Published 2000 in association with Chalkham Hill Press

Published 2000 in association with Chalkham Hill Press


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To my wife to be, Claire;<br />

my two daughters, Kendra and Kayla;<br />

and my late father and brother,<br />

Douglas and Mark.

Origination & Co-ordination: Henri Vergon<br />

Text: Charl Blignaut<br />

Editor: Brenda Atkinson<br />

Research: Rita Potenza<br />

Graphic Design: Rohan Reddy<br />

Published in association with Chalkham Hill Press<br />

& the French Institute of South Africa.<br />

ISBN 0-620-26018-1<br />

This edition copyright © 2000 Chalkham Hill Press<br />

The text is copyright © 2000 Charl Blignaut & © 2000 Alan Crump<br />

All professional photographs are copyright © the photographers.<br />

No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without<br />

permission from the publishers except for the quotation of<br />

selected passages in criticism or reviews.

4. Introduction<br />

7. Vienna Calling<br />

9. 60’s Suburbia<br />

12. Johnny Rottenism<br />

14. Anyone for Tennis?<br />

18. Fourteen Days in Hell<br />

20. The Bad Art Attacks<br />

22. The Famous Five do Downtown<br />

24. Fragments of a Murder<br />

25. Have you Hugged a Fascist Today?<br />

28. Landscape with Target<br />

30. Blood Money<br />

31. Le Monde a L’envers<br />

34. Bigotry on a Stick<br />

36. The Heart of Neon<br />

39. Divorce in Paradise<br />

40. The South African Thing<br />

42. Storming the Ramparts<br />

44. The Wax Hand<br />

45. A Love Story<br />

46. Frankfurt in Latex<br />

47. The Talking Curio<br />

50. Back to Basics<br />

51. Dirty Laundry<br />

52. A New Kind of Freedom<br />

54. Biography<br />

55. Photo Credits & Works

After the considerable amount of unpublished<br />

material I have read about Wayne Barker's work, I find it<br />

somewhat strange that the artist should ask me to<br />

contribute to this publication. After all, it was I who accused<br />

him during the last Standard Bank national drawing<br />

competition, over a decade ago, of "playing silly games"<br />

and of "shameless self- promotion." The outcome of this<br />

exchange was, for some, and undoubtedly Barker, that a<br />

reversal had taken place. I had become the mouthpiece<br />

representing an authority "dominated by patronising white<br />

experts." Long before the change to a democratic<br />

government a new cultural political correctness had arrived.<br />

The days of judging art, especially judging art for no<br />

remuneration, were nearing the end. The question of<br />

who was capable of judging whom, who represented<br />

who, and who was acceptable to all parties made the<br />

task unenviable and became a political minefield. Wayne<br />

Barker has always had problems with authority both at<br />

the level of the individual and that of a system. In fact any<br />

young artist who does not possess a healthy degree of<br />

irreverence against previous art systems has some cause<br />

for concern. Brancusi believed this of Rodin at the<br />

beginning of the<br />

twentieth<br />

century,<br />

and contemporary<br />

British<br />

sculptors still<br />

insist that every<br />

generation<br />

should commit<br />

patricide of their previous masters. After Henry Moore,<br />

their sentiments are comprehensible.<br />

In South Africa, the tradition of artists waiting<br />

interminably for the nod from a commercial gallery or<br />

museum curator to exhibit their work is still in existence.<br />

But an alternative group of artists began to question the<br />

traditions of this system more than ten years ago. Wayne<br />

Barker was certainly one of them. Audacious, truculent,<br />

witty, highly critical and iconoclastic, the works he produced<br />

and the alternative venues that he found and encouraged<br />

artists to use, posed a genuine alternative to the existing<br />

system. Most artists felt more comfortable in the somewhat<br />

confined area of only making art works. The possibility of<br />

an artist challenging the domain of museum curator and<br />

orchestrating contentious exhibitions with work from<br />

different and sometimes jumbled perspectives was initiated<br />

and encouraged by Barker. Though much of the work was<br />

not purchased that was by no means an indication of the<br />

quality of the shows. The South African art public had<br />

generally been used to logical and sequential exhibitions<br />

which dealt with single themes and comprehensible<br />

parameters. For artists to curate cutting-edge exhibitions<br />

without the experience and qualifications of seasoned<br />

museologists was both foreign and risqué. This was one<br />

important contribution that should not be underestimated<br />

when summing up this artist's creative output. It requires<br />

as much ingenuity as the making of an artwork itself.<br />

Superficially, Barker's work often possesses a cavalier<br />

quality and his personality appears to be that of a cultural<br />

cowboy reminiscent of the young Robert Rauschenburg<br />

of the mid 1950s in North America. The cultivating of a<br />

persona also seems for some artists to be an inextricable<br />


part of the making process. One has only to consider the cultivated egos of two titans of the twentieth century, Duchamp<br />

and Warhol, to recognise this trend. Underlying this outer appearance, Barker is an extremely serious artist, whose<br />

concerns deal with the human condition, a condition far more about tragedy than comedy, and of loss, confrontation,<br />

vulnerability and the insecurities of change. Dealing with these potent issues is not foreign to many South African writers,<br />

playwrites, and movie makers, but to be an artist there is the language of materiality with which one has to contend.<br />

