bed and above the Pass book are two panels representing Semekazi’s wife and four children, whom Semekazi would dearly have loved to have with him in Crossroads. The indications of rural life at the top of the composition are separated from these portrait figures by an undulating row of numbered cups. These cups refer both to the Agony in the Garden and to the fact that people are rendered anonymous through the systems of discrimination and abuse entrenched in apartheid. The roller and ink pad for fingerprinting serve to reinforce this idea.

Semekazi by Willie Bester

Throughout the composition, Bester makes reference to the two worlds that Semekazi used to inhabit: the rural and the urban. The rural world from which he came is symbolized through the inclusion of buck horns and sheep bones, among other things. The urban world in which he lived at the end of his life is represented in crowd scenes, the industrial landscape of chimneys and guns, and mechanical clamps. The clamps double as handcuffs. In motifs like these, Bester conflates images of industry with the idea of imprisonment. In his view, Semekazi was a captive of the industrial landscape because he never had the prospect of a secure retirement with his family in the Transkei.

Footnote: migrant labourer: a migrant labourer is a term given to people who live in another nearby country to the one they are employed in. They receive no financial benefits and have to live in hostels (usually single-sex) while they work. This prevents them from seeing their families for long periods of time. When the government created the homelands within South Africa, such as Swaziland and Bophuthatswana, they were legally living in another country. These homelands generally had no resources of their own, so the black men would have to cross the borders of the homelands and work in South Africa to earn money, as migrant labourers. Their benefits by law were thus reduced to a minimum.

Bester-Willie-BIKO

Tribute to Steve Biko, 1993

The focus of this work is anti-apartheid activist and hero Steve Biko, who since his death in police custody (12 September 1977), has been a martyr of the anti-apartheid movement. His death shortly after the Soweto uprisings served as a rallying point both internationally and locally for the anti-apartheid movement.  Throughout the Tribute to Steve Biko Bester placed images relating to his death.

On 18 August 1977, Biko was arrested at a police roadblock ( featured to the left of Biko) under the Terrorism Act No 83 of 1967 .

Bester-Willie-BIKO roadblockHe was interrogated by officers of the Port Elizabeth security police including Harold Snyman and Gideon Nieuwoudt. This interrogation took place in the Police Room 619 The interrogation lasted twenty-two hours and included torture and beatings resulting in a coma. He suffered a major head injury while in police custody, and was chained to a window grille for a day.

Bester-Willie-BIKO chained

Bester-Willie-BIKO landrover

On 11 September 1977, police loaded him in the back of a Land Rover, naked and restrained in manacles, and began the 1100 km drive to Pretoria to take him to a prison with hospital facilities.

Bester-Willie-BIKO 1100

He was nearly dead owing to the previous injuries. He died shortly after arrival at the Pretoria prison, on 12 September.

Bester-Willie-BIKO autopsy

The police claimed his death was the result of an extended hunger strike, but an autopsy revealed multiple bruises and abrasions and that he ultimately succumbed to a brain hemorrhage from the massive injuries to the head, which many saw as strong evidence that he had been brutally clubbed by his captors.

Bester-Willie-BIKO woods

Then Donald Woods, a journalist, editor and close friend of Biko’s, along with Helen Zille, later leader of the Democratic Alliance political party, exposed the truth behind Biko’s death

Bester-Willie-BIKO target

The target with scattered numbers found in both Tribute to Steve Biko and Tribute to Chris Hani represents the Apartheid system’s propaganda that portrayed  the people’s leaders as villains; individual human beings, with all their complex experience and history, reduced to statistics for exploitation and disposal.

Bester-Willie-HANI

Tribute to Chris Hani, 1993

Tribute to Chris Hani (1993)

The central image in this work is an animated portrait of Chris Hani, the Secretary-General of the South African Communist Party, who was assassinated on Easter Saturday, 1993. Bester used photographs from newspapers to depict the circumstances of his death – on the left his murderer is shown, the Polish immigrant Janus Walusz, and on the right comrades grieving over his stricken body. Other media images in the top right hand corner show the six day mourning period that was declared in Hani’s honour, and the outbreak of violence and anger that Hani’s death unleashed. Bester has included his own feelings regarding Hani’s death by the burnt state of the wood of the central panel. However, the focus of the work is on commemorating Hani’s achievements in the battle for peace in South Africa.

The bicycle tire around the portrait of Hani represents a laurel wreath. Bester has successfully managed to bring the original meaning of the tire that has become debased through political abuse. By using the tire, Bester knew the form might very well evoke images of the fearful “necklacing” practice (see “necklacing”). However, he was determined to restore it to its original connotations of transport, labour, progress and union activity. The tire is inscribed with the valediction “Hamba Kahle” (Go Gently), and the fateful words that Hani uttered in a television broadcast a few days before he was killed: “I’ve lived with death for most of my life. Nobody wants to die. I want to live in a free South Africa and I’m prepared to lay down my life for it.” Because the wheel can have industrial connotations, it could also suggest Hani’s socialist beliefs, which are further indicated by the red colour of the sky behind his portrait and in the hammer-and-sickle emblems.

Hani’s desire to abandon the armed struggle and to fight the system through the organisation of labour is shown by the AK-47 overlaid by the dove, and by the industrial forms among military apparatus on the right side of the painting. In the bottom right-hand corner there is a figure of a miner, who symbolises this struggle. His torchlight in his helmet illuminates a bank note that represents gains in wage negotiations. The crosses in his goggles refer to the appalling accident record of South African mines. The guitar in the bottom centre of the work stands for a number of things: it shows social harmony and the regimentation of life under Apartheid. The yoke symbolises the continued state of subjugation experienced by the majority of South Africans.

In this work Bester is both celebrating Hani’s achievements and criticising the violence in South African society. The target on the left of the central image shows how this leader was created into an enemy of the state by government propaganda. The balaclava-clad killer and the “Top Secret Hit List” on the right represent the culmination of the campaign of vilification. The numbers scattered across the target indicates the process of dehumanising a person in this way. Individual human beings, with all their complex experience and history, are reduced by the system to statistics for exploitation and disposal. The central image of Chris Hani shows that he resisted this process through the powers of conviction and courage. This portrait shows Hani at the head of a march – one that was actually protesting his death – and appearing to represent the demands of the people to the viewer.

http://library.thinkquest.org/18799/wbes3.html

Cradock 4 (1993) (Click on image for full analysis)

For Those Left Behind, 2003

 

Trojan Horse II

Trojan Horse 3

The event that occurred on October 15th 1985, which came to be known as the “Trojan Horse” incident, took place in the coloured residential suburb of Athlone near Cape Town. Police forays into black areas were being met with strong resistance such as barricades of burning tires, stone-throwing and ‘traps’ dug into the road. The people simultaneously demanded “Troops out of the townships.” In an effort to punish stone-throwers, police hid in crates on a truck and had the truck driven up and down a busy thoroughfare in Athlone. Eventually people began throwing stones, and immediately the police burst out of their crates and opened fire. Moments later three boys lay dead by the side of the road. The youngest was Michael Miranda who was 11 years old, on his way to the shop when it happened. Bester also had a strong response to the “Trojan Horse” incident. He felt that the situation was “as low as you could get” since the tactics the police were using were ancient (as is the Trojan Horse story) and showed desperation on their part to convict the stone-throwers involved.

Bester created a series of three sculptures about the Trojan Horse Massacre with Trojan Horse III being the last in the series. Unlike Trojan Horse 1 and 2, which evoke the feel of African scrap metal toys as a reminder of the child victims, Trojan Horse III is made from parts of cars and motorcycles that Bester has transformed from scrap metal into a naturalistic animal. Characteristic of Bester’s works, the materials he uses are significant in themselves. The parts used to create the horses are in itself symbolic of the symbolism of the Theme. His particular visual vocabulary of forms, focus the attention on the transformation of flesh and blood into dehumanised cogs.

