To my wife to be, Claire;
my two daughters, Kendra and Kayla;
and my late father and brother,
Douglas and Mark.
Origination & Co-ordination: Henri Vergon
Text: Charl Blignaut
Editor: Brenda Atkinson
Research: Rita Potenza
Graphic Design: Rohan Reddy
Published in association with Chalkham Hill Press
& the French Institute of South Africa.
This edition copyright © 2000 Chalkham Hill Press
The text is copyright © 2000 Charl Blignaut & © 2000 Alan Crump
All professional photographs are copyright © the photographers.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without
permission from the publishers except for the quotation of
selected passages in criticism or reviews.
7. Vienna Calling
9. 60’s Suburbia
12. Johnny Rottenism
14. Anyone for Tennis?
18. Fourteen Days in Hell
20. The Bad Art Attacks
22. The Famous Five do Downtown
24. Fragments of a Murder
25. Have you Hugged a Fascist Today?
28. Landscape with Target
30. Blood Money
31. Le Monde a L’envers
34. Bigotry on a Stick
36. The Heart of Neon
39. Divorce in Paradise
40. The South African Thing
42. Storming the Ramparts
44. The Wax Hand
45. A Love Story
46. Frankfurt in Latex
47. The Talking Curio
50. Back to Basics
51. Dirty Laundry
52. A New Kind of Freedom
55. Photo Credits & Works
After the considerable amount of unpublished
material I have read about Wayne Barker's work, I find it
somewhat strange that the artist should ask me to
contribute to this publication. After all, it was I who accused
him during the last Standard Bank national drawing
competition, over a decade ago, of "playing silly games"
and of "shameless self- promotion." The outcome of this
exchange was, for some, and undoubtedly Barker, that a
reversal had taken place. I had become the mouthpiece
representing an authority "dominated by patronising white
experts." Long before the change to a democratic
government a new cultural political correctness had arrived.
The days of judging art, especially judging art for no
remuneration, were nearing the end. The question of
who was capable of judging whom, who represented
who, and who was acceptable to all parties made the
task unenviable and became a political minefield. Wayne
Barker has always had problems with authority both at
the level of the individual and that of a system. In fact any
young artist who does not possess a healthy degree of
irreverence against previous art systems has some cause
for concern. Brancusi believed this of Rodin at the
beginning of the
insist that every
patricide of their previous masters. After Henry Moore,
their sentiments are comprehensible.
In South Africa, the tradition of artists waiting
interminably for the nod from a commercial gallery or
museum curator to exhibit their work is still in existence.
But an alternative group of artists began to question the
traditions of this system more than ten years ago. Wayne
Barker was certainly one of them. Audacious, truculent,
witty, highly critical and iconoclastic, the works he produced
and the alternative venues that he found and encouraged
artists to use, posed a genuine alternative to the existing
system. Most artists felt more comfortable in the somewhat
confined area of only making art works. The possibility of
an artist challenging the domain of museum curator and
orchestrating contentious exhibitions with work from
different and sometimes jumbled perspectives was initiated
and encouraged by Barker. Though much of the work was
not purchased that was by no means an indication of the
quality of the shows. The South African art public had
generally been used to logical and sequential exhibitions
which dealt with single themes and comprehensible
parameters. For artists to curate cutting-edge exhibitions
without the experience and qualifications of seasoned
museologists was both foreign and risqué. This was one
important contribution that should not be underestimated
when summing up this artist's creative output. It requires
as much ingenuity as the making of an artwork itself.
Superficially, Barker's work often possesses a cavalier
quality and his personality appears to be that of a cultural
cowboy reminiscent of the young Robert Rauschenburg
of the mid 1950s in North America. The cultivating of a
persona also seems for some artists to be an inextricable
part of the making process. One has only to consider the cultivated egos of two titans of the twentieth century, Duchamp
and Warhol, to recognise this trend. Underlying this outer appearance, Barker is an extremely serious artist, whose
concerns deal with the human condition, a condition far more about tragedy than comedy, and of loss, confrontation,
vulnerability and the insecurities of change. Dealing with these potent issues is not foreign to many South African writers,
playwrites, and movie makers, but to be an artist there is the language of materiality with which one has to contend.