In all Barker's works, whether they are paintings, installations, assemblages or objects, there remains an underlying<br />

aesthetic, which is the understanding of how to "put things together" and how to incorporate "stuff," in a way that only<br />

experienced artists succeed in doing. The materials he uses may not necessarily be traditional (after a century of using<br />

found objects nothing can really be regarded as sacred), but the manner in which he allows objects and surfaces to<br />

coexist, and how new meaning is invented and evoked, is part of his unique visual alphabet and narrative. I have<br />

selected three of the many works that he has produced. The first work initially appeared to be a fairly weak facsimile<br />

of a typical Pierneef painted on a mass-produced template displaying various anti-personel mines produced by the<br />

previous government for a public-awareness campaign. On closer scrutiny the message was apparent. It was visionary<br />

and loaded with a plethora of socio-political and cultural inversions. At that time only a committed and courageous<br />

artist would have attempted such accusations. This small, quiet work acted for me as a cultural sledge-hammer. The<br />

fact that this work hangs in the South African National Gallery reflects the knife edge which both this state institution<br />

and the artist walked. This work is devoid of malice, which I believe applies to all his work, but is imbued rather with<br />

a message of the tragedy of a dying culture and the agony of an unknown new one to be born.<br />

The second work was " Lulu the Zulu." This is a painting of such salacious and unacceptable adolescent naughtiness<br />

that it offends almost everyone. The feminists, the purists, the academics, the cultural mind police, the museum curators<br />

and the Kitsch lovers were all highly displeased by this work. It nevertheless, talks of altered sensitivities, exploitation<br />

and reversals of value which South Africans had, still have and probably will continue to have to some degree in the<br />

future. As the past constructs the present, so too does contemporary art which, if worth its salt, reflects identity changes,<br />

the rethinking on gender, political neglect and assumed cultural values. Barker's work uncomfortably reminds us that<br />

few people live truly independently and that individuals are continually being moulded by ongoing propaganda, social<br />

conditioning and nowadays spin doctors.<br />

The third work, exhibited in 1994, entitled " Coke Adds Life" is a ghoulish installation dealing with the awful irony of<br />

the cheapness of consumerism and the cheapness of life during the civil war in Mozambique in the 1980s. The<br />

glamourising of a multinational carbonated sugar beverage in preference to subsistence food is reminiscent of Marie<br />

Antoinette's absurd statement revisited in Africa two centuries later. The installation, adorned by contemporary advertising<br />

lights, AK 47's, traditional religious icons and a Tonga maize-grinding vessel are chilling reminders of the clash between<br />

past and present, "Blood" and "Hope," impassive multinationalism, and ancient rituals in the chaos of present day Africa.<br />


Much of Barker's works reflects the complexity and<br />

diverse values of many cultures in one country. It is this<br />

complexity, the multi dimension of different worlds with<br />

different voices which he manages to sew into his works.<br />

The creative space he has forged appears to have been<br />

germinated in his challenging and questioning of<br />

established structures from an early age. The journey does<br />

not make for easy living but also does not suffer from the<br />

taboo of talking about "the other." Nor is his work<br />

regurgitated iconology.<br />

During the South Africa of the 1980s, the cultural boycott<br />

had some positive effects on the creative output of many<br />

artists in the country. As the groundswell of social and<br />

political resistance increased, so too arose a questioning<br />

of rigid cultural authority and fearsome political repression.<br />

Out of this crucible, Barker's career began. Inevitably this<br />

cultural isolation could not sustain itself and the need for<br />

artists to experience and exhibit abroad has been enriching<br />

for both them and for this country's art. To become part<br />

of the world there are certain systems which the art world<br />

requires. I refer to the quality of publications and the<br />

proliferation of the written word which automatically<br />

internationalises the art. South Africa has, in my opinion,<br />

several artists of unquestionable merit who have the ability<br />

to take their place on the international exhibition arena.<br />

At present there is a shrinking support for all the arts which<br />

is a matter of grave concern and in the end it will be left<br />

to the ingenuity of the individual to survive both in this<br />

country and abroad.<br />

I have willingly contributed to this publication because<br />

I believe this artist has a proven track record which warrants<br />

the kind of exposure that he deserves. South Africa has<br />

never been a boring country and the unique and often<br />

traumatised dynamism which acts as a catalyst to unleash<br />

the creative energy of certain makers is missing in secure<br />

environments. So much of first world art has had the visual<br />

and conceptual corners sanded off it. Although some of<br />

Barker's works could well do with editing, his energy and<br />

iconoclasm has produced art which at best is raw, maverick,<br />

beautiful, tragic and humorous. The all South African boy<br />

he is not, a good artist he undoubtedly is.<br />

Alan Crump<br />


7<br />

"There's a strong flying story going down," says<br />

Wayne Barker of his family history. "Particularly on my<br />

father's side. Before me there were three generations of<br />

fighter pilots, air force pilots, military men... "<br />

A cursory glance around the artist's Johannesburg<br />

studio - a big old charmed space with arches and bad<br />

wiring that used to be a hip urban restaurant - and it seems<br />

that the family flying heritage stops here. It's as hard to<br />

imagine Barker in uniform with a two-car family as it is to<br />

imagine him abstaining for any length of time from parties<br />

that begin at dusk and career into dawn.<br />

Barker breaks off his sentence to answer his cell phone.<br />

It's Vienna on the line, and he is invited to open a show of<br />

student work there later in the week. But he's flustered by<br />

the idea of another financially thin stint in Europe when he<br />

should be home working on his retrospective. He sweetly<br />

but firmly declines.<br />

As a key member of the generation of white South<br />

African artists who assailed the racist ideologies of the<br />

country's contemporary history, Barker has been part of<br />

the first wave of local producers to be offered air tickets<br />

and significant international options. In the process of<br />

travelling, his work has been increasingly marked by colonial<br />

histories and pop culture signposts beyond his own country's<br />

often violently fractured borders: spice winds and trade<br />

routes, exploration and invasion, the traumatic semiotics<br />

of cultures meshing. In the back half of Barker's portfolio,<br />

birds, butterflies and aeroplanes suggest that there's a<br />

strong flying story going down here after all.

