Wim Botha's Mielepap Pietá. Picture: SUPPLIED
Wim Botha's Mielepap Pietá. Picture: SUPPLIED

One of Wim Botha’s key artworks is a set of four linocut prints that mimics a classic Pierneef painting in format, media and style, but reads in sequence as a scene devastated in the darkest humour.

A typical umbrella-branched tree, elegantly lonely in a black-and-white landscape, is torn to smithereens in Blastwave (2005). These are illustrations of revolution, art turned upside down. The four prints with an ambience of the patriotic — the stately turned to comic — characterise the constant theme that runs through the 44-year-old Botha’s oeuvre.

His work is an unremitting engagement with the imagery and themes of art history, anchored and explored from within his  identity and cultural background, grounded in contemporary art processes, and driven by what seems like compulsion to empower spaces and ignite the imagination of his audiences.

The result is a riveting interplay between the aesthetic traditions of Western art, the signs and markers of past Afrikaans culture, and astoundingly original and playful inventiveness. Botha’s sense for the theatrical is precise and calculated. 

As Owen Martin, curator of Wim Botha: Heliostat at the Norval Foundation, writes in the catalogue, the artist’s work has an emotive power that gets “under one’s skin in a way that is profound”. This show is a kind of mid-career overview.

Heliostat is a grand new work, created for Norval, and the gallery also plays host to key works from Botha’s career. Referencing reflected sunlight, the exhibition shines a nifty light on a career that has thrilled art lovers with its creative consequence since his first participation, in the late 1990s, in group shows like the Sasol New Signatures and the Absa Atelier.

Wim Botha. Picture: SUPPLIED
Wim Botha. Picture: SUPPLIED

Botha’s first solo exhibition at the Klein Karoo National Arts Festival in Oudtshoorn in 2001 electrified the crowds, and the re-installation at Norval of his work titled Commune: Suspension of Disbelief is a great reconnection.

Like in Blastwave (Botha’s titles sometimes dabble in the obscure and esoteric, but often hit home), the work done for that memorable show in Oudtshoorn — a crucified Christ figure carved from bibles, dramatically lit with projections of live video imagery of Jesus’s visitors — the twist in significance and symbolism is powerfully enhanced by the way the sculpture owns the space around it. This work has a hugely improved display at the Norval.

It would be a misconception to regard Botha’s art as challenging the established orthodoxy of religion and politics. Religious motives and representation return again and again as themes, but as the latest installation — a high point for the artist — makes clear, his mission is making and engaging with art now and here.

Another earlier work like the significant 2004 Mieliepap Pietà (now in the Spier art collection, and quietly shown at Norval) is a rigorous “reconstruction” in maize meal and resin of the famous Michelangelo in St Peter’s. It’s a magnificent appropriation that plays to a multitude of tropes. The medium of the work, the humble “porridge of the poor” (nourishing body and soul), carries the full impact of the famous sculpture’s symbolism.

Wim Botha's Prism 13. Picture: SUPPLIED
Wim Botha's Prism 13. Picture: SUPPLIED

In 2015 Botha returned to the 15th-century artwork with Prism 13 (Dead Pietà). But this time the medium carries the complex ambiguities of contemporary sculpture.

While the physical image is a lyrical abstraction based on the potent and magnificent symmetry of Michelangelo’s carved marble, the medium is a complete contradiction of the classic, a subversion of the “noble” and “monumental”. The creative process started with carved (cheap) polystyrene, and the result was cast in bronze, painted black and placed on industrial wooden pallets.

Displayed in the large, light-filled main gallery as part of the main installation, the dynamic angles of soaring black, the grooves and spatial presence seem to trace all aspects of evocative contemporary sculpture. The ghost-like presence of the original, turned like a mirror image, inhabits the air around it and reactivates in the viewer’s imagination all the impact of its humanist meaning and symbolism.

In the show’s accompanying catalogue, art historian Liese van der Watt writes about Prism 13’s “utter desolate beauty” —  much like the serene beauty of Michelangelo’s Pietà that mesmerised Christian worshippers centuries ago.

Michelangelo famously held that the final figuration of his sculpture was trapped in the stone and he chiselled to release it, and Botha also liberates form in finely tuned abstractions with deliberate contractions.

The soaring wings of Botha’s Solipsis VIII float above the grand installation of Heliostat in the light-filled main gallery. It’s a recurring motif of Botha’s. In the Norval sculpture garden, a bronze and stainless steel Prism (Flush) echoes the birds/angels/spirits flying above — the associations are poignant and endless.

At this focal point of a mid-career retrospective, the process of Botha’s art-making is the driving force. The impression of unstructured work space is purposeful.

Sheets of coloured glass in various formats and angles interact with the natural light (heliostat). It performs like an active kaleidoscope, shifting attention from piece to piece as visitors negotiate the inventions. Throughout the exhibition one is never unaware of the material, the media and the playful connections between the works.

The centrepiece is a sanctuary housing Studies for the Garden of Earthly Delights (2018). The craft of the objects and reference to the famous Hieronymus Bosch triptych tease significance. Housed as though in a chapel, the ancient, classic imagery the artist revisits is transformed as a setting for a different morality play.

Joburg Altarpiece (2009), with its bold lamentations of death with references to Rubens, Bernini and Velázques, holds up art’s great tradition of transience, of the ephemeral, of its unique dynamic.

In this, too, Botha confirms his crafted and relentless exploration of art history’s great memes.

• Heliostat is at the Norval Gallery in Steenberg Estate, Cape Town until January.