The ‘Trojan Horse 3’ is made of ‘violent’ material, including bombshells and machine guns, all related to the ‘Trojan Horse Incident’. The use of metal gives this sculpture an aggressive, industrial look.  The choice of material emphasizes the horrible rationality in which those policemen, in cold blood, performed this crime. First danger hides, but then it appears surprisingly and causes an explosion of loss. (Ref)

 Bester originally asked permission from the South African police to use decommissioned Kalashnikov rifles; to signify the smuggling of arms on the African Continent, but he was politely and firmly told that they were all to be melted down.

The life-size horse consists of a motorbike motor for its belly, to give it its general structure. There is a machine gun protruding from the top of the back, symbolising the guns that came out of the truck containing the police.

The drips refer to the people who were injured by this exercise. They also represent the dying mentality of Apartheid, with many of the white Afrikaners at the top of the country trying desperately to keep the system alive, as if they were drips to a dying person. A Bible is chained to the horse, and the tail is made of strips of rubber, which police used to whip people.

The horse appears aggressive and naked, revealing all its bones and raw muscle, as the Apartheid system is now being exposed for what it was.

Bester’s work charts the dramatic social and political developments in South Africa over the past 25 years. His account of social change is not idealistic. Instead, he continues to address issues of corruption and Government accountability in the new South Africa.

References

Art.anazana.com
http://art.anazana.com/en/arhiivs-13508/page-31055:12/page-42386:7/open-news:4766

Arttrob
http://www.artthrob.co.za/99aug/artbio.html
http://www.artthrob.co.za/05nov/reviews/34long.html
http://www.artthrob.co.za/01nov/reviews/goodman.html

Banard Gallery
http://www.barnardgallery.com/?m=4&s=2

Bowmann Sculpture
http://www.robertbowman.com/modern/artist/willie_bester

Contemporary Art Collection , Jean Pigozzi
http://www.caacart.com/pigozzi-artist.php?i=Bester-Willie&bio=en&m=37

Donvé Lee, Willie Bester: Art as a Weapon

Michael Godby and Sandra Klopper, Art of  Willie Bester, African Arts, Vol. 29, No. 1 (Winter, 1996), pp. 42-49+104

South African History Online
http://www.sahistory.org.za/people/willie-bester

South African Resistance Art
http://library.thinkquest.org/18799/time30.html

The South African Cape Corps in Defence of – DISA
http://www.disa.ukzn.ac.za/webpages/DC/Dav8n684.1681.5785.008.006.1984.9/Dav8n684.1681.5785.008.006.1984.9.pdf

The Presidency
http://www.thepresidency.gov.za/pebble.asp?relid=7833

VGallery
http://www.vgallery.co.za/34long/metalized.htm
http://www.vgallery.co.za/99article23/vzine.htm
http://www.vgallery.co.za/2005article6/vzine.htm

Wikipedia
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Willie_Bester

Willie Bester
http://williebester.net/

Willie Bester in die Eikestad
http://storiesbyadel.files.wordpress.com/2011/10/issue-7-dn.pdf

The few black artists who made any early inroad into the urban South African art scene occupy a position parallel to that of Africana painters, who were primarily producing an accurate pictorial record of the curious exotic details of fauna and flora, and studies of the indigenous people.

In tandem with the colonial and apartheid view that blacks were a ‘breed’ apart, what many white collectors expected of black artists was an art that, through their eyes, represented cultural apartness, or what was called “native studies”. Such works were those depicting the ‘authentic’, mystical and exotic African, showing ‘tribal’ life and customs –  like for example Gerard Bhengu’s ‘Smiling Young Man with Feathered Headdress’ (undated).

Gerard Bhengu, ‘Smiling Young Man with Feathered Headdress’, undated

Early Pioneers

The foundations of fine art by black South African artists were laid by early pioneers; John Koenakeefe Mohl, Ernest Mancoba, George Pemba and Gerard Sekoto. All of these early figures had produced artworks unprecedented in terms of the history of art by black South Africans. It was an art that was a response to the changing conditions of black experience, with an increase in Christian influence and pressure from a white controlled economy.

Their art was also formed as a result of the influence of a western approach to art making, and the introduction of materials and techniques associated with the European tradition. These artists had had the opportunity to study both locally and abroad.

John Mohl, Ploughing, 1956

John Mohl, Ploughing, 1956

Of the early pioneers only Mohl was able to have any direct influence on art developments in South Africa in the forties. And it is for this reason that he can be considered to be the father of township art. He was certainly the first black artist to work and exhibit as a professional fine artist in Sophiatown and Soweto, and the first artist who offered art classes in the township.

John Koenakeefe Mohl

In the 1930s and 1940s, Mohl and Sekoto painted images of the township and township life of the black and ‘coloured’ working class, against a backdrop which most whites, because of the divides of segregation and class polarisation, knew very little about black.  Through their art they revealed to whites, the primary consumers of art at the time, the lives of people who were confined to townships when they were not toiling in the white economy.

In depicting those who were considered only good enough to keep the wheels of industry turning and the kitchen sinks of leafy white suburbs clean, Sekoto, along with Mohl and Pemba, pioneered a genre that is today commonplace and a cornerstone of South African culture – ‘township art’. Every artist who has worked in this genre,  follows in the footsteps of Mohl, Sekoto, Mancoba and Pemba.

Township Art

The label, Township Art, was coined originally in reference to the movement that blossomed in the black townships during the 1960s. Correctly, therefore it applies only to that historical phenomenon and the works of art that issued from it. Township art became a kind of hothouse, in which a generation of  young black artists ripened.

The main identifying features of of Township Art were its subject matter and its source. The artists involved were mainly residents of the black townships on the outskirts of Johannesburg; most students of the Polly Street Art Center; and their primary theme was the everyday life of the community in which they lived. Township Art was essentially concerned with the human situation. Conceived amid the the daily angst and hardship of existence in a deprived society, it testified to the spiritual resilience of the artists.

Social circumstances were even less favourable than in Sekoto’s day. Sophiatown’s and District Six communities and culture had been forcibly removed and dispersed. The anonymity of life in the sprawling Soweto, the loss of community cohesiveness and the feelings of displacement that followed the destruction of Sophiatown gave rise to a yearning for self-affirmation and to give a definition to a collective identity. It is therefore not surprising that Township Art coincided with the dawning of Black Consciousness among the townships residents.

Yet, the wave of self-expressive energy that surged out of Soweto in the sixties was not motivated by political agendas. Though their records of daily life were often permeated by subjective emotions, there was little ideological content in the earlier work.

Fear, charcoal on paper, 1966 (Dumile Feni)

Lack of resources meant that many black artists had to rely on media other than oil-painting, and making a virtue of necessity gave added force to their work. Black artists also made striking use of the accessible and relatively cheap medium of the linocut, charcoal and pen drawing and watercolours.

Feni (known as Dumile), for instance, became a master of drawing, often in ballpoint pen. He encapsulated profound personal emotions in images of poverty, brutality and fear. Dumile’s powerful sense of anger, frustration and despair at the deprived lives of his fellow black South Africans fed into work of extraordinary power; his distorted figures seemed to have been physically deformed by the very forces of society. Called “the Goya of the townships”, he painted his own version of Picasso’s Guernica, a cry of pain at human suffering. (Ref)

African Guernica - Dumile Feni

African Guernica – Dumile Feni

By the Mid-seventies, perspectives shifted as Black Consciousness gained impetus and township residents became increasingly politicised.

