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Somerset East

Walter Battiss Art Gallery – Inspirational Art Works

Some would describe Walter Battiss as a madman – a person who’s own creative vision of reality was a far-cry from his real surroundings. Others would herald him as a creative genius – a person who used his imagination and artistic talents to inspire a generation of artists and encourage free thought. The history books call Walter Wahl Battiss ‘the foremost South African abstract painter’. Your own opinion of this creative and imaginative artist might differ from those mentioned above but one thing is for certain, Walter Battiss was a great South African artist. A trip to the Walter Battiss Art Gallery in Somerset East, South Africa, is a great place to learn more about this inspirational artist.

Walter Battiss was born in 1906 to an English family in the Karoo town of Somerset East. From his earlier years he became interested in archaeology and primitive art. His formal art training started in 1929 at the Witwatersrand Technical College and culminated in a Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Arts at the University of South Africa. By this stage he was 35 years old and starting to become a very influential person. In 1938 he visited Europe for the first time and he spent two years in Greece from 1966 to 1968. In 1972 he visited the Seychelles and before long his legendary concept of ‘Fook Island’ had started to form in his mind. Further trips to Zanzibar, Madagascar, Fiji, Hawaii, the Comores and Samoa provided the needed inspiration for his imaginary destination for which he created a map, imaginary people, plants, animals and a history. He also made stamps, a currency, passports, a language and driver’s licenses. Though he fooled many people about the existence of his elaborate fantasy island, Walter Battiss never believed it to be truly real. Instead he described it as a ‘island that is inside all of us’ – a concept which he had given a name. In the art world this concept was widely accepted by a number of other artists who further explored it in their own way. In the real world, his fake Fookian Driver’s License was accepted in America while his Fookian Passport bore official stamps from Australia, Britain and Germany. He even managed to exchange some of his Fookian money for dollars whilst in Rome.

After a long, eventful, creative, inspired and productive life, Walter Battiss stood on the long, shaded veranda of his white-gabled home in Paulet Street in Somerset East and, as part of an official ceremony, he bequeathed his collection of his own artworks to the ‘people of Somerset East and South Africa’. A year later, in 1982, Walter Battiss passed away. His home became an art gallery which continues to inspire artists and free-thinkers year after year. His career had spanned a period of roughly fifty years and he has even been called a ‘gentle anarchist’ because of his ideas and idealism. If you are visiting Somerset East as you travel the country, make a definite stop at the Walter Battiss Art Gallery. It’s a truly inspirational addition to any trip.