Bushman painting as documentary

ORIGINAL ARTICLE BY: Lucille Davie
30 October 2008

There were no Bushmen about to ask how to create the paintings, so artist Stephen Townley Bassett learned how to recreate Bushman paintings the hard way – by trial and error.

His dedication to the task over the past 18 years has led to the first major exhibition of his Bushman works – 30 extraordinary paintings assembled at the Origins Centre at Wits University in Johannesburg in an exhibition entitled Reservoirs of Potency.

“I threw away my penknife,” Bassett says, together with plastic containers and metal tins. And went out into the bush discovering. He learned how to use animal blood, saliva, ochre, cobra venom and ostrich egg shells to create pigment to paint the images, precise copies of Bushmen paintings from around the country.

He learned too how to use porcupine quills, buck horns, rocks, animal hairs, bird droppings, feathers and animal skins that would become his stock in trade. He made mistakes along the way but got it right.
‘I learned that fat is a good binder’

“I learned that fat is a good binder. I would make a paste which was easy to carry. I learned to liquefy it again with gall, saliva and blood.” Bassett also learned about the different quality of hair of different animals, giving him fine hair for a paintbrush, or thicker hair for a bushier brush.

He even made his own stone tools to skin spring hares and foxes he’d shot, to use the skin as a pouch in which to carry his painting implements.

The animals and people in his works, which Bassett calls “documentary paintings”, are the precise size of the originals. The works are done on 100 percent cotton sheets. Each piece, he says, is a one-off.

“So much has gone into each painting,” he explains. He would spend days at a site, deciphering the original, with a miner’s lamp on his forehead.

“The first thing is to document as accurately as possible, doing it with pigments available to them, absolutely life size. I would only record what I saw, making it a little darker, to take account of dust,” he recounts. Then back at home a painting would take between six and eight weeks to complete.

“The work is very exacting, very demanding. There is no debate, the work has to be right – everything exactly there. It is a blend of science, art and craft,” he says, referring to the tool-making as craft.
Endorsements

Such is his attention to detail that the professor emeritus and renowned researcher and author on Bushman art, David Lewis-Williams, comments in the caption of one piece that it was only after Bassett captured the work, the Leaping Lion, that Lewis-Williams noticed fish around the lion’s body.

“Often I return to the site with my half-completed painting to compare colours and overall appearance of my rendition to the original on the rock,” says Bassett. “All paint marks on the rock that are within the frame of reference of the chosen scene must be recorded. All marks must be acknowledged and recorded. The final product must be the next best thing to the original on the rock, a kind of historical document of what has been deciphered from the rock face.”

His paintings have brief notes or paint blotches around the edges which don’t distract from the work, but help to guide him as to colour and markings on the original.

And he has the full endorsement of Dr Benjamin Smith, the director of the Rock Art Research Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand, and Lewis-Williams, who describes the work as “wonderful” and “very special”.

“You must either do the work accurately or not at all,” says Lewis-Williams.

Smith says: “This is an artist like no other; he bleeds for his art,” referring to the fact that Bassett has used his own blood in his paint mixes.

Bassett doesn’t only do Bushman art – he produces landscapes and takes on commissions from local farmers, who, he says with a mischievous smile, can be very exacting in what they want.

A book has been produced to accompany the exhibition – Reservoirs of potency – the documentary paintings of Stephen Townley Bassett. In 2002, he published another book, Rock paintings of South Africa – revealing a legacy.

“It has been an extraordinary journey,” he exclaims. Bassett is keen for the exhibition to travel, around South Africa and overseas, on perhaps an equally extraordinary journey.

Bassett’s works are available for private viewing and purchase at the Bonair Road Gallery in Cape Town.

Source: City of Johannesburg

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