When he talks about growing up in the dire political and cultural conservatism<br />

of late-70s Pretoria, it's clear that flight then was much more about fleeing than<br />

flying. As a teenager, he would run away from home to become a wood carver<br />

at the coast. And as a conscript in the South African Defence Force, he lost no<br />

time in fleeing the institution that had been a second home to three generations<br />

of Barker men.<br />

Coupled with the contradictions of a country where freedom was a highly<br />

relative term, his family's nationalist politics and patriarchal values created a<br />

schism that Barker would compulsively concentrate on straddling in his artistic<br />

work. Writing about the paintings on Images on Metal, Barker's debut solo<br />

show in 1989, Weekly Mail critic Ivor Powell put it this way: "It's as though [in<br />

Barker's work] meaning is the point where the lies of one's childhood meet the<br />

realities of the present, not a fixed point but an intersection." Shaped by those<br />

schisms, Barker would later emerge in the national press as a prankster and<br />

cultural agitator, in one instance assuming a black identity for the purposes of<br />

entering a national drawing competition. Still later, he would devise a performance<br />

piece that had him covered in brown chocolate and playing the piano naked:<br />

a bitter-<br />

sweet brown-white man with something to say about the stages of personal<br />

initiation, the commerce of cultures, and the agony of political entropy.<br />

"In a way it's a bit like having two identities," he says today. "But one was an<br />

identity I had to reject, which was based on my entire education as a white South<br />

African male."

In 1963, the year in which Barker was<br />

born, the National Party's apartheid policy<br />

was beginning to reveal the ruthless<br />

expediency of its ideological core. President<br />

H.F. Verwoerd governed from Pretoria when<br />

the Rivonia Trialists - a core group of African<br />

National Congress leaders including Nelson<br />

Mandela - were run to ground, tried, and<br />

incarcerated on Robben Island.<br />

Valhalla, the outlying suburb of Pretoria<br />

where Barker spent his first ten years, was<br />

not what it seemed. Growing up there, he<br />

recalls healthy stretches of "fruit trees and<br />

koppies", a "kind of innocence" that concealed<br />

its less benign status as home to a military<br />

air base and the families of Defence Force<br />

employees. These were apartheid's most<br />

villainous years - of total onslaughts in the<br />

townships and categorical denials about<br />

South Africa's military presence in<br />

neighbouring Angola and Mozambique.<br />

"We were absolutely part of a system<br />

where you were taught to hate black people,"<br />

says Barker today. "It was entrenched in<br />

virtually every conversation at home."<br />

Yet he also recalls family gatherings as<br />

"quite real and warm, like there was a sort of<br />

gemutlich vibe. You had drunk uncles playing<br />

match boxes and singing Sarie Marais and<br />

all that stuff."<br />

Barker found "unconditional love" at a Jewish nursery school and<br />

bonded with his older, adopted sister Linda, who introduced Bob Marley<br />

and hotpants to the neighbourhood. He witnessed two black men he<br />

knew from the corner shop being severely beaten by police for not<br />

carrying Pass books; he was rattled by the sight of street kids downtown<br />

while travelling home from a swimming gala one night, loaded with<br />

sweets he had won.<br />


It's not particularly difficult to imagine how the Glen<br />

High School in Pretoria was able to bring out "total Johnny<br />

Rottenism" in Wayne Barker.<br />

Despite its thistle emblem and tartan-clad cheerleaders,<br />

The Glen was not a pretty place in Scotland. Its dusty fields<br />

with their adjoining littered hollow lent themselves to<br />

smoking dope against the back fence while kicking at the<br />

tufts of grass still trying to grow. Its walls begged the<br />

malcontent scrawl of irremovable graffiti.<br />

The year was 1976, Soweto a cultural universe away.<br />

Barker was in Standard Six and his brother in Standard<br />

Eight. Together they were the neighbourhood's "legendary<br />

reprobates", bored white schoolboys who believed that<br />

to be wild was somehow also to be innocent. Buying dope<br />

one day, Barker was arrested and his Glen High career<br />

came to an abrupt end. Soon after, so did his home life -<br />

with all his clothes in black plastic bags, he ran away with<br />

a friend and became an apprentice woodcarver in Nature's<br />

Valley, where the fragrance of ocean and earth mixed<br />

headily with the thrill of flight and an almost anonymous<br />

freedom.<br />

Although his parents knew where he was, Barker had<br />

no contact with them until eight months later, when he<br />

returned to Pretoria and crammed his final two years of<br />

schooling at Capital College.<br />

Conscription loomed, and Barker, for better or for<br />

worse, followed his instincts and enrolled at Pretoria<br />

Technikon to study its first-ever art course. After a year<br />

spent living in his parents' outside room - a year of exploring<br />

13<br />

basic techniques and discovering a staggering backcatalogue<br />

of art history books and "art heroes" who he<br />

had barely known existed - he decided to take his art<br />

studies back to the coast. Over this time, another split<br />

became part of the make-up of his identity: the wayward<br />

rebel full of unfocused energy learned to shift, focus, and<br />

absorb information that would literally allow him to survive<br />

in a culture of reactionary thinkers. Later, when Barker<br />

would need a trap-door out of the military, the books he<br />

had read would be the material for performances in which<br />

he was the tragi-comic star.