In all Barker's works, whether they are paintings, installations, assemblages or objects, there remains an underlying
aesthetic, which is the understanding of how to "put things together" and how to incorporate "stuff," in a way that only
experienced artists succeed in doing. The materials he uses may not necessarily be traditional (after a century of using
found objects nothing can really be regarded as sacred), but the manner in which he allows objects and surfaces to
coexist, and how new meaning is invented and evoked, is part of his unique visual alphabet and narrative. I have
selected three of the many works that he has produced. The first work initially appeared to be a fairly weak facsimile
of a typical Pierneef painted on a mass-produced template displaying various anti-personel mines produced by the
previous government for a public-awareness campaign. On closer scrutiny the message was apparent. It was visionary
and loaded with a plethora of socio-political and cultural inversions. At that time only a committed and courageous
artist would have attempted such accusations. This small, quiet work acted for me as a cultural sledge-hammer. The
fact that this work hangs in the South African National Gallery reflects the knife edge which both this state institution
and the artist walked. This work is devoid of malice, which I believe applies to all his work, but is imbued rather with
a message of the tragedy of a dying culture and the agony of an unknown new one to be born.
The second work was " Lulu the Zulu." This is a painting of such salacious and unacceptable adolescent naughtiness
that it offends almost everyone. The feminists, the purists, the academics, the cultural mind police, the museum curators
and the Kitsch lovers were all highly displeased by this work. It nevertheless, talks of altered sensitivities, exploitation
and reversals of value which South Africans had, still have and probably will continue to have to some degree in the
future. As the past constructs the present, so too does contemporary art which, if worth its salt, reflects identity changes,
the rethinking on gender, political neglect and assumed cultural values. Barker's work uncomfortably reminds us that
few people live truly independently and that individuals are continually being moulded by ongoing propaganda, social
conditioning and nowadays spin doctors.
The third work, exhibited in 1994, entitled " Coke Adds Life" is a ghoulish installation dealing with the awful irony of
the cheapness of consumerism and the cheapness of life during the civil war in Mozambique in the 1980s. The
glamourising of a multinational carbonated sugar beverage in preference to subsistence food is reminiscent of Marie
Antoinette's absurd statement revisited in Africa two centuries later. The installation, adorned by contemporary advertising
lights, AK 47's, traditional religious icons and a Tonga maize-grinding vessel are chilling reminders of the clash between
past and present, "Blood" and "Hope," impassive multinationalism, and ancient rituals in the chaos of present day Africa.
Much of Barker's works reflects the complexity and
diverse values of many cultures in one country. It is this
complexity, the multi dimension of different worlds with
different voices which he manages to sew into his works.
The creative space he has forged appears to have been
germinated in his challenging and questioning of
established structures from an early age. The journey does
not make for easy living but also does not suffer from the
taboo of talking about "the other." Nor is his work
During the South Africa of the 1980s, the cultural boycott
had some positive effects on the creative output of many
artists in the country. As the groundswell of social and
political resistance increased, so too arose a questioning
of rigid cultural authority and fearsome political repression.
Out of this crucible, Barker's career began. Inevitably this
cultural isolation could not sustain itself and the need for
artists to experience and exhibit abroad has been enriching
for both them and for this country's art. To become part
of the world there are certain systems which the art world
requires. I refer to the quality of publications and the
proliferation of the written word which automatically
internationalises the art. South Africa has, in my opinion,
several artists of unquestionable merit who have the ability
to take their place on the international exhibition arena.
At present there is a shrinking support for all the arts which
is a matter of grave concern and in the end it will be left
to the ingenuity of the individual to survive both in this
country and abroad.
I have willingly contributed to this publication because
I believe this artist has a proven track record which warrants
the kind of exposure that he deserves. South Africa has
never been a boring country and the unique and often
traumatised dynamism which acts as a catalyst to unleash
the creative energy of certain makers is missing in secure
environments. So much of first world art has had the visual
and conceptual corners sanded off it. Although some of
Barker's works could well do with editing, his energy and
iconoclasm has produced art which at best is raw, maverick,
beautiful, tragic and humorous. The all South African boy
he is not, a good artist he undoubtedly is.
"There's a strong flying story going down," says
Wayne Barker of his family history. "Particularly on my
father's side. Before me there were three generations of
fighter pilots, air force pilots, military men... "
A cursory glance around the artist's Johannesburg
studio - a big old charmed space with arches and bad
wiring that used to be a hip urban restaurant - and it seems
that the family flying heritage stops here. It's as hard to
imagine Barker in uniform with a two-car family as it is to
imagine him abstaining for any length of time from parties
that begin at dusk and career into dawn.
Barker breaks off his sentence to answer his cell phone.
It's Vienna on the line, and he is invited to open a show of
student work there later in the week. But he's flustered by
the idea of another financially thin stint in Europe when he
should be home working on his retrospective. He sweetly
but firmly declines.
As a key member of the generation of white South
African artists who assailed the racist ideologies of the
country's contemporary history, Barker has been part of
the first wave of local producers to be offered air tickets
and significant international options. In the process of
travelling, his work has been increasingly marked by colonial
histories and pop culture signposts beyond his own country's
often violently fractured borders: spice winds and trade
routes, exploration and invasion, the traumatic semiotics
of cultures meshing. In the back half of Barker's portfolio,
birds, butterflies and aeroplanes suggest that there's a
strong flying story going down here after all.
