Monday, 29 March 2010

Anton Kannemeyer, artist

Between February 19th and March 19th 2010, I interviewed the "controversial" South African artist Anton Kannemeyer by email. I intermittently sent him one - sometimes more - questions every few days and waited for his answers before pressing on. Kannemeyer is a cartoonist and printmaker. His art is very "racial" and political, dealing with the tensions, contradictions, and stereotypes of post-Apartheid South Africa. A couple of weeks after the main interview, Eugene Terre'blanche, the leader of the White separatist AWB party was murdered, so I contacted Kannemeyer again with some additional questions.

CBL: I assume that like any artistically gifted person, you tried a wide variety of ways of expressing yourself when you were younger. Could you tell me a little about that, and why you came to focus on print art as your main means of artistic expression?

AK: My father is a South African writer (mainly Afrikaans literary criticism), so from a young age I had this idea that I want to publish, or at least make books. I remember when I was about 11 years old, I made a set of books that was supposedly my "complete works"; divided into categories like poetry, short and longer fiction, plays, etc. Unfortunately I lost that set of books (not that I think it would have been much good today, except maybe for a few laughs: I remember there was an "erotic fiction" section there somewhere and I made up this story of a nurse that seduced me!). I'm sure you did not mean THAT young in your question: AS a student I started an art magazine in our department (it only ran 2 issues: 1990 & '91), but my main aim was to publish a comic magazine. My friend Conrad Botes (who I met as a first year art student in 1988) and I started drawing comics in 1989 together, and in 1992 we published our collected work in a magazine called Bitterkomix 1. As we knew a black & white magazine wouldn't make much of an impact on its own, we made large silkscreen prints (in color) of many of the images in the comic. They were quite popular and often exhibited, it also gave the magazine a point of sale (we struggled initially to get the magazine in bookshops, but when sales were consistent that was not such a big problem anymore). Eventually we would also screenprint book covers (never more than 150), but these were always limited and i guess more like an "art object" than anything else.

CBL: So, you never really wanted to be a painter in the traditional sense of a guy with his thumb stuck through a palette? It was always driven by the idea of publishing?

AK: Yes, to me a book was the ultimate "art form." And even now, painting to me (at this stage at least) is something which brings an idea across firstly - what I like about painting is size. But more about this later, maybe.

CBL: “Eroticism” serves as a kind of unguarded window into a culture. Looking at Bittercomix, one of the things that stands out is the way you constantly poke fun at the old sexually-repressed presbyterian Afrikaaner morality, but also mix in a load of racial issues with scenes of interracial sex - almost always a Black man with a White woman. In Bittercomix, Blacks seem to represent an idea of sexual power and liberation, but this is also mixed with a heavy dose of irony that creates a sense of degradation. It seems as if you are equating sexual repression with Apartheid and equating the New South Africa with a certain degrading sense of "openess." I feel there is an ambivalence, or even an am-TRI-valence, as the critical voice in the works doesn't embrace Apartheid or the New South Africa. In view of this, what role does eroticism play in your art?

AK: I'm firstly not sure that the explicit sexual situations in Bitterkomix are erotic - in fact, most white men find them rather off-putting (which is good - it means it challenges them). But I agree with your "unguarded window" opinion: it serves as a view into both someone else's and your own back yard, I guess. The use (or repeated use of Black men as sexually potent) was mainly to piss off white men. I guess in most instances our work was directed at the white Afrikaner (the language was also mostly Afrikaans, albeit a kind of crude slang), and in this sense and context iconoclastic. And yes, things have changed. I like your comment about the "irony that creates a sense of degradation": you're probably right, but you need to be more specific: which works are you talking about? Generally I would not equate the "new South Africa" with a sexual openness (even though now I may say what I want without being persecuted). Sex is still very much a taboo, especially in the Black communities. And to finally get to your question: I see myself as a satirist and therefore mostly critical of those in power (both political and economical power). My use of explicit sexual situations in the comics like in GIF: Afrikaner Sekskomix; 1994) were mostly metaphorical (yeah, I know this is vague), criticizing conservative Afrikaans values. The impact of that work, however, made me understand how you can grab an audience's attention visually, and simultaneously undermine that initial visual impact with either language, juxtaposition or other devices. I often draw pornographic images (some pages from my sketchbooks have been published), and therefore not all my "erotic" imagery function on the same level. I must also say that in South Africa my name has become a bit synonymous with crude pornographic depictions: this is/was sometimes beneficial, but often a bit irritating, as people used to comment on that aspect of the work mostly. Lately there has been a shift in my work (the last 3 years or so) - and I have been focusing mainly on politics and race. But here I also sometimes use sexually explicit images! ps: best would be if you can comment on specific work - the time during which I made a work would probably indicate a specific strategy.

