Walter Wahl Battiss (January 6, 1906 – August 20, 1982) was a South African artist, generally considered the foremost South African abstract painter and known as the creator of the quirky “Fook Island” concept.
Born into English Methodist family in the Karoo town of Somerset East, Battiss first became interested in archaeology and primitive art as a young boy. His formal art studies started in 1929 at the Witwatersrand Technical College, followed by the Johannesburg Training College (a Teacher’s Diploma) and etching lessons. Battiss continued his studies while working as a magistrate’s clerk, and finally obtained his Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Arts at the University of South Africa at the age of 35.
Battiss was a founding member of the New Group and was unique in that he had not studied overseas. In 1938 he visited Europe for the first time, and in 1939 he published his first book, “The Amazing Bushman”. His interest in primitive rock art had a very profound impact on his ideas and he regarded San painting as an important art form. He was also influenced by Ndebele beadwork, pre-Islamic cultures and calligraphy.
In a 1949 trip to Europe he befriended Picasso who would have an influence on his already quirky style.
He visited Greece in 1966-1968 and the Seychelles in 1972, which inspired his make-believe Fook Island.
Battiss published nine books, wrote many articles and founded the periodical “De Arte”. He taught Pretoria Boys High School students for 30 years at the Pretoria Art Centre, of which was the principal from 1953-58. He also taught at UNISA where he became Professor of Fine Art in 1964 and retired in 1971. In 1973 he was awarded a D. Litt et Phil (honoris causa) from UNISA.
In 1981 he donated all his work to the newly opened “Walter Battiss Museum” in his birthplace of Somerset East.
Walter Battiss died in Port Shepstone, KwaZulu-Natal of a heart attack on 20 August 1982.
This “island of the imagination” was a materialisation of Battiss’ philosophy for which he created a map, imaginary people, plants, animals, a history as well as stamps, currency, passports and driver’s licences. He created a Fookian language with a full alphabet as well. This utopian ‘island’ was a composite of the many islands he visited – which included Zanzibar, the Seychelles, Madagascar, Fiji, Hawaii, Samoa, the Greek Isles and the Comores – blended together in his customary imaginative fashion. In Battiss’s words, “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”.