Some Artists of this Era

Gerard Bhengu

Peter Clarke

Ernest Mancoba

Gladys Mgudlandlu

George Pemba

Gerard Sekoto

Michael Zondi

References

Esme Berman – Painting in South Africa

Archival Platform -Emile Maurice –  Gerald Seto
http://www.archivalplatform.org/blog/entry/from_the_art_archive_gerard_sekoto_resistance_artist/

Marie-Lais Emond – Township art: South Africa’s political writing on the wall

http://www.ifalethu.org.za/dmdocuments/Townshipart.pdf

Kayla Reid – Introduction to Township Art
http://www.a1articles.com/an-introduction-to-township-art-1304917.html

Polly Street Era
http://www.sahistory.org.za/archive/polly-street-era

South African art – emerging Black Artists
http://www.southafrica.info/about/arts/919961.htm#.UTcnCdZgdC0

 

There was a big difference between the general pattern of artistic activity in South Africa and the circumstances that gave rise to Modern Art movements in Europe.  Initially South African Art was extremely conservative, mirroring the prevailing cultural conservatism.

Introduction

Accepted Artwork in South Africa tended to be landscapes according to traditional Western Art Principles whose aims since the Renaissance period was to create art works that copy reality. Until Modernism, art was seen as an illusion of a small piece of reality in a frame. The principles of perspective were used to create an illusion of 3 dimensions on a flat surface.

Modernism is a term applied to the innovative development of the arts in the 20th Centuary which saw a break with realism and naturalism and other such traditional art forms. Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Surrealism, Dadaism, Expressionism were all born in this era and the artists saw themselves as shifting boundaries, the ‘avant-garde’; confronting the widely accepted ideas that already existed. Modernism can be seen to represent the breakdown of appearance in works of art of the form of the natural world into shapes, colours and materials. Exaggeration, distortion and abstraction are all tools used. (Ref)

Thomas Baines

In traditional South African art during the colonial era, artists’ artwork generally depicted images of South Africa in as  accurate detail as they could make it. Artists such as Thomas Baines travelled the country recording its flora, fauna, people and landscapes, which was a form of reporting for people, much like National Geographic would do today..
Later artists excepted by the South African public and institutions, like Jan Ernst Abraham Volschenk and Gawie Cronje still continued to use traditional Western Art principles to depict especially landscapes of farms and the country.

Jan-Ernest A. Volschenk

Gawie Cronje

Towards the end of the 19th century, several artists began, through their work, to show an artistic vision of life as lived in South Africa, for its own sake. With Union of South Africa in 1910 which brought the formal end of the colonial era, art was beginning to form its own national identity. Artists like Irma Stern and Grerard Sekoto started to use the techniques of post-impressionism, fauvism and expressionism, using bright colour and unusual composition, with a personal point of view. Artists like Pierneef and Walter Battiss also started to look at the indigenous rock art in South Africa with their stylistic form, simple outline and flat colour and overlapping planes, as well as using geometric interpretation of objects introduced by the Cubists.

Western Primitivism vs ‘”White Settler” Primitivism

In Europe the adoption of ‘primitive art’ motifs and themes served as a revolutionary tool against established ‘art’ in art-salons after the First World War. Utopian parallels were drawn between the ways ‘primitive man.’ White people in the colonies with European origins also called “White settlers” experienced an emerging preoccupation with a national identity. To form a national identity, that is different from their European origins, both the natural environment and the indigenous culture were incorporated as reference points in their art.

Unlike their European counterparts, South African Artists, had actual knowledge of the indigenous  people. Artists like Irma Stern and Mary Stainbank in their depictions of African people considered person and place to shape content.  In contrast, Western primitivism made references to cultural artefacts as a visual, formal and expressive tool without considering cultural identity.

The attempt of “white settlers” to define themselves as ‘native’ is often seen as a sort of cultural colonization. Often the suffering of the indigenous people are ignored, whilst elements of their culture are affirmed and displayed.  Settler primitivism, as opposed to European primitivism, where cultural expressions draw on native imagery, can be seen as an effort to find their own identity within the country in which they settled. Both Irma Stern and Walter Battiss use this element of “settler primitivism” in their art to find their own identity while at the same time being influenced by contemporary European Art Movements.

For both Irma Stern and Mary Stainbank images of black personages affirmed their identity as different, and it also acted as confirmation of the nature of that identity.

It is hard see from our current perspective just how revolutionary the work of Irma Stern and Mary Stainbank was to the conservative South African viewers and critics of their time. At that time (1920s) the use of the black person as a subject in art was hotly debated not only in  South Africa but also in Britain.

In 1926, the Durban based industrialist Karl Gundelfinger, donated an annual prize of 20 guineas for the ‘best painting of native life’ This event introduced a move beyond the colonial habit of constructing the ‘other’ as insignificant and degenerate. Gundelfinger’s intended to encourage the direct observation of indigenous peoples, not only to introduce an indigenous subject matter, but also to encourage artists to paint and draw the human figure in an art context ruled by landscape painting. This annual event helped to the lift the taboo that had existed in South Africa until about 1928 to use a black person as subject matter. Much interest in African and South African indigenous cultures emerged at this time.

However, both Stainbank’s and Stern’s work of indigenous black people, despite being representational albeit simplified and stylised, were also severely criticised by a literally minded audience who expected the art work to be a representation of a specific life-situation, and described by a suitably literal title. These works were not fully ‘abstract’; but certainly displayed modernist characteristics such as simplification, exaggeration and stylisation, features that the conservative South African audience found intolerable.

Helen Sebidi – The Child’s Mother Holds the Sharp Side of the Knife

During these years black artists were mostly neglected due to lack of training and resources, as well as a supportive gallery system. It is almost paradoxical that while  the white artists were looking for inspiration to traditional African Art, during the same time, it coincided with the phenomenon of Township Art – a wave of unprecedented productivity by black urban artists, whose art was characterised by the urge to identify with Western realistic tradition. In the nature of their themes, however, the township artists displayed a social consciousness and humanism, as opposed to the more abstract forms and followed instead figurative directions.

From 1950s

From the 1950s and especially during the 1960s the quest for identity had become a universal concern. It was spurred on both by greater awareness of the contemporary international art scene and by a growing consciousness of the dissimilarities in physical surroundings, cultural ethos and sociological habit, which distinguished the experience of South African Artists from that of their counterparts in Europe or the USA.

Although South African artists were influenced by International Art Movements there were other forces operating in their own environment that were pertinent to their particular situation. South African Artists searched for a closer identification with the traditional spirit of Africa itself, reflected in the ritual sculpture and surviving lore of tribal cultures. It was not so much the romance and mystique of Africa, as the character and essence of the African experience that South African artists of this period sought to realise in their paintings.

Questions arose for many South African artists; if the artist desired to be true to his personal experience, could he/she validly express themselves in idioms identical to to those of London, or New York, or Paris? Yet, in failing to to adopt the new international trends, were they not denying their awareness of their generation and their age?The questions were not just academic; nor were they limited to art alone. They reflected the dilemma of South African society. Not identical to in character or outlook with North Atlantic nations of the West, nor identical in populace or ethos with traditionalAfrica = Who were we? … What were our spiritual and moral anchors? … Where do we belong?

Alexis Preller. Hieratic Women 1955-57.

Most of the White artists who began their careers during the fifties were members of urbanised communities, they tended to be more preoccupied with the manipulation of form than with their urban lives and patterns of experience. However, associated with the search for personal commitment that gathered urgency during the next decade, there came about a reassessment of the role of content in a work of art, and a subtle alteration in the nature of the themes explored.

The signs were pointing to a growing humanism in South African expression. Those born just before or during World War II tended to steer away from pure abstraction and to search for figurative forms through which they might express their humanist inclinations.