In his two years at the University of Cape<br />

Town's Michaelis Art School, Barker's rough and<br />

ready painting instincts made a favourable<br />

impression. But he couldn't shake the lingering<br />

sense that something was up with the drinking<br />

water. As the filmmaker Mira Nair once put it:<br />

"Cape Town is not itself. Here even the vegetation<br />

is imported."<br />

Out of place in the city's small circle of<br />

smugness, Barker began to feel that maybe<br />

Pretoria wasn't so bad after all, at least it was<br />

what it was, however horrible. In Cape Town, P.W.<br />

Botha and his ever-encroaching states of<br />

emergency seemed to be able to exist in some<br />

sort of bubble somewhere above the mountain.<br />

Like his cousin Brett Murray and his soon-to-<br />

be new friend Barend de Wet, both already fourth-<br />

year art stars at the school when he arrived,<br />

Barker emerged from his encounters with the<br />

more genteel, gin-sipping, faux-bohemian side<br />

of life in the former colony thinking hard and<br />

muttering aloud.<br />

When a respected lecturer, Neville Dubow,<br />

asked his students to sculpt extensions of their<br />

bodies, Barker decided to make "a colonial thing".<br />

"It was a tennis court off my body - and I<br />

dressed up as [Dubow] and then got the rest of<br />

the students to throw tennis balls at me. Other<br />

people were making wings and stuff. And he was<br />

furious. He was devastated."<br />


Barker's brief outing as a tennis court was just the first of many little cultural interventions and art parodies he would<br />

come to perform. The next time he did it, though, he would be Charlie Chaplin and the stakes would be higher.<br />


When a lecturer at Michaelis told Barker<br />

that what he really needed was to go to the army,<br />

learn some discipline and then go back and<br />

paint, he obviously never knew his student. Or perhaps<br />

knew him all too well. When Barker returned from Cape<br />

Town at the end of 1983 having failed art history, his father<br />

insisted that he would do his bit for the country.<br />

Barker ignored the family pressure and spent that<br />

Christmas in Johannesburg. The decision would shift his<br />

context and redefine the parameters of his work, largely<br />

due to the influence of two people working there at the<br />

time. In Cape Town he had met a young actress and started<br />

helping her and a friend construct the sets for their plays.<br />

The actress was Megan Kruskul, and her friend was Chris<br />

Pretorius. Before leaving the country to pursue international<br />

opportunities, Pretorius and Kruskul would come as close<br />

as anyone ever has to being<br />

underground stars in Johannesburg.<br />

Working with them, Barker acquired<br />

skills that would later add weight and<br />

conviction to his military performance<br />

repertoire.<br />

When critic Brenda Atkinson today<br />

writes about the "ravishing aesthetic<br />

impact" of Barker's work, and of how<br />

he is able to turn "politics into beauty",<br />

the artist should probably, however<br />

briefly, tip his hat in the direction of<br />

South Africa's<br />

alternative theatre<br />

scene. Pretorius, a<br />

writer and designer,<br />

would almost certainly<br />

have instilled in Barker<br />

a sense of textured<br />

space and odd lighting. Kruskul, with whom Barker had<br />

become involved, would act in plays with names like Weird<br />

Sex in Maputo. She was also known to chant sick ditties<br />

and spit political outrage at the singer of a seminal punkish<br />

agit-rock band called Koos. Of the authors she got Barker<br />

to read, he would say in the Vryeweekblad: "In the army<br />

I was three people - Umberto Eco, Carl Jung and Joseph<br />

Heller."<br />

Early in 1984, Barker's call-up papers arrived at his<br />

parents' home. He and Kruskul were devastated, but she<br />

and his mother eventually dropped him off at the military<br />


ase in Voortrekkerhoogte, Pretoria.<br />

Barker was stunned.<br />

"I took one look and decided no way, not interested."<br />

Although the End Conscription Campaign had begun<br />

to gather momentum, white boys who refused to march<br />

to the apartheid tune for two years and return for camps<br />

for years thereafter essentially had two options: to go to<br />

the army or go to jail. Conscientious objectors could be -<br />

and were - arrested and imprisoned for up to five years.<br />

Barker's best option was to have himself classified<br />

unsuitable for service. With a renewed recklessness and<br />

a grand concentration of energy, he set to work. It took<br />

him about two weeks.<br />

"What happened was that in the army I met Jeremy<br />

Nathan [later a leading independent film producer], a<br />

confused theologian and a poet who'd been studying for<br />

nine years. We were in different barracks, but somehow<br />

we met and we'd strategise on the parade ground and<br />

we'd swap notes. We refused to<br />

carry rifles and understood how we<br />

were being indoctrinated."<br />

In those days the army was<br />

partly an extension of the white education system: on any<br />

given Friday afternoon you could see teen troopies strut<br />

their stuff in polished boots on well-watered school fields<br />

across the country. Because Barker had kicked a soccer<br />

ball deftly, in the army he ended up in the sport bungalow.<br />

"I was with all these fucking massive ous built like shithouses.<br />

And there I was going into passive resistance<br />

mode, pretending to be a bit mad."<br />

Barker's informal education kicked in: his desperate,<br />

off-the-cuff fusion of psychoanalysis and theatre had him<br />

marching like Charlie Chaplin, as well as bonding "to get<br />

to the Corporal to get to the Sergeant to get to the Lieutenant<br />

to get to the Captain to get out."<br />

He was duly released. Temporarily disowned by his<br />

family, he moved to Johannesburg and started painting.

