/ 13 May 2015

Walter Battiss is now a retail brand – but is it art?

Cushion feathers.
Cushion feathers.

A new collaboration between homeware retailer @Home and the custodians of artist Walter Battiss’s legacy brings a new dimension to the question: “But is it art?”

For Eduard du Plessis, founder of the Walter Battiss Company, the answer is an unequivocal “yes”. Nor is the concept a new one, he points out: Tretchikoff’s “merchandised” art was the first offering available in South Africa and William Kentridge’s 2010 collaboration with Illy resulted in imminently collectable espresso cups. 

Even Ardmore ceramic art made the leap from clay to cloth. In Europe and the United States, fans of artists such as Miró and Lichtenstein, unable to afford original works, have long been glad of the opportunity to buy homeware, reprints, fabric and beachware inspired by these icons – at chain stores. 

Whether you’re wearing a Marlene Dumas scarf purchased online from the Tate Gallery, hanging Damien Hirst-designed wallpaper or rocking in Converse’s Andy Warhol range, it’s clear that art has stepped out from behind the frame.

It’s not the first time that Battiss’s imagery has been co-opted: his distinctive patterning has been used by designers Stefania Morland and Marianne Fassler and a range of stationery and gift cards are available on the Walter Battiss Company’s website, walterbattiss.co.za

Diluting the legacy?
The @Home collaboration has unearthed four of the prolific artist’s lesser-known works. These have been reproduced for a limited range of prints. Works have also been reimagined for fabric and fashioned into scatter cushions and ceramicist Mervyn Gers has redesigned elements of Battiss prints to create a series of plates and platters.

Lize Viljoen, furniture buyer for @Home, reports that the store is delighted with the response to the range so far. “This has shown there is great potential for future ranges by local artists,” she says.

Not that she’s surprised. She points to renowned trends forecaster Li Edelkoort who, speaking at this year’s Design Indaba, referenced the steady growth of collaborations. Battiss seemed the ideal place to start, Viljoen says, not only because the venture gave @Home the chance to “celebrate SA art and design”, but also because Battiss himself had “a passion and delightful sense of humour that appealed to us. He had a warm interest in people of different cultures, and this comes through in his work”– a plus when looking for work that resonates with South Africa’s diverse consumers.

Viljoen adds that the graphic content of Battiss’s art, and his silkscreens in particular, easily lends itself to being reproduced and applied to fabric, ceramics and printed matter.

Trending collaborations may be, but this is the first time that a South African artist has joined forces with a retailer. Doesn’t that dilute the work’s prestige, even just a little? After all, one of @Home’s driving rationales was “to spread Battiss’s legacy and offer customers an opportunity to own a piece of art by a well-known South African artist”. With prints priced from R2 000, as opposed to the R26 000 that a Battiss silkscreen usually fetches, that goal is certainly within reach.

Accessibility, not collectability
Du Plessis insists that moving Battiss into the realm of commerce is doing the brand no harm. In fact, he says, Battiss bequeathed his copyright to a trust – the only South African artist to make such a move – that invests funds from such projects in an exclusive exhibition hosted at Battiss’s Somerset East birthplace. The company held in-depth discussions with other art world luminaries, including Stefan Hundt, curator of the Sanlam Art Collection, to ensure that the retail association would not diminish the Battiss brand.

For independent art consultant Suzie Hozack, placing art in the hands of everyman has more advantages than drawbacks. As an avid collector of art-inspired design pieces, she applauds the accessibility made possible by merchandising. But it’s not simply about the price point, she argues: when art has a utilitarian aspect, people are better able to relate to it. Wayne Barker’s carpet collection, or Conrad Botes’s shoe cupboards, both produced in collaboration with Southern Guild, are cases in point.

“Art and design are interdisciplinary – art breeds life into design and vice versa,” she says – although there is a point when that interplay can become dangerous. “Purchasers cannot assume that these items will have collectable status,” she warns.

Then again, if you’re buying them purely for the pleasure of owning something beautiful – well, isn’t that valuable in its own right?

It begins with Battiss
Du Plessis and Viljoen would certainly argue that this is the case. @?Home is casting about for other local artists with similar appeal and Du Plessis has his eyes open to new opportunities.

Their verdict is clear: other artists – from Warhol to Matisse and Picasso – have evolved their names into world-renowned brands. This being the case, commercialisation is to be embraced and celebrated.

Works by Battiss will feature in a group exhibition, It Begins with Battiss, that “reflects on sovereignty and world making”. The title is a reference to Battiss’s Fook Island, the imaginary place he conjured up with artist Norman Catherine, where everybody could enjoy the freedom to create art at a time when South Africa was under serious censorship. 

Curated by Candice Allison and Kirsty Cockerill, the exhibition includes work by artists who share the same affinity for merging reality and fantasy in their works, such as Willem Boshoff, Avant Car Guard, Wim Botha, Gerald Machona and Cecil Skotnes.

The exhibition is on until August 29 at the New Church Museum, 102 New Church Street, Tamboerskloof, Cape Town. Visit thenewchurch.co