Cecil Skotnes, “Visit to the battle site”, 1974

The idioms employed in the new figurative styles were quite unlike the former realist conventions and their messages were frequently encoded in unconventional symbolic forms. Although we may not easily recognise the objective sources of their subject matter, we cannot fail to be aware of the dramatic emphasis in all their work on the human condition and predicament – on human relationships, on pain, on isolation and on the desensitising and depersonalising influence of the modern technological environment.

Some examples of artists in the category;

Irma Stern

Walter Battiss

Cecil Skotnes

Sydney Kumalo

Alexis Preller

Helen Sebidi

Mary Stainbank

Edoardo Villa

Gavin Younge

Some Influences

San Rock Art

African tribal art

Ndebele architecture & wall decoration

Fauvism

German Expressionism

Cubism

Pop Art

New Abstraction and OP Art

References

Contemporary African Art – The Modernists
http://www.contemporary-african-art.com/south-african-modernists.html#sthash.o8GjtijL.dpuf

Esme Berman – Painting in South Africa, 1993, Southern Book Publishers

Chess In London
http://chessaleeinlondon.wordpress.com/page/4/?archives-list&archives-type=cats

Leslie Back, Memories of Irma Stern
http://www.showcook.com/2011/travel-culture/memories-of-irma-stern-by-leslie-back/

BE Liebenberg – Mary Stainbank, Modernism and the ‘Spirit of Africa’
http://scnc.ukzn.ac.za/doc/ARTS/ART/Liebenberg_BE_Mary_Steinbank_modernism_Spirit_of_Africa.pdf

Rsaart’s Blog
http://rsaart.wordpress.com/

SouthAfrica.info
http://www.southafrica.info/about/arts/art.htm#ixzz1n0qmw0Zs

Walter Batiss

A search for true identity is when a person or an artist is looking for his/her cultural
‘roots’ through visual art forms. – Walter Battiss researched South African rock art and probably discovered his own cultural ‘roots’ through this. – 2010 Feb/March Exam Paper

Short Biography
Born in 1906 in Somerset East, he spent most of his childhood in the rural Orange Free State, where he explored the local Bushmen Rock Art and developed an interest in archaeology. He wrote two books on Bushmen Art. Unlike most South African artists of the time, he did not study overseas. Battiss only attained a formal degree in Fine Arts at the age of 32.

Walter Battiss

Battiss went on to study further in the field of South African Bushman and rock art, and in 1948 went on an expedition to the Namib Desert, living amongst traditional bushman for some time. In the 1950’s Battis made acquaintance with Picasso and Gino Severini, and was invited to lecture on South African art at the University of London the same year. After travelling through Europe in the 1960’s, Battis visited the Seychelles in 1972, and shortly afterwards, the legendary Fook Island was created.

Further travelling to Zanzibar, Fiji, Hawaii, Madagascar, the Comoros and Samoa, created more inspiration of the imaginary kingdom of Fook, and Battis went on to produce a map, imaginary characters, plants, animals and a history. For a more official presence, Battis also created stamps, a currency, passports, a unique language, and driver’s licences.  Fookianisms also included art happenings, art objects,poetry, linguistics, bureaucracy and erotica in reaction to the censorship under Apartheid.  He described Fook as an “island which exists inside everyone” (Ref)

He was a  professor and head of the Fine Arts department at Unisa for several years. Walter Battiss retired from his position as Professor of Fine Arts at UNISA in 1971, 1982 Walter Battiss was struck down by a sudden heart attack and passed away. He was 76 years old.

Walter Battiss fook island


Influences

Figures and Buck, Battiss

Figures and Buck, Battiss


The San Rock Art  had a major influence on his work throughout his life. The figures and forms in many of his works were often simplified and abstracted as in the Rock Paintings. Battiss was interested in the formal aspects of rock art, such as the economy of line, the decorative simplification and the accurate understanding of form without shadows or colour modelling  Inspired by the formal devices that characterize  San painting, he also framed and cropped his images in such a way as to imply a continuous unframed space behind them. He stacked figures vertically and horizontally, altered scale relationships, and created palimpsests, through a sgraffito-like  of drawing into wet paint revealing the colour beneath.

Horseman Palimpsest

Horseman Palimpsest

The influence of Ndebele bead work, with its geometric shapes and strong colour, can also be seen in some of his work.

Ndebele bead work

Ndebele bead work

Walter Battiss

MARABARABA

The linear calligraphic detail and hieroglyphic forms in his work were also inspired by Middle Eastern decorative art. On his travels Battiss studied the calligraphy of Arabic scripts. Battiss developed his own visual language using picture-writing, or pictographs, which tell a story symbolically. Though colour is always important in his work, the technique os application is incidental to the impact of the symbolic shapes. Battiss did not confine himself to orthodox procedures. He explored the possibilities of every medium he used and kept abreast of technical experiments and innovations that influenced the character of modern art.

Walter Battiss

Five People in a Cave

In the 1960s Battiss produced a series of paintings with such titles as Message in an Unknown Language, Rock Artists and Palimpsest, which included text in a kind of hieroglyphic script. Battiss was well known for his coded alphabets and wrote letters using his own characters, in some case providing the reader with the key. They were not meaningless decorative simulations of Arabic script; they were coded messages that no one without the key to the code could interpret. Battiss thus graphically depicted the problems of interpretation encountered when archaeologists had to interpret San paintings.

For him there was no wretchedness in the inability to decipher the one-to-one relationship of visual sign to verbal meaning; the compositions retained their extraordinary visual primacy and would lose none of this with the discovery of the code that might interpret their literal meaning. (Ref)

Commenting on this aesthetic visual understanding without knowing the literal meaning and how art helps us to see the world around us in a new way, Battiss said;

Nature is made by the artist and nature does not exist until the artist creates it in his own way. It is possible that the artist, in defining reality around him. makes a new kind of reality that generations after him will understand.

Figures and Rocks

Cezanne – Joy of Life

Some of his works also show an influence by European art movements and artists . In for example Figures and Rocks you can see the influence of Post Impressionistic style of Cezanne with its fragmented colour planes. The theme of nude figures in a natural setting was explored by several Post Impressionist artists such as Mattisse’s “The joy of Living”. Battiss used distorted perspective, loose brush stroke, bright colours and idealistic themes of the Fauvists in several of his works.Some of his oil Paintings also shows an Expressionistic influence with thick applications of impasto paint, bold dramatic colours and dark outlines. As with Stern, his vision of Black Africans is exotic and idealized, rather than showing the hard realities.

walter Battiss Boys' swimming pool

Boy’s Swimming Pool

Here’s a great analysis of Boy’s Swimming Pool by By Darryl Houghton, former pupil of Battiss. (For the whole article click on image)

At first glance, Boys swimming pool appears to portray a group of archetypal figures in the style of a san rock painting – swimming and sunning themselves under an African sky. However, a closer look at the work reveals two bicycles, discarded clothing and even a pair of boots. This suggests that this is no timeless Arcadian scene, but that the silhouette-like figures are, in fact, boys from some Karoo dorp who have cycled out into the country to swim naked in a river pool.

In the foreground a group of boys disport themselves in the water, where they are joined by a laughing dog, tongue lolling (a typically Battissian touch of humour). At the centre of the composition, three boys stand poised on a rock and prepare to dive into the water, while others lie on the warm, golden brown rocks, soaking up the sun. It is a scene full of lively activity set in an ancient landscape of rocks and distant flat-topped hills.

The paint has largely been applied with a palette knife and the resulting scumbled texture seems to approximate the the rough layering of rock strata. There is little tonal contrast in thsi work and it is as if the blazing sun has drained the chromatic glow from the colours. The water is represented as a slab of dark cerulean blue with no modulation, around which the rest of the composition is grouped. The somewhat somber palette of earth greens and, ochres and reddish browns is enlivened by flashes of orange that complement the blue of the water. The figures have lost their individuality and are reduced to a series of flat, yellow “cut-outs” emphatically outlined in black. It is as though they have become an integral part of their natural surroundings.