Something was up in<br />

Johannesburg's art scene. Form just<br />

wasn't coping with context. The<br />

cultural boycott, always painful, was<br />

really starting to hurt. Political niceties<br />

couldn't cut it anymore, and Barker<br />

was one of the new kids on the block.<br />

The new kids - including a brace of<br />

artists and theatrical types emerging<br />

from Cape Town - were steadily being<br />

marginalised. They weren't sure they<br />

trusted their ideas in the hands of<br />

academic institutions, and had<br />

developed a distaste for the same<br />

old commercial galleries housed in<br />

leafy suburbs. Not that invitations to<br />

exhibit were particularly forthcoming<br />

- to this day Barker has never shown<br />

at the terribly important Goodman<br />

Gallery in Johannesburg. Its polite<br />

exigencies were part of the same<br />

forces that turned him into a tennis<br />

court and called up the ghost of<br />

Charlie Chaplin. Like some sort of<br />

pre-millennial Rimbaud, the Barker<br />

who turned up at Important Gallery<br />

Openings would enjoy the free booze<br />

and then take off all his clothes and<br />

rugby tackle the artists.<br />

"I thought the art was really bad. It was old. Like any 24-year-old I thought<br />

I was onto something fresher."<br />

Apart from the burgeoning multicultural scene at the Market Theatre<br />

complex downtown, the party sucked. So the kids decided to try and throw<br />

their own. The next few years would see the rise of Gallant House, the Black<br />

Sun theatre and Barker's own Famous International Gallery, more modestly<br />

known as Fig.<br />


In 1986 Barker had made his commercial art debut<br />

on the experimental wall at The Market Galleries (a new<br />

artist who painted on glass made a small notice in<br />

Johannesburg's daily newspaper The Star). Showing in<br />

the main space were friends up from Cape Town - including<br />

Barend de Wet and Kevin Brand. With Fig these artists and<br />

their Johannesburg contemporaries had a free space in<br />

which to test new work on their peers and on the arts<br />

press, often seen at openings looking somewhat<br />

beleaguered by having had to drive into the downtown<br />

badlands on a Sunday night. But no matter how vinegary<br />

the boxed wine, nor how sour the press, Fig would come<br />

to be regarded as a vital stop-over on the way to the<br />

mainstream success achieved by many who exhibited<br />

there. William Kentridge, Robert Hodgins, Joachim<br />

Schönfeldt, Neil Goedhals, Kate Gottgens, Lisa Brice, Kendell<br />

Geers, Steven Cohen et al all stopped over at Fig on their<br />

diverse paths to local and international recognition.<br />

A black South African art scene never happened at<br />

Fig - not for lack of trying, but because it would take some<br />

years for a mainstream system for black artists to emerge<br />

from a painfully segregated society. When it did it would<br />

settle at the Market<br />

precinct and then<br />

at the revamped<br />

Goodman.<br />

Barker still recalls every blurry detail of the opening<br />

show at Fig: "The Cape Town crowd came up and we did<br />

our first show, Urban Melodrama. We called<br />

22<br />

ourselves The Famous Five. We covered each painting in<br />

newspaper and we got the Prince of Swaziland to open<br />

the show. He used to walk around town in heels with a<br />

cigar mic shouting into a megaphone - wearing an afro<br />

and a kilt... "<br />

It was scenes like this, coupled with the arrival of a<br />

new breed of art intellectual from the more liberal<br />

universities, that would, by the early 90s, prompt much<br />

press speculation about the emergence of "an authentic<br />

Johannesburg avant-garde". For most, though, the label<br />

would seem frivolous in the face of an unprecedented<br />

national State of Emergency facing the country.

24<br />

In 1989, Nelson Mandela was<br />

still in prison; P.W. Botha had<br />

suffered a stroke and F.W. De Klerk<br />

was about to replace him as State<br />

President. The first lurid exposés of<br />

apartheid hit-squad atrocities were<br />

rattling the headlines of the<br />

independent press.<br />

Battering, bruising and<br />

abrading pieces of metal until<br />

images suggested themselves on<br />

the surface like channelled spirits,<br />

the artist then pasted ready-made<br />

products or painted a series of vivid,<br />

colliding images in oils on his dusty<br />

downtown canvasses. These<br />

canvasses would make up Images<br />

on Metal, his first solo show, held<br />

at the Market Galleries.<br />

He transformed the gallery<br />

space into a closed reality littered<br />

with pop signs and scruffy wonders<br />

- goldfish circled their bowls on the<br />

floor beneath the paintings.<br />

Interspersed with a series of line<br />

drawings of black faces - called<br />

Victims - symbols of Afrikaner<br />

nationalist history looked out,<br />

as Powell described it, "from<br />

fragments of a murder".

