“We lived in Somerset East – a small but very beautiful little town at the foot of a mountain. That is what made it beautiful, the mountain, always green, with a waterfall three hundred feet high – unusual for the Karoo.” – Walter Battiss
Walter Battiss (1906 – 1982) was kind of a big deal. He was one of the foremost South African abstract painters of the twenty-first century; he knew Pierneef and Picasso; he invented (and was king of) an imaginary island; he lived amongst traditional bushmen; and received numerous medals, one of which was an Olympic medal for art – quite a grand life for a man born in Somerset East!
I fell in love with Walter’s vibrant life story – and his colourful art – during a visit to the Walter Battiss Art Museum here in Somerset East. The museum is home to the biggest collection of Walter Battiss artwork, which he donated to “the people of Somerset East and South Africa,” when the museum opened in 1981. The museum once belonged to the Battiss family, who ran it as a hotel between 1914 and 1917. It’s a beautiful double story space, airy, with natural light hardwood floors.
Now back to that imaginary island… Fook Island was a combination of the many islands Walter visited in the 1960’s and 70’s including Zanzibar, the Seychelles and Hawaii to name a few. Walter created imaginary people, animals, plants, a map, a history as well as currency, postage stamps, driver’s licences and passports!
“It is something that does not exist. I thought that I would take an island – the island that is inside all of us. I would turn this island into a real thing. I would give it a name.”
A number of local artists, writers and actors embraced Walter’s Fook Island philosophy, and even became ‘residents’ of the imaginary island. The Fookness didn’t stop there… Battiss’s Fookian driver’s licence was accepted in America; his Fookian passport has official stamps from Australia, Germany and Britain AND a Fookian banknote was exchanged at a Rome airport for $10! Fook me…
One thing is certain, the world is a much duller place without Walter Battiss in it, but thanks to the Walter Battiss Company in Stellenbosch his art lives on. They offer a “carefully curated collection” of Walter Battiss artwork ranging from print and wallpaper to ceramic and textile – available to buy online! I’m hoping to add a few of these certified prints to our growing collection of local art and illustrations soon. Here are some of my favourites:
Long live the Fook!