Battiss, like the painter Paul Gauguin, often sought to portray humankind living in a Utopian state of harmony with nature and with each other. In this particular work it is as if the trappings of “civilization”, in the form of the bicycles and clothing, have been discarded and the boys have returned to a state of grace and are at one with water, earth and sky.

Walter Battiss

Coco de Mer, Seychelles

‘Battiss was one of only a handful of South African artists who kept abreast with international art developments during a long period of cultural isolation in South Africa during the apartheid years. Although distrustful of most conceptual art practise fashionable at this time, Battiss was a great admirer of Pop Art, especially the works of Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist and Robert Rauschenberg. His first hand knowledge and experience of Pop Art in turn became an important catalyst and influence on his own printmaking, especially the prints produced in the last decade of his life.'(Ref)

Coco de Mer, Seychelles, and Liza Minelli from the 1970’s shows references to the Pop Art of Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg,  The “Overallness ” especially found in the work of Jasper Johns, ”can also be seen in some of his works. The Overallness ( also called “undifferentiated” by some artists) of Pop Art and Abstract Expressionist is a radical departure from the traditional western art concept of reality in a frame. With overallness there is no focal point around which a composition of an art work is structured; it is more like wall paper with repetitive patterns. There is also an element of ambiguity – which forms are solids and which forms are voids?

Beautiful People - Walter Battiss

Beautiful People

Aim and Characteristics of Art

 

Walter Battiss is said to have in both his life and in his work rejected conformity and challenged every kind of boundary – creative, academic, political, cultural, spiritual. He is also called a ‘gentle anarchist.” Battiss said,: “In conforming I am wasting a hell of a lot of time…this ritual of conforming often gives people a certain security…And I like living in insecurity.


Battiss was a founding member of The New Group, an association of professional artists whose aim was to develop fresh ideas about art and to explore new directions, This aim can also be seen in the many different subject matter, techniques and styles his work covered. His work and explorations in different mediums and subjects can also be seen as explorations into his identity as a person with European based education living within an African country. Or his work can be seen as a synthesis of the two.

His long career as an artist has been devoted to the study of man in his environment; first in the context of Africa and rock art, then later, in the interpretation of this concept in its broadest sense.

Some Paintings analysed by previous students

Walter Battiss

People Enjoying – 1979 – Watercolour on Paper

In his watercolour People Enjoying Battiss displays a synergy of his multiple interests, especially his fascination with Bushmen Rock art. His quirky personality and humour is reflected in both the title and the images he chooses to depict. The line and shapes of the images are drawn with the simplicity found in rock paintings and colours are similar to those found in rock art; ochres, browns, black, white, blue and green, as if using natural pigments.

There is no perspective or illusion of space, and the composition is much like the rock paintings where figures are piled on top of each other. The Focal Point is no particular area and your eye moves from object to object, reflecting a general overallness of composition, yet when you focus on the painting, the figures in the left top corner draws the eye and leads you down to the bottom left and up to the right hand corner.

The two figures in the top left are very similar to the Egyptian goddess of the sky, Nuit or how she is often traditionally depicted.

Then below that is what appears to be  a traditional rock painting that has over time lost parts of the original image as with many traditional rock art works where the pigments either fades away or parts chips off. In the bottom left hand corner is a figure that resembles an Egyptian priest with hands stretched out as if calling upon the gods. Perhaps beginning to enter his trance state, or calling upon the gods. A figure standing with his hands out stretched and palm open facing up often indicates a state transcendence. As if to enforce this, next to this image there is a spiralling sphere which many sources say is sign of power like an atom which has electron shells around, and that each new layer of the spiral represents an increase in spiritual power, or deeper levels of entering a trance. Spirals are found all over the world in rock art.

It is now believed that the geometrics found at Driekopseiland were a depiction of the entoptics created by the optic nerve in the initial stages of an altered state. The shaman experienced these varied abstract shapes via intense drumming and dancing, sometimes in conjunction with hallucinogens. Just rub your eyes hard to get a mild sense of this phenomenon.There are numerous spiral petroglyphs at Driekops Eiland. ( Battiss studied and wrote about the the petroglyphs from Driekops Eiland)

Drie Kops Eiland Petroglyphs

This Documentary of the San Trance Dance shows visually what happens during trance and how images are seen during the different stages of trance.

Walter Battiss described the rocks with petroglyps as ‘great whales lying in the mud’ of Driekops Eiland, their backs ‘decorated with innumerable designs.”

To right of the spiral is what appears to be a whale perhaps symbolic of Battiss’s description of the rock engravings at Drie Kops Eiland. Then further to the right is a collection of small white figures that can help aid the idea of a shaman beginning to escape to a trance state because as he starts to get further into his trance the surroundings would begin to loose form and appear further away. This may also be why the figures are so small compared to the shaman and have no detail other than outlines. Next to the group is a figure of a man in what could be the whale. Perhaps this image reflects the fable of Jonah and the whale, who was only released from the belly of the whale until he promised to deliver the message god asked him to bring to the people. This could be a reflection of the messages the artist/shaman brings to people from the spirit world. The tree behind the group of figures also seems to reinforce this as the tree in some theories on the Bushmen art represents a kind of axis through which the different spiritual realms can be entered through.

Image from Matopo Hills Zimbabwe. It shows two ethereal human figures juxtaposed with a tree. The figure holding the tree trunk where lower branches stem off is a therianthrope, The figure farthest from the tree in a crouching posture is more human in form and is clapping. These figures have grossly exaggerated ‘streamers’ underneath their armpits which represents entering into a trance.

Then at the furthest right is what looks like the final stage of the trance, the anthropomorphic figures which are supposedly seen in the height of a trance state. (See How Art Made the World Part 2)

In the top right hand corner is what appears to be a decorative depiction of a leather beaded apron, with a quirk – it has a modern heart attached. Both the title and figures as whole suggests that this painting isn’t a serious depiction of trance and spirituality though, rather it displays Battiss’s imaginative humour as reflected in his Fook island. This could also be a statement that spiritual beliefs should be enjoyed rather that treated with the heaviness found in many orthodox religions.

In People Enjoying Battiss achieves a synthesis between Western and Rock Art.In conclusion one can say that in general, Battiss’ simplified schematic representations echo those found in San Rock art and hieroglyphs. Battiss developed his own visual language using picture-writing, or pictographs. His abstracted designs are composed of calligraphic images which tell a story symbolically.

The conventional European artistic viewpoint that Battiss inherited from his teachers was reconditioned by his growing empathy with the influence of rock art, and he began to devise pictorial forms that would identify his modern vision with the vision of the earlier rock-artists. Fishermen Drawing Nets shows one of his earlier imaginative compositions based on the motifs from South African rock-paintings.  His deliberate pictorial references to so-called ‘Bushman’ art led to Battiss being dubbed ‘the Bushman painter’. But while he was looking back towards the prehistoric past, Battiss was simultaneously influenced and stimulated by developments in Modern European paintings. Fisherman drawing Nets, is a sophisticated adaptation of his’Bushman’ conceptions in terms of contemporary methods, colouring and composition.

Fisherman Drawing Nets by Walter Battiss – 1955

Fisherman Drawing Nets by Walter Battiss – 1955

In Fishermen Drawing Nets, the colours and textures of the paintings draw upon Expressionism with their thick applications of impasto paint, bold dramatic colours, dark outlines, loose expressive brushwork and distorted perspective. There is a shallow almost two dimensional feeling to the painting, yet it still feels as if it has some depth. There is no aerial perspective as all the colours both in the background and foreground are of the same hue and intensity, with no fading or blurring as you will find in traditional western art.

