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Walter Battiss And The Legend of Fook Island

Walter Battiss Art Museum - Somerset East, Eastern Cape  © Wikimedia Commons

Walter Battiss And The Legend of Fook Island

Walter Battiss was born in 1906 to an English family living in the small Karoo town, Somerset East. From an early age, he displayed a keen interest in archaeology and primitive art, and went on to pursue his formal art studies in 1929 at the Witwatersrand Technical College, and later completed his bachelor's degree in fine arts at the University of South Africa. Battiss went on to study further in the field of South African Bushman and rock art, and in 1948 went on an expedition to the Namib Desert, living amongst traditional bushman for some time. In the 1950's Battis made acquaintance with Picasso and Severini, and was invited to lecture on South African art at the University of London the same year. After travelling through Europe in the 1960's, Battis visited the Seychelles in 1972, and shortly afterwards, the legendary Fook Island was created.

Further travelling to Zanzibar, Fiji, Hawaii, Madagascar, the Comoros and Samoa, created more inspiration of the imaginary kingdom of Fook, and Battis went on to produce a map, imaginary characters, plants, animals and a history. For a more official presence, Battis also created stamps, a currency, passports, a unique language, and driver's licences. Even though Battiss managed to trick a number of people with his detailed and complex fantasy land, it is said that he never really believed that it was real. He described Fook as an "island which exists inside everyone", a concept which he had given a name. This concept was widely accepted in the art community, and a number of other artists went on to explore it in own way. While in America, Battiss' fake Fookian driver's licence was accepted, and his Fookian passport displayed official stamps from Australia, Britain and Germany. On one occasion at the airport in Rome, he managed to even exchange some Fookian currency for ten dollars.

The old double storey house which his family lived in, in Somerset East, was built in the 1818 and originally served as an officers' mess on "Somerset Farm", and was later run by the Battis family as the Battiss Private hotel from 1914 until 1917. A familiar landmark in the small Karoo town. towered over by the Boschberg Mountain, the house was bequeathed to "Somerset East and South Africa" in 1981, along with fifty-eight of his works, several works by guest artists, and a collection of personal documents and manuscripts.

At the opening ceremony of the Walter Battiss Museum in October 1981, at an age of 75, Battis still displayed an imposing presence as an artist, his large frame, neatly dressed in pin-striped shirt and suit, contrasted with his long white hair and goatee. Battiss donated 58 of his own works, and works were donated of other artists, either by Battiss or by his friends, for the opening. While working at a winter retreat in Leisure Bay, on the KwaZulu Natal south coast, Battis suffered a massive heart attack, and later died in Port Shepstone on 20th August 1982, aged 76.

The Walter Battiss Art Museum was fully restored in 1999, housing the a large collection of the renowned artist's paintings consisting of 63 of Battiss's works of his 50-year long career, as well as books, documents, family photographs and memorabilia. Battiss' works on display at the museum range from oils and watercolours to graphic art, sketches and tapestries. November of 2006 saw the centenary anniversary of Walter Battiss' birth, and the twenty fifth year of operation for the Walter Battiss Art Museum. The centenary was celebrated at the museum with a diverse mix of poetry, song, and readings of Fook, by an old friend of the artist, Walter Saunders.

The Walter Battiss Art Museum is run in conjunction with the Somerset East Museum, so any visitors who arrive to find it closed, need only make their way to the museum, where the staff will provide assistance.The Walter Battiss Art Museum and Blue Crane Tourism office are open from 8.30 until 13.00 and 14.00 until 17.00 on weekdays. Museum hours from 10.00 until 12.00 on Saturdays, by prior arrangement.. For more information contact the Walter Battiss Art Museum at 042 243 1448 / 073 698 6539.

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