When he talks about growing up in the dire political and cultural conservatism
of late-70s Pretoria, it's clear that flight then was much more about fleeing than
flying. As a teenager, he would run away from home to become a wood carver
at the coast. And as a conscript in the South African Defence Force, he lost no
time in fleeing the institution that had been a second home to three generations
of Barker men.
Coupled with the contradictions of a country where freedom was a highly
relative term, his family's nationalist politics and patriarchal values created a
schism that Barker would compulsively concentrate on straddling in his artistic
work. Writing about the paintings on Images on Metal, Barker's debut solo
show in 1989, Weekly Mail critic Ivor Powell put it this way: "It's as though [in
Barker's work] meaning is the point where the lies of one's childhood meet the
realities of the present, not a fixed point but an intersection." Shaped by those
schisms, Barker would later emerge in the national press as a prankster and
cultural agitator, in one instance assuming a black identity for the purposes of
entering a national drawing competition. Still later, he would devise a performance
piece that had him covered in brown chocolate and playing the piano naked:
sweet brown-white man with something to say about the stages of personal
initiation, the commerce of cultures, and the agony of political entropy.
"In a way it's a bit like having two identities," he says today. "But one was an
identity I had to reject, which was based on my entire education as a white South
In 1963, the year in which Barker was
born, the National Party's apartheid policy
was beginning to reveal the ruthless
expediency of its ideological core. President
H.F. Verwoerd governed from Pretoria when
the Rivonia Trialists - a core group of African
National Congress leaders including Nelson
Mandela - were run to ground, tried, and
incarcerated on Robben Island.
Valhalla, the outlying suburb of Pretoria
where Barker spent his first ten years, was
not what it seemed. Growing up there, he
recalls healthy stretches of "fruit trees and
koppies", a "kind of innocence" that concealed
its less benign status as home to a military
air base and the families of Defence Force
employees. These were apartheid's most
villainous years - of total onslaughts in the
townships and categorical denials about
South Africa's military presence in
neighbouring Angola and Mozambique.
"We were absolutely part of a system
where you were taught to hate black people,"
says Barker today. "It was entrenched in
virtually every conversation at home."
Yet he also recalls family gatherings as
"quite real and warm, like there was a sort of
gemutlich vibe. You had drunk uncles playing
match boxes and singing Sarie Marais and
all that stuff."
Barker found "unconditional love" at a Jewish nursery school and
bonded with his older, adopted sister Linda, who introduced Bob Marley
and hotpants to the neighbourhood. He witnessed two black men he
knew from the corner shop being severely beaten by police for not
carrying Pass books; he was rattled by the sight of street kids downtown
while travelling home from a swimming gala one night, loaded with
sweets he had won.
It's not particularly difficult to imagine how the Glen
High School in Pretoria was able to bring out "total Johnny
Rottenism" in Wayne Barker.
Despite its thistle emblem and tartan-clad cheerleaders,
The Glen was not a pretty place in Scotland. Its dusty fields
with their adjoining littered hollow lent themselves to
smoking dope against the back fence while kicking at the
tufts of grass still trying to grow. Its walls begged the
malcontent scrawl of irremovable graffiti.
The year was 1976, Soweto a cultural universe away.
Barker was in Standard Six and his brother in Standard
Eight. Together they were the neighbourhood's "legendary
reprobates", bored white schoolboys who believed that
to be wild was somehow also to be innocent. Buying dope
one day, Barker was arrested and his Glen High career
came to an abrupt end. Soon after, so did his home life -
with all his clothes in black plastic bags, he ran away with
a friend and became an apprentice woodcarver in Nature's
Valley, where the fragrance of ocean and earth mixed
headily with the thrill of flight and an almost anonymous
Although his parents knew where he was, Barker had
no contact with them until eight months later, when he
returned to Pretoria and crammed his final two years of
schooling at Capital College.
Conscription loomed, and Barker, for better or for
worse, followed his instincts and enrolled at Pretoria
Technikon to study its first-ever art course. After a year
spent living in his parents' outside room - a year of exploring
basic techniques and discovering a staggering backcatalogue
of art history books and "art heroes" who he
had barely known existed - he decided to take his art
studies back to the coast. Over this time, another split
became part of the make-up of his identity: the wayward
rebel full of unfocused energy learned to shift, focus, and
absorb information that would literally allow him to survive
in a culture of reactionary thinkers. Later, when Barker
would need a trap-door out of the military, the books he
had read would be the material for performances in which
he was the tragi-comic star.
