Coast: Background - Walter Battiss was widely considered the first and foremost South African abstract artist during a prolific 50-year career. He is famously known as creator of the quirky "Fook Island" concept – a fictional world portraying his vision and philosophy of an island that exists in all of us, his “Island of the imagination”.
He was born in 1906 in Somerset East, and developed an early interest in primitive art and archaeology, which led to him studying formal art at the Witwatersrand Technical College in 1929, before completing a bachelor’s degree in fine arts at the University of South Africa.
His interest in primitive art held fast, and Battiss completed further studies in the field of South African Bushman rock art before completing his first book, The Amazing Bushman, in 1939 and journeying to Namibia in 1948 to live among the San population.
But it was only after he visited Europe, and later the Seychelles in 1972, that he found the inspiration to create the world of Fook Island. Further travels to Hawaii, Fiji, the Comoros and other exotic islands provided the basis for additional subject matter for his colourful fantasy land. Battiss created imaginary characters like King Ferd the Third (who was essentially a portrayal of himself), as well as maps, animals, a history of the island, and even fake passports and driver’s licences. It was reported that his fake passport had official stamps from Britain, Australia and Germany, while his Fook Island driver’s licence was accepted in America.
Speaking of Fook Island, Battiss once said, “You will seek in vain on maps for the location of the island, for it eludes conventional cartography. It is not a place you arrive at, you are either there or not there.” He taught art at Pretoria Boys High School and was the principal of its art centre from 1953 to 1958. He also wrote books, published articles, founded the periodical, De Arte, and taught at Unisa.
He died in 1982 of a heart attack at age 76, but not before he donated his entire collection to the Walter Battiss Art Museum in 1981, where the life of this amazing legend lives on to this day.