Walter Battiss at WAM

WAM.  Wits Art Museum.  Google it and go.

The reason you need to go if you have never been before is because they are currently (since 6 July and only for three months) exhibiting 700 plus Walter Battiss works.  The name of this exhibition is “I invented myself”. 

Walter Battiss

Walter Battiss

Water Whall Battiss was born on 6 January 1906 in Somerset East in the Karoo (the building in which his parents ran a “private hotel” during the war years until 1917 – when the family moved to Koffiefontein –  is currently the Walter Battiss Art Museum and it houses his own personal art collection which he bequeathed to the people of Somerset East and the Eastern Cape).  Battiss became interested in both archeology and tribal art as a young boy.  He matriculated in 1923 and initially became a clerk in the Magistrates Court in Rustenburg in 1924 and did not begin his formal art studies until 1929 when he attended the Witwatersrand Technical College before becoming an art teacher at Pretoria Boys High where he taught for 30 years.

In 1938 Battiss went overseas for the first time, and made several subsequent trips.  On one of these he met Pablo Picasso, with whom he forged a firm friendship. In 1939 he published his first book, The Amazing Bushman, and San rock art affected him profoundly.  He was also interested in Ndebele beadwork and pre-Islamic calligraphy.  He eventually obtained a BA Fine Arts through Unisa in 1941 at the age of 35.

Battiss visited Greece in 1966-1968 and the Seychelles in 1972.  He then, inspired by his travels, created an imaginary world, Fook Island, his “Island of the Imagination”, although the philosophy was taken seriously.  “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 produced concrete artifacts such as real stamps, real money and real passports and a real driver’s licence which was accepted in the USA.  He created a Fookian language, and a host of plants, animals and the island’s history.

Basically, Battiss was the benevolent “King Ferd the Third”.  The Fookian flag flew proudly in the Menlo Park garden when he, Rex Insular Fookis, was in residence.

In addition to teaching at Pretoria Boys High, he taught at the Pretoria Art Centre, of which he was te principal from 1953 to 1958.  He also taught at Unisa where he became Professor of Fine Art in 1964 until his retirement in 1971.   In 1973 he was awarded a D.Litt et Phil. (honoris causa) from Unisa.

In 1975 his wife, Gracie, passed away. This freed him to explore his bi/homosexuality.

In 1981 he donated all his work to the newly opened “Walter Battiss Museum” in his birthplace of Somerset East as mentioned above.

On 20 August, in Port Shepstone, KwaZulu-Natal, Walter Battiss died of a heart attack.

The bulk of this WAM exhibition comes from a collection of artworks, books and items collected by art collector, Jack Ginsberg, over about four decades. The works on display refer to the battle Battiss fought with the apartheid government over censorship. The exhibition is curated by Warren Siebrits and it is arranged, like the biography above, chronologically from the 50’s onwards (Battiss didn’t date his earlier works).  Ginsberg has generously donated these works to the Wits Arts Museum, of which he is a board member.

Siebrits based a lot of his chronology on a series of letters Battiss wrote to his London based lover, Dacre Punt, who sold these letters to Unisa approximately two years ago.

The exhibition also shows some of his erotica, specifically created by Battiss as a protest against censorship, although this is in one of the rooms which can be skipped if it is too much for delicate (or young) eyes.

The exhibition is accompanied by a 350-page book with 1,000 colour illustrations at a special exhibition price of R1,000.  There is also other merchandise on sale.

A second exhibition, The Origins of Walter Battiss: Another Curious Palimpsest, is on display at the Origins Centre from 9 June to  30 September 2016.

Walter Battiss: I Invented Myself is on exhibition at the Wits Art Museum from 6 July to 0 October 2016. WAM is situated on the corner of Bertha & Jorrissen Streets, Braamfontein, Johannesburg.  The exhibition is wheelchair accessible.



About moirads

Clergy person, theatre and music lover, avid reader, foodie. Basically, I write about what I do, where I go and things I love (or hate).
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