Walter Whall Battiss graduated from Unisa in 1941 with a BA in Fine Arts. He became Unisa’s first Professor of Fine Arts and the head of this department in 1964. He was awarded an honorary doctorate in 1973.
Described as a “gentle anarchist”, Battiss was a founder member of a group of progressive artists called The New Group and is considered South Africa’s foremost abstract artist. He spent part of his childhood in Koffiefontein, a town surrounded by San rock art sites, and developed a fascination with San imagery — a key artistic influence. Battiss’s travels to a range of islands (including Greece) inspired his quirky Fook Island, an imaginary utopia for which he created stamps, a currency and passports that were occasionally accepted by unsuspecting officials. He explained, “I thought that I would take … the island that is inside all of us. I would turn this island into a real thing … I would give it a name”. Battiss founded the periodical De Arte and published extensively. In 1940 he was awarded the BA(Fine Arts) through Unisa and went on to become the first Professor of Fine Art at Unisa. The Battiss collection at the Unisa Art Gallery includes around 24 paintings. An art gallery was established in his honour in Somerset West where he was born.