CBL: Speaking of specific examples, how true are the true stories in Joe Dog? I was looking at "Whatever you do, stay out of prison in South Africa" and, yes, it's attacking the prison authorities and the prison gangs, but even the White victim of the prison gang rape is mocked I felt by the inverted commas around 'Mr.' I get the feeling that the sexual content of your work (for some reason I don't think I want to call this strip erotic) is - as femininsts like to say - all about power, a metaphor for changing power relations, namely the 'feminization' of the former 'masculine' White ruling class. Maybe it's because your work is actually so political in this way (using a perfect metaphor in sex) that you unfairly got dismissed by some as a purveyor of "crude pornographic depictions." Does any of this ring true?

AK: My 'true stories' are normally quite accurate. In the case of "Prison in Africa" the incidents are based on info found in local newspapers. The 'mr' in inverted commas referred to something that I now realize would not be picked up by an international audience: if the victim would have been a black man, the press would not have placed 'mr' before his name. As the press is not allowed anymore to identify people by race, there are other subtleties in the text one relies on to in fact determine race. The 'mr' is supposed to dignify the victim as well. But you're right, as a child I felt a huge resentment towards white patriarchs, and in the new South Africa these men have been despised by all for quite a while now (and they're the least likely to be employed as well in government institutions) - this of course gave me many reasons to celebrate (the irony, of course, being that I'm also just a white male.) And I'm not too concerned about being dismissed "unfairly as a conveyer of porn" - I've had a lot of support in the media, especially from women! And your comment about the 'sexual content of the work being about power' is quite correct.

CBL: As you indicate, your position in the new South Africa has strong ambiguities - resentment against the Afrikaaner patriarchs from whom you stem. I get the impression that a lot of your creative drive comes from (a) an almost Oedipal resentment of your father and (b) the heavily ironic position "rejecting one's roots" places anyone in, especially as - despite the official propaganda that we are fed about SA by the international media - racial and ethnic identity must be more important than ever in South Africa. Where is your identity at? Are you like Obama 'post-racial' or is your identity based on sexuality, politics, or just pure humanism and/or individualism?

AK: I think that I sort of got over the "bitter" in "Bitterkomix", meaning that I (probably) managed to exorcise most of my personal demons through comic art drawing. The resentment of my father in my work resulted in a complete breakdown of any kind of communication between us (more or less 15 years ago) - which was great (and I would like to recommend it to others: family is overrated, people!) and made me realize that I could get on with other stuff, not just the more autobiographical comics that I focused on for so long. And roots: I'm not sure about this. I lived in Germany for 2 years when I was 18 years old (my mother, who is Dutch, remarried a German) and I was desperately unhappy there. Back in South Africa (I returned to study) I felt at home, happy and driven because of the turmoil on political and social levels, I guess. Life here is/was meaningful because I felt my work had an impact. But lately I enjoy working in other countries (I have a lot of professional connections in Germany and France especially), but my partner is pretty tied up with her family here. I'm not sure that I'm 'post-racial' (it sounds like such a grand statement). When I was teaching though, especially in Johannesburg (where there were about 70% Black students), I felt 'post-racial': I was just trying to get a good job done. The moment I came back to the Cape (I taught at Stellenbosch University) where Black students only constituted about 12-15% of the student body, I started feeling weird again. And everybody in my department was SO painfully politically correct, it almost crippled their logic or behaviour. Lots of hypocrisy among liberals, but I'm sure you are aware of that. But, in the end, I guess I don't see myself as an Afrikaner anymore - I still prefer writing in Afrikaans, but most of my friends are, and virtually all my work is in English. Also, I don't read Afrikaans or watch Afrikaans tv or anything Afrikaans (I don't go to Afrikaans cultural festivals anymore - my God, they are annoying!). I really don't know what constitutes a South African to be honest: and in that sense I guess some South Africans are a bit "post-racial". I do sometimes watch cricket: whether it's a black, Indian, white or 'coloured' (mixed race) sportsman, there are no differences. They just need to perform. That's the only way I get a sense of nationality - through sports.

