In Somerset East there is a museum dedicated to the work of South African artist Walter Battiss. The collection was donated by Battiss from his private collection toward the end of his career, and is housed in a beautiful building that used to be his father’s hotel. Being only a two hour drive from Grahamstown, I’ve been longing to go there for years. On Sunday, my parents and I made an adventure of it.
On arrival at the museum, we were shown a video that was shot with Battiss at the age of 76, or 106 … or 6, depending on his mood. In the end, for Battiss, it’s all the same thing, as we’re all the same age in cosmic time. I like that. Walter, with wise words and a warm disposition, invites you into his home, into his world, onto his island, Fook Island, before strolling around the museum to view the collection of his work. “Come and have a cup of tea with me,” he says, as he pours two cups of tea.
Despite being the largest collection of Battiss’ work in Africa, it is only a tiny portion of the prolific artist’s diverse repertoire. Nonetheless, there’s something special and homely about it. As if it’s just how Walter would have wanted it. Small and true.
Fook Island is a “fake” island, that Walter invented himself. Like me, he was sick of conceptual art that wasn’t anything to look at. So he created a fake island as a form of commentary and decided to make it a real thing. “It is something that does not exist. I thought that I would take an island – the island that is inside all of us. I would turn this island into a real thing … I would give it a name”. He didn’t only give it a name, however, he gave it a currency, and postage stamps, a language with a unique alphabet, even a passport for official citizens. And Battiss himself was King Ferd the Third of Fook, his Fookian flag proudly hoisted in his garden when he, Rex Insular Fookis, was in residence.
“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.”
Strangely enough, I think there’s a reason I didn’t get to see the museum sooner. I loved Walter Battiss and his kooky Fook Island philosophy when I first encountered him at school, but I’m not sure his take on life and art resonated as much with me then as it does now. As I embark on my own journey to abandon the normative constructs I have gathered through my life thus far, the simplicity and relaxation with which Walter lived his own life is an inspiration. “Better to be a great big spectacular failure than a small success.”