By 1992, Barker was well known to the downtown<br />

police. In those days virtually everyone with a remotely<br />

subversive record - and certainly all conscientious objectors<br />

- had a file kept on their activities at the notorious police<br />

headquarters, John Vorster Square.<br />

It was there that Barker was taken after his second<br />

arrest. "What happened was a policeman, a big, big, white<br />

policeman had just caught a street child for petty theft and<br />

fucked the bejesus out of him in front of me, so I was<br />

again faced with this whole terrible reality of do I -<br />

can I - speak for him. Or<br />

do I just ignore it?"<br />

Barker lost his temper.<br />

The arresting officer<br />

lost his docket. Barker<br />

spent the better part<br />

of his week in the<br />

holding cells, where<br />

25<br />

he was faced with another moral question. "I was in the<br />

cell with two far right wing AWB types who had just<br />

murdered a black man. They had stolen his guitar and<br />

they had killed him."<br />

Late on the second night, the Sergeant came to tell the<br />

one man that his brother had committed suicide, and<br />

Barker found himself nursing the enemy through his trauma.<br />

"Suddenly I was the only one who could help console<br />

this guy... For hours and hours.<br />

About death and about loss. At<br />

the same time I was sitting there<br />

hating him. For me it was<br />

another big wake-up call about<br />

what a contradiction I'm living<br />

in, living in South Africa."