The Composition is also in Fauvist and Impressionist style that has unusual angles. The diagonal lines are emphasized both in the shapes and the lines of the boats and fishing nets, giving a feeling of busy activity. The shapes of the boats and fisherman are also reduced to geometrical shapes which shows the influence of the Cubists. For me, the eye is drawn to the warm colours of the yellow and red fishing nets with white  fishes in the nets, that stands out against the darker cooler blues and blacks.

 Battiss also used the simplified and stylized forms found Rock Art. The figures have lost their individuality and are reduced to a series of flat, black “cut-outs”. It appears that in this painting Battiss is not interested in the emotional content of his subjects rather like the Cubists it is the forms and decorative elements of his subject that interest him. 

As with Irma Stern, his vision of Black Africans is exotic and idealistic .You do not see the hardship or the suffering of the fishermen doing hard work, but rather see the patterns and colours. Battiss experienced Bushman art as a European-African and he presents viewers with what he perceived as its foreignness.  In my opinion his works reflects the search for identity as a white South African within Africa, as an attempt to find and preserve what he saw as his own unique ‘native’ identity.

Walter Battiss

Symbols of Life – 1967

Symbols of Life is an abstracted work, by Battiss symbolically telling the story of a river and the varied life that it sustains and a new way of life unfolding around it.  It was developed from a series of works he did in the 1960s based on Arab writings. It represents the ideas of Battiss rather than a realistic description of figures and the subject.

From The African Rock Art Archive – KwaZulu-Natal – Mpendle

It tells the story of the historic times when life was centred around the river, but it also reflects the San’s Spiritual  Cosmos where water is a magical power; divine and invigorating.

The San cosmos with two intersecting axes and ‘conceptual sets’ show overlap between realms

The images draws heavily from stylized Rock art found in South Africa. It also shows Battiss use of pictographs that he developed to tell a story symbolically much like  Egyptian hieroglyphics.

The areas on either side of the river are filled with decorative motifs that cover the whole surface with shapes. The motifs reflects plants, trees, creatures and people.

The decorative composition is held together by the focus point of the river. The river that flows horizontally through the painting, reflects the concept of the river being the centre of life, and lifeblood of the people and land. The organic graphic shape of the river, broken up into geometric facets with thick gold outline, and filled in with flat black colour, stands out from among what appears to be like a sea of pictographs. The river also is the focal point because it is the only area of solid colour in the middle of the pale background colour, patterned with the repetitive terracotta-sienna coloured motifs.

Symbols of Life is 2 dimensional with no illusion of depth,or distance, or modulation of the objects to give them form or an illusion of mass and volume. The colours are flat with only one tonal value and are without mark making or texture. The general overallness of composition combined with the repeated shapes makes Symbols of Life feel  like an African fabric print.

In this art work you can clearly see the influence of the Middle Eastern decorative art and Bushmen Rock Art on Battiss work, but he did not copy rock art, he was inspired by it.  Battiss took the symbols and decorative simplification and made it his own. He tells a story from the intellectual perspective of an European African living in Africa. He does not try to show the social-realism of the Bushmen but rather use their symbols and their style of painting in his work to find his own identity as a white South African.

Keywords for Battiss: Stylization, pictographs, hieroglyphs, rockart, idealized, identity, abstact, non-conformist, gentle anarchist, anthropomorphic

Bibliography:

Aesthetics and Rock Art – By Thomas Heyd, John Clegg
http://www.amazon.com/Aesthetics-Rock-Art-Thomas-Heyd/dp/075463924X

African Rock Art Digital Archive
http://www.sarada.co.za/

L.H. Greonewald, Bushman Imagery and Its Impact –http://uir.unisa.ac.za/bitstream/handle/10500/2646/dissertation_groenewalt%20l.pdf?sequence=1

Historical Media
http://www.historicalmedia.co.za/?tag=battiss%E2%80%9A-walter

Johans Borman
http://www.johansborman.co.za/sa-masters/battiss-walter/

Siyakha Mguni – Formlings in Rock Art
http://www.scribd.com/doc/16800483/Siyakha-Mguni-MA-Thesis-2002

Power point
http://reddamart.files.wordpress.com/2010/09/i-sekoto-laubscher-stern-battiss-preller.ppt.

Retrospective Exhibition with pics of Battiss’ work
http://www.artthrob.co.za/05nov/reviews/standardbank.h

Standard Banks Arts – 2005 Exchibition
http://www.standardbankarts.co.za/Gallery/Previous-2005.aspx

Walter Battiss And The Legend of Fook Island
http://www.wheretostay.co.za/information/topic/3646

Gentle Anarchist – Walter Battiss
http://www.walterbattiss.co.za/WalterBattiss-Download.pdf

Walter Battiss Museum in Somerset East
http://www.somerseteast.co.za/ttdas.html

Peter Clarke works across a broad spectrum of media. But he also has a literary side as an internationally acclaimed writer and poet. Of these three roles, he jokes:

“Had I been triplets, it would have made it much easier because each could have his own job. There are times when I go through a writing phase and there are times for phases of picture-making but there is never a dull moment.” (Ref)

Clarke is well known  for his depictions of the social and political experiences of ordinary South Africans.

http://www.arttimes.co.za/news_read.php?news_id=4995

south african art times

Although he and his family were forcibly removed from their home in Simon’s Town during the apartheid era, his art is without bitterness. Often humorous, it is rather a scrutiny and celebration of life in all its aspects, and an expression of his ongoing delight in ordinary, everyday experiences. (Ref)

Clarke is best known for his graphic prints, particularly his woodcuts, and more recently he has moved into collage. He also uses leather, glass, found objects and other mixed media to produce his colourful work.

Biography

Peter Clarke was born in 1929.Clarke finished his schooling in 1944 and worked as a ship painter in the Simon’s Town dockyard. In 1947, he read an article on Gerard Sekoto, the first South African black artist to be represented in a public collection. Sekoto’s success inspired him to become an artist, and in his early twenties he declared that he would make his living as an artist, which was a highly unusual ambition for a young black South African at the time.

In this Video Peter Clarke discusses October Landscape and talks about his background

October Landscape 1964

Clarke is largely self-taught and has learned much from books and magazines. He did however, receive some informal art tuition, which began in 1947 in District Six where he was taught by the London-born artist , John Coplans. In 1948, these classes moved to the Roland Street Technical College, Cape Town where they were run by pioneering members of the New Group.

With assistance from his life-long friend, James Matthews, Clarke held his first solo exhibition in the newsroom of the newspaper, The Golden City Post, in 1957. At that time he said: ‘Before my exhibition, I was just another coloured man. Our people took it for granted that only whites could do such things. Now they are becoming aware of the fact that we can do these things too; that we are human beings.’

Clarke later worked with Katrina Harries at the Michaelis School of Art , University of Cape Town in 1961, and then spent time at the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten in Amsterdam and at Atelier Nord in Oslo. (Ref)

Over the last sixty years, Clarke has reflected on his country’s social and political history and is often referred to as the ‘quiet chronicler’. His work constitutes a subtle critique of apartheid and its social consequences as well as more recently, aspects of the ‘new’ South Africa.

Peter Clarke’s art is about people, and in his reflection of humanity and in the contribution he has made to his country’s cultural development, he has become an inspiration to many other artists.Although largely self-taught, Clarke was encouraged by taking informal art classes and studying European masters that he saw reproduced in books – including Picasso, and the South African modernist Gerard Sekoto (the first black artist to be represented in a South African public collection). Witty, sharp, poignant, aesthetically memorable, Clarke’s work provides an extraordinary context for discussion of his country as it prepares to celebrate 20 years since the momentous elections that brought Nelson Mandela to President.