CBL: Your answer to question almost reads like an ad for the movie "Invictus" or for this year's World cup, which is not to knock it, as there is much to be said for the meritocracy of sport (although it has to be added that sport isn't immune to "affirmative action" and other social and political pressures).

AK: yes, I'm a dork, I know it... Thomas Bernard (one of my favourite authors said: "...and nothing is more ridiculous than sport, the most popular alibi so far devised to account for the utter futility of the individual." (from Gathering Evidence, probably his best book.

CBL: One way to gauge someone's true identity is by the kind of people they associate with in their free time. In your case what kind of picture does this give?

AK: Yes, my partner (or girlfriend) and I have two very young children now and I sort of feel that I do not associate with anyone anymore - it's just work and children. But my best friends are all very close to and interested in all sorts of alternative culture. Are you trying to determine whether my friends are black, white or coloured?

CBL: Of course, the answer is "yes" because the real test of a multiracial society is the degree to which race is "forgotten." My experience living in South Africa and then moving back to a Scotland where I felt relatively alienated by the culture, made me into a relatively post-racial kind of person. But from my understanding of history, most multiracial states lead to a rise in racial consciousness and effective (if not official) apartheid - step forward America – and only the power of a very strong supranational body, like the Catholic Church, the Communist Party, etc. can partially override the human group instinct (outside the purely economic imperatives that make different kinds of people work together). Your generation is living the experiment of “multiracial harmony.” How is it going? And, yes, at your own level of who you feel comfortable associating with, are you effectively post racial? Or do things like work and family enable you to avoid facing this issue too directly?

AK: No, in one way or another one has to face this issue. I have some black friends - two guys who are quite close in regards to their taste in music and interests in visual arts etc. The one guy, who died recently drowning, was my brother's best friend. But that's not a lot (I must admit I know a lot of people but have few close friends). What has occurred, from a very different angle however, is that our daughter has made some black friends at school, and now we do see their parents socially. One of her friends' mother turned out to be my partner's gynaecologist which is quite funny: a while ago I made a painting called "Black Gynaecologist" which was quite popular: unthinkable that a white woman should have a black gynaecologist, but there you have it: our reality! The thing is that our Black gynaecologist and her Nigerian husband are looking to emigrate to Australia or somewhere - who knows, maybe we'll end up with a white gynaecologist again.

CBL: Coming back to sport, the World Cup is interesting because it raises the possibility of a clash between image and reality. Lot's of people who have the slightly rosy view of SA presented in the media will come face-to-face with the real SA. Do you have any world cup predictions, and I don't mean the football?

AK: People who come here won't necessarily come face to face with the "real SA". I'm in two minds about this: on the one hand the media in other countries are very negative about SA (not rosy!-which newspapers do you read?) and this creates an image that isn't always correct. I remember a French friend of mine visited the Ukraine for 3 months and then SA for 2 months - he felt that people here were extremely happy and positive about the future as opposed to the Ukraine, where people were depressed and mostly alcoholic (his words). And I have experienced that negative media image of (South) Africa first hand living for periods in Europe, sometimes dreading to come back (as you must have, maybe?). But then again, I'm also aware that ideology and appearances are just smokescreens; I don't think most visitors will experience corruption first hand during the soccer world cup, but it certainly exists on a grand scale both here and in the rest of Africa. Yes, that's depressing, let me pour myself another brandy and coke....

CBL: Moving onto another subject, I'd like to ask about the alphabet series. With its deadpan humor, it's one of the things you're best known for. Some of the pieces, like "N is for Nightmare" (house with decapitation). remind me of Herge's Tin Tin cartoons - nice clean draughtsmanship, sterotypical Blacks. The feeling this creates is of a mismatch between image and reality. Why did you choose this Tin Tin-esque style for several of the pieces, but a more realistic style for works like, say, "J is for Jack Russell," which I feel is a whole lot less ironic and more sympathetic?