In his two years at the University of Cape
Town's Michaelis Art School, Barker's rough and
ready painting instincts made a favourable
impression. But he couldn't shake the lingering
sense that something was up with the drinking
water. As the filmmaker Mira Nair once put it:
"Cape Town is not itself. Here even the vegetation
Out of place in the city's small circle of
smugness, Barker began to feel that maybe
Pretoria wasn't so bad after all, at least it was
what it was, however horrible. In Cape Town, P.W.
Botha and his ever-encroaching states of
emergency seemed to be able to exist in some
sort of bubble somewhere above the mountain.
Like his cousin Brett Murray and his soon-to-
be new friend Barend de Wet, both already fourth-
year art stars at the school when he arrived,
Barker emerged from his encounters with the
more genteel, gin-sipping, faux-bohemian side
of life in the former colony thinking hard and
When a respected lecturer, Neville Dubow,
asked his students to sculpt extensions of their
bodies, Barker decided to make "a colonial thing".
"It was a tennis court off my body - and I
dressed up as [Dubow] and then got the rest of
the students to throw tennis balls at me. Other
people were making wings and stuff. And he was
furious. He was devastated."
Barker's brief outing as a tennis court was just the first of many little cultural interventions and art parodies he would
come to perform. The next time he did it, though, he would be Charlie Chaplin and the stakes would be higher.
When a lecturer at Michaelis told Barker
that what he really needed was to go to the army,
learn some discipline and then go back and
paint, he obviously never knew his student. Or perhaps
knew him all too well. When Barker returned from Cape
Town at the end of 1983 having failed art history, his father
insisted that he would do his bit for the country.
Barker ignored the family pressure and spent that
Christmas in Johannesburg. The decision would shift his
context and redefine the parameters of his work, largely
due to the influence of two people working there at the
time. In Cape Town he had met a young actress and started
helping her and a friend construct the sets for their plays.
The actress was Megan Kruskul, and her friend was Chris
Pretorius. Before leaving the country to pursue international
opportunities, Pretorius and Kruskul would come as close
as anyone ever has to being
underground stars in Johannesburg.
Working with them, Barker acquired
skills that would later add weight and
conviction to his military performance
When critic Brenda Atkinson today
writes about the "ravishing aesthetic
impact" of Barker's work, and of how
he is able to turn "politics into beauty",
the artist should probably, however
briefly, tip his hat in the direction of
scene. Pretorius, a
writer and designer,
would almost certainly
have instilled in Barker
a sense of textured
space and odd lighting. Kruskul, with whom Barker had
become involved, would act in plays with names like Weird
Sex in Maputo. She was also known to chant sick ditties
and spit political outrage at the singer of a seminal punkish
agit-rock band called Koos. Of the authors she got Barker
to read, he would say in the Vryeweekblad: "In the army
I was three people - Umberto Eco, Carl Jung and Joseph
Early in 1984, Barker's call-up papers arrived at his
parents' home. He and Kruskul were devastated, but she
and his mother eventually dropped him off at the military
ase in Voortrekkerhoogte, Pretoria.
Barker was stunned.
"I took one look and decided no way, not interested."
Although the End Conscription Campaign had begun
to gather momentum, white boys who refused to march
to the apartheid tune for two years and return for camps
for years thereafter essentially had two options: to go to
the army or go to jail. Conscientious objectors could be -
and were - arrested and imprisoned for up to five years.
Barker's best option was to have himself classified
unsuitable for service. With a renewed recklessness and
a grand concentration of energy, he set to work. It took
him about two weeks.
"What happened was that in the army I met Jeremy
Nathan [later a leading independent film producer], a
confused theologian and a poet who'd been studying for
nine years. We were in different barracks, but somehow
we met and we'd strategise on the parade ground and
we'd swap notes. We refused to
carry rifles and understood how we
were being indoctrinated."
In those days the army was
partly an extension of the white education system: on any
given Friday afternoon you could see teen troopies strut
their stuff in polished boots on well-watered school fields
across the country. Because Barker had kicked a soccer
ball deftly, in the army he ended up in the sport bungalow.
"I was with all these fucking massive ous built like shithouses.
And there I was going into passive resistance
mode, pretending to be a bit mad."
Barker's informal education kicked in: his desperate,
off-the-cuff fusion of psychoanalysis and theatre had him
marching like Charlie Chaplin, as well as bonding "to get
to the Corporal to get to the Sergeant to get to the Lieutenant
to get to the Captain to get out."
He was duly released. Temporarily disowned by his
family, he moved to Johannesburg and started painting.
Something was up in
Johannesburg's art scene. Form just
wasn't coping with context. The
cultural boycott, always painful, was
really starting to hurt. Political niceties
couldn't cut it anymore, and Barker
was one of the new kids on the block.