His early pieces, reflect the social disruption of the Cape Flats. Works from the late 1960s refer to the trauma of forced removals from Simon’s Town, and the ambitious paintings he began making during his trips to America, Norway and France in the 1970s.

Clarke works from his home in Ocean View, Cape Town. He has never had his own studio and this fact impacts upon his work. Printmaking can be awkward if not impossible in a small space and this restriction has helped trigger Clarke’s recent move to alternative media.

The confines of home have also impacted on the scale of his work. Small artworks are more practical and Clarke says his work has therefore tended to be smaller. He says: “I do make tiny prints at home but one has to improvise terribly and [working from home] does have an impact on size and the amount of prints you can produce.”

Clarke works consistently, interspersed with other activities, in a natural rhythm that oscillates between writing and art making. “I work when the idea strikes. I don’t have a regime; while I work the ideas come. I’m not interested in waiting around for the muse,” he says.

Listening to Distant Thunder - 1970. Oil and sand on board,

Listening to Distant Thunder – 1970. Oil and sand on board,

Although his work has naturally evolved over time, Clarke says its latest twist towards collage heralds a more abrupt and obvious change. He says:

“Up to a certain time, I worked in a narrative manner. I had things to say and it was also expected of black artists to make statements about the state of affairs in the country. But it was a phase and I felt at the time that I also wanted to produce artwork without it necessarily making a statement about anything in particular.”

“After 1994, I started feeling that one must also explore other things beyond the statement.  I felt it was a time for liberation, a renaissance as being felt [in South Africa] in any case. So I gave free reign to working with various kinds of material like coloured paper, cloths, labels and whatever I also became aware at this time of a lot of scrap material – like junk mail. Some of it is so colourful. I realized I could use it as material.

“South Africa is a very inspiring place.  I am very much interested in people. If I decided only to work in a figurative way, there would be no end to what I want to say about people. People here are more involved with each other. The climate has a lot to do with it. And the variety of people – the physical variety – is very exciting in fact and the way people interact or not. I used to think of South Africa as a mad house but a mad house is far more interesting, really. Had I lived in Europe, my art would have been completely different and probably not at all figurative.

“My earliest influences were the Mexican artists of the 1930s, 40s and 50s and the German Expressionists. I have also been very interested in Japanese art. It has a very attractive style. In the early 1940s and 50s, I also began thinking about what an art teacher [at school] had said. And I took evening classes at St Phillips in District Six where I came into contact with others involved in that space. The interaction led to exploration through books and exhibitions in Cape Town.

Peter Clarke Landscape White Sheep

Peter Clarke Landscape White Sheep

Influences

He was an extremely versatile artist, a book illustrator, a poet, a gifted writer of short stories, and a book-binder. As a printmaker he has been influenced by the prints of the German Expressionists and by Japanese woodcuts. He also has a strong interest in 20th-century Mexican artists such as Diego Rivera (1886–1957) and David Siqueiros (1896–1974). Their subject matter, with its strong social and political content and their depiction of ordinary people in a bold, naturalistic style, influenced his approach. (Ref)

Peter Clarke

Ruin 1964

By the time Clarke painted Ruin, the group areas act had been in effect for 14 years, tearing apart families, destroying homes and communities. In Ruin Clarke reflects the prevailing despair through an abandoned shack and a sollitary  crippled figure limping out of the picture plane, increasing the viewer’s discomfort with complimentary colours and a jagged composition. (Ref)

With retrospect, Clarke thinks the theme of space is recurrent through his work. He says: “Physical space, mental space these seem to have been a preoccupation throughout my life.” Even his poetry has reflected this concern, as the words of one of his poems describe: “Sunlight reflected in a distant window”.

Wind Blowing on the Cape Flats 1960

In Wind Blowing on the Cape Flats, Clarke portrays a scene from a settlements outside city centre, so typical of Township Art, conceived amid the daily angst and hardship of existence in a deprived society. Clarke gives a view of the Cape Flats with people struggling to move in die wind blowing on the sand dunes. Clarke reflects the harshness of life on the Cape Flats by focussing on the harshness of the weather – the blinding sun and the merciless wind. (Anyone who has experienced the South Easter in the Cape heat , combined with the stinging sand, will understand the extreme discomfort.) The stylized, strongly defined shapes are reminiscent of both Japanese woodcuts and Mexican Expressionism (See Diego Rivera 1886 – 1957) (Ref)

The girl with the bag forms the focal point as she is the biggest shape and is placed in the centre of the painting. The lines of the grass and the shadow of her legs leads the eye to her.  Clarke also simplified his shapes; they are generalized shapes and do not show individual features, for example the box-like houses and the ripples of the sand blowing on the dunes become patterns.

On the Dunes – 1960

This is the third in a series of films of Peter Clarke talking about his work at the Wind Blowing on the Cape Flats exhibition. Here he talks about Winter sun, Amsterdam.

This is the fourth in a series of films of Peter Clarke talking about his work at the Wind Blowing on the Cape Flats exhibition. Here he talks about the works he collectively calls the ‘Ghetto Fence Series’.

Peter Clarke

some pathways to education lies between thorns

Here’s a Video of Peter Clarke discussing Some Pathways to Education lies Between Thorns

“I’ve been interested in space for a very long time, since early childhood in fact. Not only that kind of space, but also the spaces that separate people. The spaces that people have to traverse. In this particular work, what inspired this one was the fact that in South Africa, in the rural areas there’s a great deal of having to walk to school. Often children travel long distances every day. Going to school and traveling back afterwards. When I for instance spent a while in a village called Tesselaarsdal in the earlier part of my career there was one group of children who walked five miles to school in the morning and then walked the five miles back after school. So I was seeking out the difficulties involved in gaining an education. And so the title eventually came to me for this particular one, ‘For Some the Pathway to Education Lies Between Thorns’.”

“This is a lino-cut print. It is a reduction lino-cut print. What I mean by reduction is I draw on the block, cut very carefully. I’ve already decided in my mind that this is going to be a five colour block print…a five colour print…and so I cut the block and I ink for the first stage, print it, then I cut it further, ink it a different colour, printed it and so on, until I’ve completed the block. I’ve completed the block and what will remain over on the block so what has printed the darkest colour here. It is actually a very simple process, but I’ve felt with many adult artists that I’ve spoken to about print making, they haven’t the foggiest idea what I’m talking about until I actually show them how it is done.” (Ref)

The medium of reduction lino cut lends itself towards clear-cut lines creating sharp black outlines which emphasises the sharpness of the thorns, and the sharpness of the foliage in the foreground. The composition has a horizontal emphasis focused on the line of five children walking with purpose through the thorny bush. There is little depth in the artwork with the focus on the horizontal. Even the sky is treated in a decorative manner rather than an attempt to indicate depth.

The artwork is divided into three sections; the sky, the line of children and the thorny bush. The strong horizontal lines are broken up by the sharp but decorative lines of the grasses, plants and thorny bushes, and in the sky by the strong zig-zag lines, broken-up colour and speckled patterned texture.

He uses a limited palette of colours; soft browns, ochres and blue-greys, with splashes of white, which also reflects the harsh conditions of the children.

The figures of the children are simplified and angular, so that they almost appear like African woodcarvings. The African ethnic feel is especially strong in decorative patterning of the girls’ dresses. There are no soft lines which perhaps reflects the harshness of the conditions the children faces in order to receive their education. Even the grasses and the plants in the foreground feels as if they are rather dry and prickly, than soft. Yet, the children seems oblivious to ” the thorns on their path” to education, and the long walk, rather it appears that they are so focused on their goal, nothing else matters.This is emphasized as they are all focusing forward and the lines in the foliage also bends towards the same direction.

The general simplification of forms and decorative use of line helps to give the overall impression that Some Pathways to Education lies Between Thorns, could very well be an illustration for a children’s book, which lends and ironic element to the theme, as many children under Apartheid would not even have access to books.

