When Apartheid was abolished in 1991, probably the worst thing to be symbolically in South Africa at the time was a white male, as it embodied everything associated with being the oppressor. To be clear, the “oppressed” encompassed just about everyone who had been previously disadvantaged (the term was later updated to ”historically disadvantaged”). In the case of Apartheid, the term encompassed all black African, Indian, Colored (a term for a specific cultural group of people in South Africa) and Asian-South Africans, as well as the female gender at large. Basically, the term included a pretty large chunk of the population that, in truth, encompassed almost everyone aside from the white male.
With the abolishment of Apartheid came a number of important more subtle shifts. One was a shift in general consciousness and with this the need to facilitate a previously unheard and under-represented voice. Local art institutions, interestingly, shifted the focus of their programs to better accommodate artists from previously/historically disadvantaged backgrounds, ensuring that the voices previously silenced received a dedicated platform. Given the country’s troubled history this was a perfectly logical shift. Its also meant, however, that white male artists now found themselves excluded — collateral damage as a result of an adjustment period, so to speak. This cross-section of artists on the periphery of programming now became the marginalized group, at least until such time as things normalized.
This shift ignited a very interesting time for creativity with many artists responding to identities in flux. Much like the rap-rave band, Die Antwoord, which explores the underbelly of South Africa’s Afrikaans subculture, artists became more self-reflexive creating work that depicted themselves as “outcasts.”
One such artist is Anton Kannemeyer, whose drawings and characters evoke The Adventures of Tintincomic book series, which coincidentally began with the first volume, Tin Tin in Congo, being published in 1931. Kannemeyer’s works riff on the strong colonialist overtone of these comics and are thick with satire. At first glance Kannemeyer’s obvious colonial references can be misperceived as being overtly racist, however through his subversive use of racial stereotypes and by placing himself within his images, he makes the irony of the dialogue very apparent. In “Very Very Good” Kannemeyer depicts himself as the “white artist” condescendingly praising a “black artist.” By placing himself as the villain — an ill-equipped and oblivious white liberal — Kannemeyer assumes personal responsibility and thus by implicating himself helps place the viewer at ease, allowing them to analyze their own behavior. By inserting himself in the work, Kannemeyer draws attention specifically to his characters prejudicial behavior, and through this irony, is able to focus his critique.
Kannemeyer is also co-creator of Bittercomix, a series of comic books with fellow South African artist Conrad Botes, where he similarly inserts, and implicated, himself. His character, Joe Dog (translation from Afrikaans pronunciation it means You Dog), allows Kannemeyer to speak about and act out all of the issues stereotypically tied into surrounding the identity of a mainstream Afrikaaner, from rebelling against authority to expressing latent sexual desires.
Another South African artist who investigates this identity in flux is Cameron Platter. However unlike Kannemeyer, Platter has chosen not to explore themes of race and identity from his own vantage point. Instead, Platter appropriates a series of characters that are fictional and otherworldly. Crocodile cowboys, zebra aliens from out of space and pimp cats explore issues, ideas and fantasies that reflect life in contemporary South Africa. His drawings, sculptures and video work also appropriate the mediums and techniques inherent to traditional African art practice, for example the linocut and woodcarvings, and recontextualize them into contemporary subject matter. Despite his appropriation of characters and technique, Platters work still retains an autobiographical overtone. However, unlike Kannemeyer, he opts to keep his racial categorization out of his work. He explains, “To be honest, I consider myself a person, artist and commentator first, and would probably be making the same work if I were a black transsexual. For me, being a white man is simply the card I was dealt.”
Both artists are receiving international acclaim for their work and are currently featured in the MoMA exhibition Impressions from South Africa, 1965 to Now in Manhattan. They also both represented by galleries in Cape Town, Anton Kannemeyer by Michael Stevenson gallery and Cameron Platter by Whatiftheworld Gallery. Both are also preparing for solo exhibitions abroad; Anton Kannemeyer will be featured at New York’s Jack Shainman Gallery this October and Cameron Platter is making work for his solo exhibition at Hilger gallery in Vienna, Austria in April 2012.
This international acclaim is well deserved. Despite their different approach to addressing and repurposing their racial categorization, they share the uncanny ability to be self-reflective and responsive, and this makes their work relevant, interrogative and honest.