The new kids - including a brace of
artists and theatrical types emerging
from Cape Town - were steadily being
marginalised. They weren't sure they
trusted their ideas in the hands of
academic institutions, and had
developed a distaste for the same
old commercial galleries housed in
leafy suburbs. Not that invitations to
exhibit were particularly forthcoming
- to this day Barker has never shown
at the terribly important Goodman
Gallery in Johannesburg. Its polite
exigencies were part of the same
forces that turned him into a tennis
court and called up the ghost of
Charlie Chaplin. Like some sort of
pre-millennial Rimbaud, the Barker
who turned up at Important Gallery
Openings would enjoy the free booze
and then take off all his clothes and
rugby tackle the artists.
"I thought the art was really bad. It was old. Like any 24-year-old I thought
I was onto something fresher."
Apart from the burgeoning multicultural scene at the Market Theatre
complex downtown, the party sucked. So the kids decided to try and throw
their own. The next few years would see the rise of Gallant House, the Black
Sun theatre and Barker's own Famous International Gallery, more modestly
known as Fig.
In 1986 Barker had made his commercial art debut
on the experimental wall at The Market Galleries (a new
artist who painted on glass made a small notice in
Johannesburg's daily newspaper The Star). Showing in
the main space were friends up from Cape Town - including
Barend de Wet and Kevin Brand. With Fig these artists and
their Johannesburg contemporaries had a free space in
which to test new work on their peers and on the arts
press, often seen at openings looking somewhat
beleaguered by having had to drive into the downtown
badlands on a Sunday night. But no matter how vinegary
the boxed wine, nor how sour the press, Fig would come
to be regarded as a vital stop-over on the way to the
mainstream success achieved by many who exhibited
there. William Kentridge, Robert Hodgins, Joachim
Schönfeldt, Neil Goedhals, Kate Gottgens, Lisa Brice, Kendell
Geers, Steven Cohen et al all stopped over at Fig on their
diverse paths to local and international recognition.
A black South African art scene never happened at
Fig - not for lack of trying, but because it would take some
years for a mainstream system for black artists to emerge
from a painfully segregated society. When it did it would
settle at the Market
precinct and then
at the revamped
Barker still recalls every blurry detail of the opening
show at Fig: "The Cape Town crowd came up and we did
our first show, Urban Melodrama. We called
ourselves The Famous Five. We covered each painting in
newspaper and we got the Prince of Swaziland to open
the show. He used to walk around town in heels with a
cigar mic shouting into a megaphone - wearing an afro
and a kilt... "
It was scenes like this, coupled with the arrival of a
new breed of art intellectual from the more liberal
universities, that would, by the early 90s, prompt much
press speculation about the emergence of "an authentic
Johannesburg avant-garde". For most, though, the label
would seem frivolous in the face of an unprecedented
national State of Emergency facing the country.
In 1989, Nelson Mandela was
still in prison; P.W. Botha had
suffered a stroke and F.W. De Klerk
was about to replace him as State
President. The first lurid exposés of
apartheid hit-squad atrocities were
rattling the headlines of the
Battering, bruising and
abrading pieces of metal until
images suggested themselves on
the surface like channelled spirits,
the artist then pasted ready-made
products or painted a series of vivid,
colliding images in oils on his dusty
downtown canvasses. These
canvasses would make up Images
on Metal, his first solo show, held
at the Market Galleries.
He transformed the gallery
space into a closed reality littered
with pop signs and scruffy wonders
- goldfish circled their bowls on the
floor beneath the paintings.
Interspersed with a series of line
drawings of black faces - called
Victims - symbols of Afrikaner
nationalist history looked out,
as Powell described it, "from
fragments of a murder".
By 1992, Barker was well known to the downtown
police. In those days virtually everyone with a remotely
subversive record - and certainly all conscientious objectors
- had a file kept on their activities at the notorious police
headquarters, John Vorster Square.
It was there that Barker was taken after his second
arrest. "What happened was a policeman, a big, big, white
policeman had just caught a street child for petty theft and
fucked the bejesus out of him in front of me, so I was
again faced with this whole terrible reality of do I -
can I - speak for him. Or
do I just ignore it?"
Barker lost his temper.
The arresting officer
lost his docket. Barker
spent the better part
of his week in the
holding cells, where
he was faced with another moral question. "I was in the
cell with two far right wing AWB types who had just
murdered a black man. They had stolen his guitar and
they had killed him."
Late on the second night, the Sergeant came to tell the
one man that his brother had committed suicide, and
Barker found himself nursing the enemy through his trauma.
"Suddenly I was the only one who could help console
this guy... For hours and hours.
About death and about loss. At
the same time I was sitting there
hating him. For me it was
another big wake-up call about
what a contradiction I'm living
in, living in South Africa."