AK: Hmmm, this may take a while to answer.... The stylistic reference to Herge's Tintin can be traced back to my Bitterkomix work - I started using it when I made comics of myself at a very young age. At the time (as a young child before I turned 12) Tintin was the only comic I knew, and the style just seemed perfect to open that window back into (especially) my pre-pubescent years. I used the clarity of his style, but added a dark shadow-like atmosphere which seemed quite truthful to me, quite depressing. The use of the stereotypical Black has several functions, one being that I did see all black people (who I didn't know) at that age as looking the same. In the case of the "N is for nightmare" series (there are in fact 7 pieces in the series, part of the "bigger" Alphabet series), I wanted to accentuate this fear of hordes of faceless "Blacks" attacking White dwellings (and maybe affluent Black houses) - always situated in typical South African middle class suburbs. IN the Alphabet series I used many different styles and media, in order to create diversity. I also thought that that would accentuate the "democratic aspect". In the first series (which was sold in South Africa) I also used frames that I collected from various 2nd hand shops in the Cape Town area. So there were different sizes, different media, different kinds of frames (some elaborate, some very simple, some kitsch, etc), different styles, some works in colour, some in black and white, some pencil or charcoal with a monochromatic use of liquid acrylic, printmaking in between, etc. Maybe "J is for Jack Russell" is more sympathetic ... some of these images are more ambiguous. My idea initially was also to work with juxtaposition: that's why I'm glad that both sets sold to one person on each occasion (the 2nd set sold to a Canadian through my New York gallery). They would therefore always be exhibited together, not as separate artworks.

CBL: You mentioned "this fear of hordes of faceless ‘Blacks’ attacking White dwellings (and maybe affluent Black houses) - always situated in typical South African middle class suburbs." Why did you use quotation marks for "Blacks"?

AK: You know, I'm not quite sure why I did it, but it was probably because of my scepticism of the correct way of speaking or writing of "the other" (I find a lot of this politically correct talk bullshit): I think I'm quite inconsistent in my answers - sometimes I say Blacks with a capital 'B', sometimes without the capital 'b'.

CBL: By accentuating this fear - and also by the way you draw the cartoons (N is for Nightmare) - I feel that you are mocking the fear as slightly ridiculous and exaggerated. But isn't fear, by its very nature an exaggerated state? Also, in view of the disparities in
wealth and the social and racial divisions in South Africa, and the experience of much of late 20th century Africa - from the Mau Mau, the expulsion of the Ugandan Asians, the massacres in the Belgian Congo, the campaigns against the White farmers in Zimbabwe, and of course the genocide in Rwanada, etc., etc., might not these fears of "faceless mobs" be completely rational?

AK: Sure, these fears are perfectly grounded. IN fact we had a series of very violent break-ins in the street where I live a year ago: these gangs would simply smash the front door in and steal as much as they can before the armed response would reply. And in both cases (in our street) the families were held at gunpoint until the guys left. I was very afraid of waking up in the middle of the night with a front door being smashed down. But I think one problem is that white people think they're the only victims in South Africa (oh God they feel really sorry for themselves). The other thing has to do with ownership and entitlement: many white people think they've worked really hard for what they've got and that it's really unfair that they're being victimized. And yes, it's a complex issue: in a "normal" first world country the government will protect you - in South Africa (when white people complain - especially about "service delivery") you're branded a racist. It's a very interesting time (but it has been since I started studying). You must remember that I comment (often rather ambiguously) on things I see around me, it's almost as if real life is something different. I had an exhibition recently in Joburg and towards the end of the opening about 4 Black students started having this long discussion with me about the future of South Africa and where things went wrong (in the new SA). What do I think should be done? God, I don't know, I'm just an artist. I read a lot about African history, it's devastating. It's a history of greed and horrible people. And it's still happening right now. What should be done? I made a painting recently of a white woman about to be raped by four Black guys; she shouts at her husband: "These historically disadvantaged men want to rape me!" Now once again there are real situations like this out there - but the issue I'm addressing is something else though. I use this fear to address something else. Regarding this, I found an excellent quote by Tony Hoagland: "To really get at the subject of race, chances are, is going to require some unattractive, tricky self-expression, something adequate to the paradoxical complexities of privilege, shame, and resentment. To speak in a voice equal to reality in this case will mean the loss of observer-immunity status, will mean admitting that one is not on the sidelines of our racial realities, but actually in the tangled middle of them. Nobody is going to look good." (from Real Sofistikashun: Essays on Poetry and Craft, 2006.) I know that I approach the subject from a satirical perspective, but your question (a good one, by the way) tries to get behind/underneath the "visual" figure of speech. In retrospect I guess my answers are sometimes a bit mixed-up: you're welcome to edit or resend questions if things are unclear (I know that's what you've been doing to an extent),

CBL: I'd also like to ask about the sale of your work. How much is sold in South Africa and how much is sold overseas as a percentage? Also what differences do you notice between the art sold to South Africans and that sold abroad?

