Persona March, 5th 2021 by

World Fine Art Professionals and their Key-Pieces, 305 - Walter Battiss

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World Fine Art Professionals and their Key-Pieces, 305 – Walter Battiss
Walter Battis is one of the most important South African artists. We immediately think of ‘Fook’, the island of the imagination, a utopian island. He made a map, imaginary people, plants, animals, a history and a language, Fookian. And also stamps, currency, passports and driver’s licenses.

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The Utopian Island was a composite of the many islands he visited – including Zanzibar, Seychelles, Madagascar, Fiji, Hawaii, Samoa, the Greek Islands and the Comoros. Walter Battiss: “It’s something that doesn’t exist. Let me take an island, I thought – the island that’s in all of us. I wanted to turn this island into something real … and I would name it”.

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Fook passport
South Africans including actress Janet Suzman, artist Norman Catherine, writer Esmé Berman and many others embraced the philosophy of Fook Island. Journalist Jani Allan interviewed Battiss in 1982 and also agreed to his request to become a ‘resident’ of the imaginary island.

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Battiss’s Fookian driver’s license was accepted in America, and the colorful pages of the Fook passport had official stamps from Australia, Great Britain, and Germany. Someone managed to exchange a Fookian banknote at Rome airport for $ 10.

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Walter Whall Battiss (January 6, 1906 – August 20, 1982) was born to an English Methodist family in the Karoo town of Somerset East. He became interested in archaeology and tribal art as a young boy after moving to Koffiefontein in 1917.

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He was amazed by the petroglyphs, he considered the painting of San an important art form. He was also influenced by African cultural Ndebele beadwork and pre-Islamic cultures and calligraphy in general.

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The fine arts
After a legal interlude – he was a court clerk – he actually turned to the arts. In order to have sufficient income, he kept his legal job. He started drawing and painting at the Witwatersrand Technical College in 1929, and then continued at the Johannesburg Training College with etching lessons. At the age of 35 he received his bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts from the University of South Africa.

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The Amazing Bushman
Battiss was one of the founders of the New Group, which included modern European and American artists. He was unique among them in that he lived in a non-European and non-American country that was considered a colony. In 1938 he even visited Europe for the first time. The following year, he published his first book, The Amazing Bushman. In 1949 he befriended Picasso, who influenced his style.

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In total Battiss published nine books. He also wrote many articles and founded the magazine De Arte. For thirty years he taught the Pretoria Boys high school students at the Pretoria Art Center. He also taught at Unisa, the University of South Africa in Pretoria, where he became a professor of fine arts in 1964. Walter Battiss died in Port Shepstone, Natal in 1982.

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His work can be seen in the Walter Battiss Museum in Somerset East, his birthplace.

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