It Begins with Battiss

14 May – 29 August 2015
Co-curated by Candice Allison and Kirsty Cockerill


Welcome to the beginning of our story. It’s not necessarily true, but it’s certainly not false. It’s written in a book we can’t open, about a place we could map, if only we had visited it. If we imagine we could speak the language, we may be entitled to hoist the flag. Regardless, the postal system is remarkably good and we are happy you received our letter. A letter saying come – we will tell you a story.

When the space for self-determination is oppressed, it is often artists who reconstruct ‘the possible’ by dismantling social conventions, undoing words, ideas, structures, art materials. By deconstructing them in physical and conceptual ways, they offer us something new, an idea, story, object that did not exist prior to that moment.

‘Fook Island was discovered by the original Ferdinand Fook on 6th January, 1723 and lies to the South East of the Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean. It is a completely independent island with its own writing, its own songs, its own music, its own poetry, its own religion, its own stamps, its own coinage’ – Walter Battiss and Ferdinand Fook, Fook Book 1, September 1973

When the above book was created by King Ferdinand the Third, or Walter Battiss as he was known to some, South Africa was experiencing a surge in censorship and oppressive policies by the Apartheid government. Steve Biko along with many leaders of black organisations , including the South African Students’ Organisation (SASO), the Black People’s Convention (BPC), the Black Community Programme (BCP), the Black Allied Workers’ Union (BAWU) and the Black Workers’ Project were banned and interrogated by security police.

Norman Catherine or Norman King Norman, heir apparent to the throne of Fook Island mused, “Basically, Walter Battiss invented Fook Island because he wanted everybody, children as well as people his own age, to enjoy the freedom to create art, especially at a time in South Africa when there was serious censorship. I think he wanted to ‘liberate the inner child’ of all participants from the oppressive state of affairs that existed.”

The naivety of these claims aside, Fook Island occupies a particular territory in South African art history, the territory of imagination. Battiss imagined a new space, an independent country where commoners were as good as kings, where brutality held no reign. He constructed Fook Island and its ideals whimsically, and like archaeologists we can view today what remains, evidence of its material culture, currency, language, maps, stamps. Responding to this, artworks have been selected by artists who share an affinity with Battiss, to create an exhibition that reflects on sovereignty and the reconstructing of ideals from deconstructed rights. The material conditions that exist for imagining extended and shared connections of nationality – the contextual, social and political indicators of place and citizenship.

Curatorial text – Candice Allison and Kirsty Cockerill

Click here to read A Short Story by our intern Khanya Mashabela, inspired by Fook Island.