The Johannesburg Art Gallery, a grand old building
in downtown Joubert Park - and once the epicentre of the
city's cultural life - now found its collection of European
masters increasingly hemmed in by taxi ranks and hawkers,
betting totes and whores.
To Barker, the ironies littering the pavements on his daily
walk from street culture to high culture - from the Fig to the
JAG - were plentiful. Hawkers in the shadow of the Stock
Exchange; swish fashion stores alongside street barbers;
squats built from cardboard boxes emblazoned with product
logos that guaranteed they'd wash your whites whiter than
Inside the gallery, Barker had been scrutinising the
Jacob Hendrik Pierneef was a formalist painter of
landscapes who had - throughout the 1920s, 30s and 40s
- been endorsed by the Afrikaner state. A good part of his
job had been to provide government department buildings
with outsized canvasses of a rigorously stylised and sanitised
South African countryside. Throughout his career, he had
been active in the Afrikaner Broederbond, a cultural
movement established in 1918 that quickly evolved into a
highly secretive brotherhood for the Afrikaner elite. Working
in tandem with the Dutch Reformed Church, the Broederbond
was instrumental in promoting the apartheid policy. It pulled
the strings of parliamentary puppets right up until its
members were named in the press in 1993.
Now Pierneef's paintings became the canvas on which
If his Images on Metal had been "a deconstruction of
the apartheid mettle", then his Pierneef series dug deeper.
It not only probed the origins of Afrikaner nationalism's
particular breed of cultural imperialism, but also documented
its collision with modern-day mass culture. Without being
politically patronising and with a deceptive pop simplicity,
Barker's Pierneefs were able to signpost the complex
historical realities at play as the country began to lurch
violently towards democracy.
In Pierneef's world view, wrote Unisa art historian Nic
Coetzee, the land was given to the white man by God and
it was the white man's duty to bring order to a barbarian
continent. He did so by a process of selecting certain
elements favourable to the vision of the country held by the
Afrikaner elite and ignoring those deemed unsightly.
Pierneef's neat white homesteads showed no signs of the
underdeveloped black locations lurking just beyond the
Barker took what was behind the scenes and put it
upfront. On to his meticulous copies he placed brassy,
unprecious pop imagery - ready-made commodities and
oil-painted targets, soiled proletariat spades and bleeding
The works bristled with relevance and Barker no doubt
expected them to be greeted more favourably than they
were by the art establishment. Though today considered
a pivotal entry in the country's contemporary art record, at
the time the works were overlooked by a string of competition
Where others may have accepted defeat, Barker decided
instead that it was time to turn up the heat. But first, he
would have to take a day job.
It was early in 1990 that Nelson Mandela was released
from jail. He walked from the grounds of Cape Town's Victor
Verster Prison into the final hours of a three-year state of
emergency and was greeted by ululating masses and a great
jostling of international television cameras. A set of that footage
would wind its way back to Johannesburg, to the CBS News
library in the South African bureau, where it was Barker's job to
source and file material for international reports.
The pictures that he sorted were harrowing. The country
had embarked on a course of volatile multi-party negotiations;
the right wing had unleashed a terror campaign, and he would
be startled by previously prohibited archive material - of military
activity in the townships and decades of police brutality.
For Barker, who had never even owned a television set, CBS
brought greater insight into the inner workings of mass electronic
media and their complicated modes of commercial production.
If the pop in his art was presented from a position of compassion,
then what he saw emerging on the videotapes was the real
thing - hard product. Human suffering and political drama
packaged into inserts for adspend on the
"For the first time I saw the real
power of the media," says
Barker, "and it was really
He decided to
hang on to
some of the
certain that he
would find a
use for it one
On July 4 1990, five months after his release, Mandela's
call for a Southern African leaders' summit was making
headlines. "Mugabe, Chissano and Mandela to Meet" was
top of the news in The Star. Just below that, beneath an
account of an abortive Zambian coup attempt, was a third
story: "Art Entry Rocks Grahamstown Festival". The story
was the new South Africa's first contemporary art scandal
and its popular introduction to the work of Wayne Barker.
Deliberately breaking the rules, Barker entered two
works in the prestigious Standard Bank Drawing
Competition. One, under his own name, came from the
Pierneef series. The other, a crudely charming and overtly
political triptych called CV Can't Vote, was entered under
the fictional (black) name of Andrew Moletse. Eager to
redress decades of neglect, the judges found the Moletse
work was just the kind of thing they were looking for. It
was accepted for exhibition; the Barker was rejected.
"SA art caught with its pants down" was Powell's
headline. Barker told journalists that he had created
Moletse in order to test some of the problems facing
local art - and to expose the "ethnocentric bias" of
an art world he regarded as "dominated by patronising
In the slew of press that followed the Moletse scandal
Barker would be accused by competition judge Alan Crump
of "playing silly games" and of "shameless self-promotion".
