African Traders

Walter Whall Battiss

Oil on Canvas
62 x 76.5cm
Signed: "Walter Battiss" (Lower/Left)

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

These words were penned by the renowned Walter Battiss; South African artist, creator of the artistic reality which he coined “Fook Island” and avid rock art researcher and enthusiast. His painting, “African Traders” weaves nature, human interaction and rock art inspired form into one seamless abstraction of reality.

Indeed, while the content of the work hints at reality, at a market day in Africa, Battiss calls upon abstraction of form and loss of detail in such a way that the viewer formulates a diverse perception of the scene represented before them. As opposed to observing the reality of everyday life, the viewer becomes aware of the inner workings of the artist’s mind as he travels away from a tangible understanding of the world before him and towards an intangible realm of concepts and shapes.

Battiss often wrote of this abstracted reality that he discovered from his exploration of the spiritual realm that rock paintings prompted him to access. He was fascinated by the potential of painting to speak spirituality, to a higher order imaginative contemplation which: 

“leads one to a new understanding of rhythms… to approach the morphology of forms through a primitive calligraphy suggesting in its amplitude the convex and concave volumes and density of living tissues…to enjoy colour not as servile to tone or science dogma, thus beholding polychrome paintings as chords of colours unsullied by superstitious associations— yellow ochre to be enjoyed for its special yellowness, and white for its special whiteness, and black for its special blackness.”

This passion and commitment to colour, to the density and freedom of painting is striking in “African Traders”. Frenetic diagonal strokes of brown acrylic cover the surface of the canvas. The background has the cracked, irregular quality of a rock surface, evidently inspired by his close study of South African rock paintings.

In contrast to the cross-hatched sweeps of brick red ground towards the lower centre of the composition, are vivacious patches of green grass which spring forth towards the viewer, their colour identical to the rounded flecks of leaves, framing the scene from above. The right side of this curtain of foliage is dashed with three lime green leaves. Their bursting hue compliments the sunshine yellow of the hat perched upon the uppermost right hand figure. The lack of facial detail given to this and every other figure enables the viewer to focus primarily on the sense of movement and vitality created by Battiss’ impasto brushstrokes and energetic composition.

Indeed, Battiss has arranged the piece into small groups of traders— a tightly packed group of five traders, seemingly selling fruit, balance out the loosely laid out, leaning, seated and drumming traders to the right of the work. The trader clasping a wood brown stick and leaning diagonally towards the left of the painting mimics the diagonal positions of the two figures locked head to head in the centre foreground.

Thus, the viewer is taken on an adventure of movement through the work and at the same time experiences an incredible life force exuding from these contrasting colours and diagonals. For this reason, one can safely assert that while there are few artists who can transport their viewers so seamlessly, so magically towards the unknown, Battiss is one such wizard. In this painting he not only excites and entices his viewer towards a deep spiritual reverence, he also allows for a profound connection with Africa, in all its beauty, mystery and vivacity to be made. 

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