The Johannesburg Art Gallery, a grand old building<br />

in downtown Joubert Park - and once the epicentre of the<br />

city's cultural life - now found its collection of European<br />

masters increasingly hemmed in by taxi ranks and hawkers,<br />

betting totes and whores.<br />

To Barker, the ironies littering the pavements on his daily<br />

walk from street culture to high culture - from the Fig to the<br />

JAG - were plentiful. Hawkers in the shadow of the Stock<br />

Exchange; swish fashion stores alongside street barbers;<br />

squats built from cardboard boxes emblazoned with product<br />

logos that guaranteed they'd wash your whites whiter than<br />

white.<br />

Inside the gallery, Barker had been scrutinising the<br />

Pierneefs.<br />

Jacob Hendrik Pierneef was a formalist painter of<br />

landscapes who had - throughout the 1920s, 30s and 40s<br />

- been endorsed by the Afrikaner state. A good part of his<br />

job had been to provide government department buildings<br />

with outsized canvasses of a rigorously stylised and sanitised<br />

South African countryside. Throughout his career, he had<br />

been active in the Afrikaner Broederbond, a cultural<br />

movement established in 1918 that quickly evolved into a<br />

highly secretive brotherhood for the Afrikaner elite. Working<br />

in tandem with the Dutch Reformed Church, the Broederbond<br />

was instrumental in promoting the apartheid policy. It pulled<br />

the strings of parliamentary puppets right up until its<br />

members were named in the press in 1993.<br />

Now Pierneef's paintings became the canvas on which<br />

Barker worked.<br />

If his Images on Metal had been "a deconstruction of<br />

the apartheid mettle", then his Pierneef series dug deeper.<br />

It not only probed the origins of Afrikaner nationalism's<br />

particular breed of cultural imperialism, but also documented<br />

its collision with modern-day mass culture. Without being<br />

politically patronising and with a deceptive pop simplicity,<br />

Barker's Pierneefs were able to signpost the complex<br />

historical realities at play as the country began to lurch<br />

violently towards democracy.<br />

In Pierneef's world view, wrote Unisa art historian Nic<br />

Coetzee, the land was given to the white man by God and<br />

it was the white man's duty to bring order to a barbarian<br />

continent. He did so by a process of selecting certain<br />

elements favourable to the vision of the country held by the<br />

Afrikaner elite and ignoring those deemed unsightly.<br />

Pierneef's neat white homesteads showed no signs of the<br />

underdeveloped black locations lurking just beyond the<br />

frame.<br />

Barker took what was behind the scenes and put it<br />

upfront. On to his meticulous copies he placed brassy,<br />

unprecious pop imagery - ready-made commodities and<br />

oil-painted targets, soiled proletariat spades and bleeding<br />

African curios.<br />

The works bristled with relevance and Barker no doubt<br />

expected them to be greeted more favourably than they<br />

were by the art establishment. Though today considered<br />

a pivotal entry in the country's contemporary art record, at<br />

the time the works were overlooked by a string of competition<br />

judges.<br />

Where others may have accepted defeat, Barker decided<br />

instead that it was time to turn up the heat. But first, he<br />

would have to take a day job.<br />


It was early in 1990 that Nelson Mandela was released<br />

from jail. He walked from the grounds of Cape Town's Victor<br />

Verster Prison into the final hours of a three-year state of<br />

emergency and was greeted by ululating masses and a great<br />

jostling of international television cameras. A set of that footage<br />

would wind its way back to Johannesburg, to the CBS News<br />

library in the South African bureau, where it was Barker's job to<br />

source and file material for international reports.<br />

The pictures that he sorted were harrowing. The country<br />

had embarked on a course of volatile multi-party negotiations;<br />

the right wing had unleashed a terror campaign, and he would<br />

be startled by previously prohibited archive material - of military<br />

activity in the townships and decades of police brutality.<br />

For Barker, who had never even owned a television set, CBS<br />

brought greater insight into the inner workings of mass electronic<br />

media and their complicated modes of commercial production.<br />

If the pop in his art was presented from a position of compassion,<br />

then what he saw emerging on the videotapes was the real<br />

thing - hard product. Human suffering and political drama<br />

30<br />

packaged into inserts for adspend on the<br />

international market.<br />

"For the first time I saw the real<br />

power of the media," says<br />

Barker, "and it was really<br />

quite overwhelming."<br />

He decided to<br />

hang on to<br />

some of the<br />

archival<br />

footage,<br />

certain that he<br />

would find a<br />

use for it one<br />


On July 4 1990, five months after his release, Mandela's<br />

call for a Southern African leaders' summit was making<br />

headlines. "Mugabe, Chissano and Mandela to Meet" was<br />

top of the news in The Star. Just below that, beneath an<br />

account of an abortive Zambian coup attempt, was a third<br />

story: "Art Entry Rocks Grahamstown Festival". The story<br />

was the new South Africa's first contemporary art scandal<br />

and its popular introduction to the work of Wayne Barker.<br />

Deliberately breaking the rules, Barker entered two<br />

works in the prestigious Standard Bank Drawing<br />

Competition. One, under his own name, came from the<br />

Pierneef series. The other, a crudely charming and overtly<br />

political triptych called CV Can't Vote, was entered under<br />

the fictional (black) name of Andrew Moletse. Eager to<br />

redress decades of neglect, the judges found the Moletse<br />

work was just the kind of thing they were looking for. It<br />

was accepted for exhibition; the Barker was rejected.<br />

"SA art caught with its pants down" was Powell's<br />

headline. Barker told journalists that he had created<br />

Moletse in order to test some of the problems facing<br />

local art - and to expose the "ethnocentric bias" of<br />

an art world he regarded as "dominated by patronising<br />

white experts."<br />

31<br />

In the slew of press that followed the Moletse scandal<br />

Barker would be accused by competition judge Alan Crump<br />

of "playing silly games" and of "shameless self-promotion".<br />

In truth, Crump could just as well have seen Andrew<br />

Moletse to be watering the expansive ground for debate<br />

that existed between the old order and the new, between<br />

Third World art development and First World art trends and<br />

between issues of representation and appropriation.<br />

These were to become cultural buzz phrases as the<br />

country opened up and cultures began to exchange real<br />

ideas. The academic art world was turned on its head,<br />

and political and social structures were changing<br />

irrevocably. Mandela's release had seen the cultural boycott<br />

begin to crumble, and the advent of the first large scale<br />

international showings of South African work outside the<br />

country.<br />

Back home the nascent avant garde was finding its<br />

feet: alternative Afrikaners blew up on the music fringe;<br />

artist Braam Kruger initiated the Mamba Awards for<br />

contemporary art; state sponsored cultural institutions were<br />

boycotted by returning exiles. It was only a matter of time<br />

before Barker and his contemporaries would cross into<br />

the mainstream. By 1992, the Everard Read Contemporary<br />

Gallery had opened its upmarket doors, offering them a<br />

commercial home. Barker was selected as the début solo<br />


Back in Johannesburg it seemed the Biennale was going ahead without the new generation of local artists. Although<br />

a Zulu Lulu was featured on the Spanish pavilion, Barker felt that the local selection simply did not reflect what was<br />

happening. It was the same old problem, but this time he didn't do blackface or hurl tennis balls at the organisers. He<br />

decided instead to claim a piece of the Biennale precinct and curate his own show.<br />

At a stage in contemporary South African art characterised by infighting - mutterings and fists flew in the build up<br />

to Africus; artists clashed with local government, curators clashed with bureaucrats and the press clashed along after<br />

them - Barker was perfectly poised to bring together his contemporaries.<br />

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.<br />

Writing about the 1995 Africus Biennale in an edition of Modern Painters, David Bowie discussed The Laager as<br />

"a symbol of nationalist isolation", suggesting that the irony of the show was that it exposed Africus itself to be a bit of<br />

a laager.<br />

"What it does for me personally," he wrote, "is present the work of a bunch of wildly talented, young, mostly white<br />

artists dealing with the South African Thing... Wayne Barker, curator of this fringe event offers a deconstruction of the<br />

history of image in South Africa from 1930 to the present... "<br />

The United Nations agreed with the pop star and offered backing for the show to be taken to Chile as a cultural<br />

exchange. What remains startling about The Laager is how in both its content and its presentation - a shipping container<br />

per artist - it pre-empted the 1997 Africus Biennale, which addressed issues of cultural identity around the theme of<br />

Trade Routes. Barker was about to set sail on a voyage of discovery across the seas. First, though, there was South<br />

Africa's own colonial history to reconsider.

Had you visited Trade Routes, curated by Okwui Enwezor<br />

at the Electric Workshop for the 1997 Johannesburg Biennale,<br />

and made your way towards the back and up a floor or two<br />

you would have looked down upon The World is Flat - a stark<br />

and astonishing sight.<br />

Barker's huge new piece was a map of the world constructed from<br />

3 000 army uniforms and 2 000 green beer bottles. At the southernmost<br />

tip of Africa was a neon sign reading VOC - the logo of the Dutch<br />

East India Company (DEIC).<br />

It was the DEIC's commercial fleets - heroes of the apartheid history<br />

books - that instigated South Africa's earliest colonial land wars and<br />

forged a trail for the Boers to eventually settle in the interior and claim<br />