In truth, Crump could just as well have seen Andrew
Moletse to be watering the expansive ground for debate
that existed between the old order and the new, between
Third World art development and First World art trends and
between issues of representation and appropriation.
These were to become cultural buzz phrases as the
country opened up and cultures began to exchange real
ideas. The academic art world was turned on its head,
and political and social structures were changing
irrevocably. Mandela's release had seen the cultural boycott
begin to crumble, and the advent of the first large scale
international showings of South African work outside the
Back home the nascent avant garde was finding its
feet: alternative Afrikaners blew up on the music fringe;
artist Braam Kruger initiated the Mamba Awards for
contemporary art; state sponsored cultural institutions were
boycotted by returning exiles. It was only a matter of time
before Barker and his contemporaries would cross into
the mainstream. By 1992, the Everard Read Contemporary
Gallery had opened its upmarket doors, offering them a
commercial home. Barker was selected as the début solo
Back in Johannesburg it seemed the Biennale was going ahead without the new generation of local artists. Although
a Zulu Lulu was featured on the Spanish pavilion, Barker felt that the local selection simply did not reflect what was
happening. It was the same old problem, but this time he didn't do blackface or hurl tennis balls at the organisers. He
decided instead to claim a piece of the Biennale precinct and curate his own show.
At a stage in contemporary South African art characterised by infighting - mutterings and fists flew in the build up
to Africus; artists clashed with local government, curators clashed with bureaucrats and the press clashed along after
them - Barker was perfectly poised to bring together his contemporaries.
The Laager - a circular art encampment created out of 14 12-meter shipping containers - would come to be regarded
as the gem of the Biennale and much praise would be bestowed on Barker's curatorial instincts.
Writing about the 1995 Africus Biennale in an edition of Modern Painters, David Bowie discussed The Laager as
"a symbol of nationalist isolation", suggesting that the irony of the show was that it exposed Africus itself to be a bit of
"What it does for me personally," he wrote, "is present the work of a bunch of wildly talented, young, mostly white
artists dealing with the South African Thing... Wayne Barker, curator of this fringe event offers a deconstruction of the
history of image in South Africa from 1930 to the present... "
The United Nations agreed with the pop star and offered backing for the show to be taken to Chile as a cultural
exchange. What remains startling about The Laager is how in both its content and its presentation - a shipping container
per artist - it pre-empted the 1997 Africus Biennale, which addressed issues of cultural identity around the theme of
Trade Routes. Barker was about to set sail on a voyage of discovery across the seas. First, though, there was South
Africa's own colonial history to reconsider.
Had you visited Trade Routes, curated by Okwui Enwezor
at the Electric Workshop for the 1997 Johannesburg Biennale,
and made your way towards the back and up a floor or two
you would have looked down upon The World is Flat - a stark
and astonishing sight.
Barker's huge new piece was a map of the world constructed from
3 000 army uniforms and 2 000 green beer bottles. At the southernmost
tip of Africa was a neon sign reading VOC - the logo of the Dutch
East India Company (DEIC).
It was the DEIC's commercial fleets - heroes of the apartheid history
books - that instigated South Africa's earliest colonial land wars and
forged a trail for the Boers to eventually settle in the interior and claim
a republic. In 1652 the Cape colony was established by the DEIC when
the trading company set up a refreshment station under Jan van Riebeek
- to stave off scurvy on the voyage north. Soon enough the indigenous
Khoikhoi people were enslaved, beginning a campaign of resistance in
1659. The station would become a British settlement and a military base
would be established at its heart, today known as The Castle of Good
It was at The Castle in 1995 that The World is Flat began its life as
Is the World Flat? - on a show called “Scurvy” organised by Barker,
Kevin Brand and Brett Murray - in which they recolonised the military
museum and claimed it for
For Barker it was a milestone
and a political victory. Particularly
considering that in order to construct his work
- in the very first room ever built at the Castle
- he would have to request materials from
the army. In 1995 the Defence Force was
trying desperately to incorporate the former
resistance armies into its ranks. "I had to
negotiate with them," says Barker. "I told them
it's all about forgiveness."
Today Barker says that “Scurvy” was the
first time that he began to think globally about
his work. That he was looking at identity.
What were his own colonial origins? Was the
VOC logo - the first multi-national logo in the
world - a bit like the Coca Cola logo today?
In a press release for “Scurvy” he added:
"Is this how we see the world through the
media? Through a flat plain of images?"
In 1990, at the height of the FIG's notoriety and at the
invitation of the state-funded South African Association of
Arts (SAAA), Barker had led a delegation of artists to Pretoria
to create a show called Klapperkop. Arriving at the gallery,
guests found the works covered with black cloths. The Fig,
announced Barker, refused to unveil the exhibition unless
the SAAA disassociate itself from politically insidious funding
decisions. What had particularly irked The Fig was the
apartheid state's sponsorship of a group of South African
artists to show in Pinochet's Chile.
