Walter Whall Battiss was born 6 January 1906 in the Karoo town of Somerset East. His family later settled in Koffiefontein in the Free State in 1917. This is where his interest in archaeology and indigenous Rock Art was first peaked. Thus began a journey seeing Battiss eventually become not only an activist and constant innovator but also a foremost South African abstract painter and creator of the Fook Island concept. In his later life this became a place of Battiss’ fantastic imaginings and an outlet for his unique sensibilities, as a foreword-thinking creative, unbound by political constraints and social conventions.
Battiss’ spent many years teaching, beginning at Park School in Turffontein, Johannesburg in 1933; in 1936 he began his tenure at the Pretoria Boys High School followed by the Pretoria Art Centre and finally UNISA where he became Professor of Art in 1964. Concurrently he produced and published many literary works. His 1938 publication, The Amazing Bushmen, one of nine books he produced, was considered ground-breaking. Following this, the time spent researching and even replicating in watercolour the intricate and often unrecorded artistic renderings of the indigenous people of the Namib Desert brought an art form to the attention of local and international audiences, which up until that point had not been considered for its artistic merit. It also led to Battiss being known as ‘the Bushman painter’ in the 1950s.
His travels to the Greek isles, Seychelles, Madagascar, Fiji, Samoa and Zanzibar, increasing after his retirement in 1971, informed his Fookian concept. Battiss developed an alphabet, a history, fauna, flora, postage stamps, currency and even official documents such as passports and driver’s licences for Fook Island. Fookian society was so utopian and removed from the prevailing ideals of mainstream South African society that several well-known artists and creatives sought citizenship. Battiss’ use of his art as a way of protesting the conventions of apartheid South Africa, his nature, unconventional and ever searching marked new beginnings as par for the course. It is in this spirit that the exhibition represents what he believed to be his five lives.
The exhibition draws extensively from The Jack Ginsberg Collection, of which a major part was gifted to the Wits Arts Museum. Key works were included from the Eduard du Plessis and Rupert Art Foundation collections.