Arts and Culture

Faithful to its origins

Percy Zvomuya

Stephen Townley Basset's life pursuit is to reproduce the technical complexity of San rock art, writes Percy Zvomuya.

English statesman Sir John Barrow was right to say the rock art he saw in the Cape could not have been produced by uncivilised folk.

“The force and spirit of the drawings, given to them by bold touches judiciously applied, and by the effect of light and shadow, could not be expected from savages,” Barrow wrote after seeing San rock art around the Cape in the 18th century.

Some of the art that occasioned such a considered response is now on exhibition at Wits University’s Origins Centre. OK, I exaggerate, it’s not the original art, but something as close as is humanly possible to what exists in the wild. It is an exhibition of documentary paintings rendered by South African artist Stephen Townley Bassett from 1990 to the present.

The paintings are faithful and exacting recreations of the San originals found on rock surfaces strewn across our rocky landscape.

It is a personal triumph for Bassett, who was born into a family of rock art aficionados. His maternal grandfather, Frederick Townley Johnson scoured the southern Cape looking for San art around 1910. Johnson’s son, Ginger, inherited the passion and would routinely take young Bassett along. “He got me interested. He influenced me,” Bassett says wistfully of his late uncle, who also wrote the book Major Rock Paintings of Southern Africa.

After studying for a social science degree and entertaining a spell in business, Bassett quit to pursue his passion. “It wasn’t my calling,” he says.

Early on in 1990 he decided to use “my own paints and implements from materials I would collect from the landscape in which I so often walked”. This decision to use natural ingredients was a radical break from the approach of his uncle who had used commercial paint and industry-made brushes in his works. “I wanted to be deeper, to be more accurate in the detail I recorded,” Bassett says. “I wanted to go back to the beginning.”

This was revolutionary. It meant reverting to thinking in the way an early rock artist would have thought. It meant doing away with commercial paint, discarding the spatulas, brushes, boxes and using natural materials. A gemsbok horn, for example, replaced a metallic container; ochres from iron-rich clays, animal fats, blood, eggs and saliva replaced commercial paints. Various animal hides were used to make brushes.

The actual production of the rock art involves placing tracing film over an existing painting. To enhance the detail on the rock face, Bassett sometimes uses a dentist’s magnifying loupe.

With fine felt-tipped pens he slowly traces the images on to the film. He jots down notes about the site, mixes paints on site and tries to match his own paints with those of the originals.

Back in the studio he wets cotton paper, places it on the tracing film and so begins a laborious process that has ended with the works currently on show.

Titled Reservoirs of Potency, the exhibition consists of 30 paintings, 19 of which have been borrowed from collections in Europe and the United States. This is the first time Bassett has shown his work in Johannesburg.

One work titled Magic Lines has a haunting beauty (to use the corniest of phrases). Set against a brownish-grey background, it depicts human figures, above which float three supernatural humanoids. A central figure has a grotesquely shaped back and a muzzle, not human at all, in many ways similar to a baboon. There are white painted lines that run from top to bottom. Rock art scholar and Origins Centre director Benjamin Smith says these “make a connection to a spirit world behind the rock face”.

Bassett says painting the work was “eerie” and he used cobra venom to symbolise this sense of danger.

Another work on exhibition, which Bassett completed this year, is simply titled Large Roof Painting. The original is found in the Eastern Cape. Set against a greyish background and more than 2m above the ground, it depicts a group of brown and white antelope. Bassett says the work is technically complex and its artists “must have used more than one brush, maybe 10 or 15 brushes”.

The roof painting is impressive because of the logistical difficulty its artists must have had in launching the operation, especially for such short people. “But they would have used a pile of stones to help them,” Bassett notes.

The exhibition shows that spirituality was not removed from the pursuit of painting. The San thought rain could be brought by a supernatural creature as is depicted in the painting Rain Animal, completed by Bassett in 2000. It looks like a hippopotamus and in this work there are human figures in a clapping posture. Smith says this shows: “They are involved in a trance dance, in this case a rain-making dance. One figure is shown spearing a rain animal and so makes rain.”

Smith says the exhibition shows “great intellectual sophistication” and “takes us beyond the old stereotype of the San as a primitive people”.

Bassett’s exhibition is moving and evocative. As former president Thabo Mbeki said at the opening of the Origins Centre in 2006, all this is relevant “for a people looking to the past to make sense of our identity in the present”. 

The exhibition runs at the Origins Centre on Wits West Campus until February 20 2009. The catalogue Reservoirs of Potency: The Documentary Paintings of Stephen Townley Bassett contains commentaries by David Lewis-Williams and Benjamin Smith. Tel: 011 717 4711. www.origins.org.za


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