Peter Clarke

Before the Storm = koki on paper – 1961

Peter Clarke’s work shows the hardships and suffering of the coloured
community in Cape Town. The Group Areas Act led to the relocation of many
coloured communities to the Cape Flats in areas such as Atlantis, Ocean
View, etc. These sandy areas were located far from their jobs and led to
displaced communities. In this work a young boy (focal point), is the largest
figure is playing a flute amidst a field of Arum lilies. The three white arum lilies
in the foreground bring sharpness to the front and encircled him. In the
background simple houses are painted of the disadvantaged community.
Aerial perspective is created by the smaller figures Two figures, a dog, a
wagon, and a piece of wood is shown in the background.
Clarke gives dignity to the boy playing the flute – it is as if the music carries
him away from the mundane hardship of his everyday life. There is a strong
awareness of modern international styles in his works which is seen in the
stylisation and simplification of his shapes. The angularity in the shapes
shows an expressionistic influence. Everything is stripped down to basic
shapes without much detail. The colour is subtle, mostly greens, blues and
browns. His clothes form a contrast between the cool blue shirt and warm
yellow shorts. There is a dreamlike atmosphere. Expressionism, hard
outlines, etched shapes/stylized-simplified

Peter Clarke

Flute Music 1961

 

Abandoned House, 1982, Linocut

Wood gatherers - 1967

Wood gatherers – 1967

Ruined Houses at Simons Town

Peter Clarke, Afrika which way?, 1978. Gouache and collage

Afrika which way? Shows a boy, thorn bushes, birds freed  from a cage by the boy, and a wall with graffiti.  The names that appear on the  wall – Cabral, Luthuli, Kenyatta, Nkrumah and Nyerere.  Also written on the wall are the  names of the European colonial powers – France, Britain, Belgium and Portugal.

Among the slogans on the wall is “We shall overcome”, the title of a freedom song that was sometimes sung during the South African struggle for liberation. 

Bibliography and Further Reading

Art Times
http://www.arttimes.co.za/news_read.php?news_id=4995
http://www.smacgallery.com/pdf/news/Art%20Times_Peter%20Clarke_May%202011.pdf

Artthrob
http://www.artthrob.co.za/03sept/artbio.html

Great SA Art Masters Series – Peter Clark

http://www.smacgallery.com/pdf/news/Art%20Times_Peter%20Clarke_May%202011.pdf

Habitat
http://www.habitatmag.co.za/articles/Peter_Clarke.html#

Interview with Peter Clarke
http://www.scenicsouth.co.za/2012/03/interview-with-peter-clarke-world-renowned-artist-and-writer-from-ocean-view/

Peter Clarke introduces For Some the Pathway to Education Lies Between Thorns
http://www.iniva.org/exhibitions_projects/2013/peter_clarke/peter_clarke_introduces_his_work_for_some_the_pathway_to_education

Royal African Society
http://www.royalafricansociety.org/blog/culture-interview-peter-clarke-artist-82

South African Creatives
http://sacreativenetwork.co.za/2012/09/one-of-south-africas-most-highly-regarded-living-artists-peter-clarke/

Standard Bank Learner Resources on the Art of Peter Clarke

http://www.standardbankarts.co.za/media/9093/peter_clarke.pdf

South African History Online
http://www.sahistory.org.za/people/peter-clarke

 From Durantas’ A guide for for Analyzing Works of Art; Sculpture and Painting

Trojan Horse | Willie Bester

Identification: Recording the Sculpture Details

  • Name of Artist if known, or anonymous
  • Title or subject of  the Work
  • Where it was made
  • Date

Technical Data

1. Size of work; in giving dimensions, list height first
2. Medium; from what material(s) is it constructed?
Is it carved from stone? Wood – if so, what kind? Modelled in clay and then cast in bronze? or glazed? Welded metal? Other?
3. If Historical – what is the general condition; whole or undamged? a fragment? worn? etc.
4. Display; Was the work meant to be seen on its own or as part of a complex sculptural or architectural setting? Free-standing? Mounted on a pedestal or base? Standing on ground? Against a wall? In a niche? Altar piece?

Jackson Hlungwane – Man riding Fish – His sculptures were functional in that they served as iconography in his ‘church’ just like sculpture would in classical Roman cathedrals.

Subject Matter

What is shown? Abstract, or representational (depicting recognizable people, people, place, things)?

Take inventory of what is represented, beginning with major motifs. To which culture, and/or belief system did the subject belong (the cult or myths of a particular tribe, clan, or court; the Hebrew Bible or New Testament; classical literature; the lives of saints, Renaissance literature; history, everyday life etc.

If the Human figure is represented, to what category does the person belong; deity, athlete, warrior, states person  private person, poet, philosopher, mythological figure, etc.

Characterization; consider age, pose, movement, attire, body build, skin quality, facial expression; psychological focus; emphasis on an anatomical or other parts, relationship of drapery or other clothing to the body?

If a group of figures, also consider; physical and psychological relationships among figures, movement from figure to to figure – rhythmic, patterned, disjointed etc.

Jane Alexander - Butcher Boys - They sit together on the bench but there is no communication between them.

Jane Alexander – Butcher Boys – They sit together on the bench but there is no communication between them. “The deformed and stunted relations between human beings that were created under colonialism and exacerbated under what is loosely called apartheid have their psychic representation in a deformed and stunted inner life.“ -J. M. Coetzee

Formal Analysis

Prevailing Axis; Vertical, horizontal, diagonal, spiral?

Volumes; What kind of three-dimensional forms are basic to the sculpture? Geometric (conic, cubic, pyramidal, etc.)? Irregular (organic – lifelike; jagged; smooth)? A particular combination of the irregular and geometric? How are these forms organized (including relative scale or proportion)?

What kind of three-dimensional forms are basic to the sculpture? Geometric (conic, cubic, pyramidal, etc.)?

Space; To what degree does the sculpture displace space? Do forms and surrounding space interpenetrates? Is it a relief that creates an illusion of space within it?  Is the sculpture frontal Does it turn in space? Was it meant to be seen from one point of view only, or from many?

Line; How is line used in the sculpture? Contour; does the work have an open or closed silhouette? Are the dominant linear elements seen in the forms themselves, or are they incised onto the surface? What is the relationship between the linear and volumetric elements?

Colour: Is colour or gilding added to the sculpture? Is the colour of the material of special importance? Does the colour have a thematic significance? Does it have a descriptive or expressive function?

Sculpture at Mynydd Mawr Woodland Park – head of gilded driftwood and painted wood-and-tyre

Light; Has the artist considered the effect of light upon his work? Are the forms arranged so that a particular effect of light and shade will be attained? Do part s of the sculpture cast shadows? Are there sharp protrusions that catch the light? Deep pockets of shadows?

Relation of Technique and Material to form; Are some of the forms inherent to the carving or modelling or assembling process? Has the surface been polished? Is there a pattern on the surface?

Further Iconographic analysis; (i.e., historical analysis of subject matter) Is the subject treated in the same way in contemporary works? Has this been a constant tradition, or has the theme varied over the centuries? Is it a new subject altogether? Has a radically new interpretation been given to an old subject?

Function; Was the work intended for public or private viewing? Was its function primarily sepulchral (tomb, grave), votive ( votive offering is object(s) displayed or deposited, in a sacred place for broadly religious purposes),  Was it made as a copy of an admired work, or inspired by another work?

Ancient Greek votive relief, 400 BCE. Asclepios is sitting on an omphalos between his wife Epione and a man clad in himation, Acropolis Museum, Athens

Content; How did the subject, theme, and form convey ideas, values, sentiments, beliefs, perceptions? What may the work of art say about the period and culture in which the work was created?