AK: This is a relief - a factual question! I always had a following in South Africa - at one point I realized that the people who are buying my work are people who studied with me (as lawyers, doctors and economists - not artists!) But lately my bigger pieces got more expensive and now there's a whole range of people buying - a lot through the New York gallery (Jack Shainman). But last year apparently I sold to British and Russian collectors, but I don't always know who bought the work. But drawings and prints sell to collectors in South Africa.


CBL: Sorry to disturb you with additional questions, but I am forced to do this following the dramatic murder of Eugene Terre'blanche, whose death touches upon so many of the areas appraoched in your art. Terre'blanche is the kind of patriarchal Afrikanaar figure that you grew up despising. How do you feel about his death? Any theories or views?

AK: I don't have much sympathy with Terre'blanche - he was a violent man and yes, pretty much the embodiment of everything I despised as a kid and a young grown-up (and, I guess, a "proper grown-up"). I do think the murder was political in nature (even though the media says it was about money) and a result of Julius Malema's endorsement of the "Kill the Boer" song. To a lesser extent it reminds one of the murder of Chris Hani, who, according to R.W. Johnson in his book "SA's Brave New World", was (indirectly) killed by the ANC (mainly Joe Modise), but the loss for SA is not as great, of course (in fact, we can really do without Terreblanche). What is interesting now is that we had similar problems in 1994: Blacks were shouting "one settler, one bullet" and more or less exactly the same angst and issues regarding race are still with us. A lot of people said we had come a long way since Apartheid, but the exact same issues are still the most explosive today. I find it extremely interesting that someone like Malema who is clearly uneducated and one of the bluntest pencils on the political landscape can have such a major political impact in South Africa. He accuses the whites for everything that's wrong in SA today, even though the ANC has now been in power for 16 years. What he's doing is very transparent, and I must say he and Zuma look more and more like copies of Amin, Mobutu and Mugabe...

CBL: I always thought that Terre'blanche was the kind of joke figure that made satire pointless - a caricature of White nationalism that served to discredit the very ideas he espoused. I am thinking here of the three-legged swastika, military fatigues, and even his name which invokes "Eugenics" and "White Land." Did he make your job as a satirist hard by existing as a satire on himself? And isn't this also true of many of the other figures in the South African political landscape?

AK: I attached the one work I made of him with this mail - but you're right: it's difficult to satirise him. Even his actual death is satirical - it's bizarre. He's my work come to life, but probably better than I could have executed. At the moment he and Malema are the two extremes on the SA political landscape: the irony is that both of them represent(ed) far right extremism.

CBL: The way he died is evocative of the fears that your art often touches on. Is it about unresolved issues of economic inequality (as opposed to economic justice, which is a different issue), or a nebulous mood of racial hatred that can easily find a focus?

AK: Apparently a white Boer is killed every 18 hours in South Africa. These statistics are not released by the police, but by the action groups set up by farmers themselves. I must say, now that the ANC has shown us where they're heading, now that even the secretary-general of the Communist party is driving a million Rand Mercedes Benz, I'm very worried about the future of South Africa. Also, I'm quite surprised by the "nebulous" racial hatred in SA - I know I'm politically naive, but it slowly dawned on me (in the last 5 years or so) just exactly how racist people still are. Even Mbeki is a racist - he was supposed to be our intellectual leader, you know, an enlightened leftie. You were talking about "post-racism": maybe that's the privilege of the upper middle classes and the rich. Especially the privilege of those in white countries. South Africa was supposed to be this country where a miracle happened - I must say there are SO many white liberals who are SO disillusioned with the ANC, it's in fact rather funny. So: no, I do not see Terreblanche's death as an isolated incident, and yes, it's about race and class: and I do not know, with the current education system in South Africa (a senior Black professor at UCT said recently that education is now worse for Blacks than what it was under the Apartheid regime), where this will end.

CBL: Are you planning any artistic response to this incident?

AK: I hope so - I don't force anything, hopefully a lateral solution will arrive soon. I don't think like a political cartoonist, and I do not do this kind of work on a deadline.

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