So, taking The Laager to a post-Pinochet Chile at the
invitation of the Santiago Museum of Contemporary Art,
and paid for by the United Nations, provided considerable
political affirmation for Barker's rational and romantic art
"I met a poet who was friends with a guitarist whose
hands got cut off by Pinochet's thugs. I met artists who
had been blindfolded by the dictatorship - for months -
and then taken out of the cells and shown the light. All
these people became part of my Santiago exhibition."
The bulk of the work was called Tiempo de Amor/Time
to Love and was the genesis of what would - over the
coming months of European travel - become Barker's first
European solo, Nothing Gets Lost in the Universe.
Time to Love was shown outside The Laager, in a lift
shaft of the museum. It included a neon "love" sign and a
Hoopoo bird, newspaper headlines and, for the guitarist,
a wax hand bought at the religious market in Rio, where
it would have been used as an effigy to pray for healing
of the body part.
From Santiago on, wax worked its way into Barker's
palette with ease. It was second skin. Like the army
uniforms or the white pigment of Xhosa boys undergoing
initiation into manhood, wax would return frequently as
an agent of transformation in Barker's later work, at times
evolving into latex and even chocolate.
All Washed Up in Africa would play itself out in various
contexts in the two years leading to Barker's 2000
retrospective at the Johannesburg Art Gallery - the same
gallery that he had visited to copy the Pierneefs and that
now houses his work in its permanent collection.
All Washed Up in Africa was the title of his second
solo at the Frankfurt Hanel in 1997, and of a beautifully
crafted Pretoria exhibition at the Millennium Gallery with
Ian Waldek in 1999. His contribution to the 1998
Angolan/South African exchange Memorias Intimas
Marcas was another version of Nantes, drawing on both
personal and political histories.
There was a wax room with the washing line projection,
debris, blood, a waterfall and photographs of himself and
his brother playing on the beach during the time of the
There was also "an army room" and again Barker drew
on his role as a public art agent. He put out an appeal for
donations of old South African army uniforms so that he
could offer them to Angola as an apology for the pain caused
by the country's involvement in the war. Thousands arrived.
By now, though, the populist side of Barker's work and
personality was about more than just offering the artist up
as a public facilitator. When combined with his ironic jester
act, he was starting to create a fairly significant breed of
Visiting the 1998 Venice Biennale with Waldek, for
example, the artists were outraged to learn that not a
single African country was represented on one of the world's most important exhibitions. Barker and Waldek invited
the curator of the Biennale to join them in St Mark's Square, where they asked to wash his feet in public "as a sign of
forgiveness, so that next time he would take care to remember that Africa does exist."
Later that year, Barker found himself in Austria, giving art classes to Slovakian children. While he was there he
collaborated with the Austrian artist Barbara Holub in a piece called Kunst ist Kinderspielen/Art is Child's Play at
the Kunsthalle in Krems.
Barker had videotaped himself playing the piano in the gallery - having discovered a talent for grandly insane
compositions with a flow like lyrical jazz after his brother's death in an aeroplane crash earlier that year.
In Krems Barker lay on the gallery floor naked and covered in chocolate while a video of himself playing the piano
flickered over his body. Next to him was a neon sign reading WCB. It looked a lot like the Dutch East India Company's
VOC logo he had used in work before, but spelling the initials of Wayne Cahill Barker, or, he adds: "White Coloured
Black". In later performances Barker would play the piano live, covered in chocolate which he once had licked off his
body as he pounded the keys. Why chocolate? "Because it's brown," he says.
Once Barker had posed as a black man in a national drawing competition and bronzed racist dolls to elevate their
status. Neither act is too far removed from covering himself in chocolate. Lying on the floor in Krems, his name a multinational
cultural logo, Barker then rose to switch on a television set. On the screen appeared hundreds of butterflies
as, all around him in the gallery, projected bird silhouettes danced on the walls.
"I think I was trying to find a free space to work in," he says, "trying to move away from work related directly to
where I live. And trying to find a new kind of freedom."
WAYNE BARKER's artistic career spans almost two decades, marked by a bitter-sweet mix of politics, poetry, and a
passion for subversion. Tracking that career from apartheid South Africa's most violent years to a new democratic dispensation,
the artist's monograph explores the contradictory impulses of "African identity", and Barker's exploration of a continent's
At times part Pop Art, at others a layered deployment of traditional genres and media, Barker's work stands as much
as an indictment of colonialism as of misplaced political correctness. From the first seduction to the twist in the gut, it is as
beautiful as it is provoking.