MORE than 700 works by South African artist Walter Battiss are to go on display at the Wits Art Museum (WAM) for three months from July 6.

Battiss, who died in 1982 is generally considered to be SA’s most prominent abstract painter. He is best known as the creator of Fook Island, for which he created a map, imaginary people, a language, plants, animals, a history as well as a set of postage stamps, currency, passports and driver’s licences.

The bulk of the exhibition comes from a collection of artworks, books and ephemera collected by philanthropist Jack Ginsberg over more than 25 years. Visitors would have the opportunity to gain insight into Battiss’ travels, interest in rock painting, calligraphy and multiple media, WAM said.

Walter Battiss Mantis Man

“I loved Battiss from an aesthetic point of view, and I liked him, because it was interesting to see that there were people like him out there,” Ginsberg told BDLive in an interview. He was referring to Battiss’ long battle against the apartheid government’s political and puritanical censorship.

Battiss met Spanish artist Pablo Picasso in the 1940s, and was influenced by his work. He was also influenced by San rock art and lived among Bushmen in the Namib desert in the late 1940s. Later he travelled through Europe, and to many islands including the Seychelles, Zanzibar, Fiji, Hawaii and Madagascar, after which he created “Fook Island”.

WAM curator Warren Siebrits said the exhibition was organised chronologically, something that had not been done before because Battiss did not start dating his works until the 1950s. Critical to Siebrits’ ability to order the work chronologically has been a collection of letters Battiss wrote to a confidant and lover, Dacre Punt, who sold the letters to the University of SA (Unisa) about two years ago. Punt lives in London.

Battiss was a professor and head of Unisa’s Fine Arts department for several years, retiring in 1971.

Siebrits said the most useful of the Punt letters was one in which Battiss spoke of having already had “four lives”, and that the exhibition divides Battiss’ work into five distinct periods.

“I make the case that Battiss was certainly significant. He was at the cutting edge of international developments (in art),” said Siebrits. SA, however, was a pariah state until the end of apartheid in 1994 and its artists, especially white artists, were “persona non grata overseas”. There was scope for Battiss’ work to be reconsidered, Siebrits said.

Ginsberg said Battiss was “very influential” when he was growing up. “He was always in the news and he was very transgressive in fighting politics that he didn’t like. He hated censorship.”

It was because Battiss fought censorship in “whimsical ways” that he was largely left alone by the authorities, unlike some of his more blatantly political contemporaries, said Ginsberg. “The government didn’t know what to do with him with his long hair and his colourful takkies. They just thought he was crazy.”

One of the exhibition highlights would be a collection of more than 30 examples of the erotica that Battiss created in protest against the apartheid government’s censorship, said Siebrits. The works will be on display in a small room.

Ginsberg said he bought his first Battiss when he was in his early 20s and did not expand his collection much until after Battiss’ death. “I bought a screenprint for R160.” Siebrits said an entry level Battiss print would fetch between R15,000 and R20,000 today, and the “orgy series” sold from around R40,000 on auction.

The Ginsberg collection is being donated to WAM, which is part of the University of the Witwatersrand. “I like WAM. I like the way they operate. They will show anything at any time,” said Ginsberg, who is a member of the WAM board.

Siebrits said the collection’s breadth and depth was “unsurpassed as a teaching facility … it is one thing to study an art work, it is another thing to have it right there in the storeroom”.

Ginsberg said he had around 40 Battiss works up in his home, but had not seen the majority of his collection for many years. “It’s quite a delight, I am thrilled about it,” he said. “There is a big back wall. It was recently used for the Kentridge tapestries. They have put them up there, about 100 silkscreens on one wall. It’s extraordinary. I think people will be blown away.”

The exhibition is accompanied by a 350-page book with 1,000 colour illustrations. The general price is R1,500, but there is a special exhibition price of R1,000. Other merchandise includes scarves, T-shirts, crockery, wrapping paper and post cards, plus a limited edition (100) screen print of Fook Island script.

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

* Walter Battiss: I Invented Myself is on exhibition at the WAM from June 6 to October 9. WAM, corner Bertha & Jorrissen streets, Braamfontein, Johannesburg.