a republic. In 1652 the Cape colony was established by the DEIC when<br />

the trading company set up a refreshment station under Jan van Riebeek<br />

- to stave off scurvy on the voyage north. Soon enough the indigenous<br />

Khoikhoi people were enslaved, beginning a campaign of resistance in<br />

1659. The station would become a British settlement and a military base<br />

would be established at its heart, today known as The Castle of Good<br />

Hope.<br />

It was at The Castle in 1995 that The World is Flat began its life as<br />

Is the World Flat? - on a show called “Scurvy” organised by Barker,<br />

Kevin Brand and Brett Murray - in which they recolonised the military<br />

museum and claimed it for<br />

contemporary culture.<br />

For Barker it was a milestone<br />

and a political victory. Particularly<br />

considering that in order to construct his work<br />

- in the very first room ever built at the Castle<br />

- he would have to request materials from<br />

the army. In 1995 the Defence Force was<br />

trying desperately to incorporate the former<br />

resistance armies into its ranks. "I had to<br />

negotiate with them," says Barker. "I told them<br />

it's all about forgiveness."<br />

Today Barker says that “Scurvy” was the<br />

first time that he began to think globally about<br />

his work. That he was looking at identity.<br />

What were his own colonial origins? Was the<br />

VOC logo - the first multi-national logo in the<br />

world - a bit like the Coca Cola logo today?<br />

In a press release for “Scurvy” he added:<br />

"Is this how we see the world through the<br />

media? Through a flat plain of images?"

In 1990, at the height of the FIG's notoriety and at the<br />

invitation of the state-funded South African Association of<br />

Arts (SAAA), Barker had led a delegation of artists to Pretoria<br />

to create a show called Klapperkop. Arriving at the gallery,<br />

guests found the works covered with black cloths. The Fig,<br />

announced Barker, refused to unveil the exhibition unless<br />

the SAAA disassociate itself from politically insidious funding<br />

decisions. What had particularly irked The Fig was the<br />

apartheid state's sponsorship of a group of South African<br />

artists to show in Pinochet's Chile.<br />

So, taking The Laager to a post-Pinochet Chile at the<br />

invitation of the Santiago Museum of Contemporary Art,<br />

and paid for by the United Nations, provided considerable<br />

political affirmation for Barker's rational and romantic art<br />

mission.<br />

"I met a poet who was friends with a guitarist whose<br />

hands got cut off by Pinochet's thugs. I met artists who<br />

had been blindfolded by the dictatorship - for months -<br />

and then taken out of the cells and shown the light. All<br />

these people became part of my Santiago exhibition."<br />

The bulk of the work was called Tiempo de Amor/Time<br />

to Love and was the genesis of what would - over the<br />

coming months of European travel - become Barker's first<br />

European solo, Nothing Gets Lost in the Universe.<br />

Time to Love was shown outside The Laager, in a lift<br />

shaft of the museum. It included a neon "love" sign and a<br />

Hoopoo bird, newspaper headlines and, for the guitarist,<br />

a wax hand bought at the religious market in Rio, where<br />

it would have been used as an effigy to pray for healing<br />

of the body part.<br />

From Santiago on, wax worked its way into Barker's<br />

palette with ease. It was second skin. Like the army<br />

uniforms or the white pigment of Xhosa boys undergoing<br />

initiation into manhood, wax would return frequently as<br />

an agent of transformation in Barker's later work, at times<br />

evolving into latex and even chocolate.

All Washed Up in Africa would play itself out in various<br />

contexts in the two years leading to Barker's 2000<br />

retrospective at the Johannesburg Art Gallery - the same<br />

gallery that he had visited to copy the Pierneefs and that<br />

now houses his work in its permanent collection.<br />

All Washed Up in Africa was the title of his second<br />

solo at the Frankfurt Hanel in 1997, and of a beautifully<br />

crafted Pretoria exhibition at the Millennium Gallery with<br />

Ian Waldek in 1999. His contribution to the 1998<br />

Angolan/South African exchange Memorias Intimas<br />

Marcas was another version of Nantes, drawing on both<br />

personal and political histories.<br />

There was a wax room with the washing line projection,<br />

debris, blood, a waterfall and photographs of himself and<br />

his brother playing on the beach during the time of the<br />

Angolan war.<br />

There was also "an army room" and again Barker drew<br />

on his role as a public art agent. He put out an appeal for<br />

donations of old South African army uniforms so that he<br />

could offer them to Angola as an apology for the pain caused<br />

by the country's involvement in the war. Thousands arrived.<br />

By now, though, the populist side of Barker's work and<br />

personality was about more than just offering the artist up<br />

as a public facilitator. When combined with his ironic jester<br />

act, he was starting to create a fairly significant breed of<br />

performance art.<br />

Visiting the 1998 Venice Biennale with Waldek, for<br />

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<br />

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<br />

forgiveness, so that next time he would take care to remember that Africa does exist."<br />

Later that year, Barker found himself in Austria, giving art classes to Slovakian children. While he was there he<br />

collaborated with the Austrian artist Barbara Holub in a piece called Kunst ist Kinderspielen/Art is Child's Play at<br />

the Kunsthalle in Krems.<br />

Barker had videotaped himself playing the piano in the gallery - having discovered a talent for grandly insane<br />

compositions with a flow like lyrical jazz after his brother's death in an aeroplane crash earlier that year.<br />

In Krems Barker lay on the gallery floor naked and covered in chocolate while a video of himself playing the piano<br />

flickered over his body. Next to him was a neon sign reading WCB. It looked a lot like the Dutch East India Company's<br />

VOC logo he had used in work before, but spelling the initials of Wayne Cahill Barker, or, he adds: "White Coloured<br />

Black". In later performances Barker would play the piano live, covered in chocolate which he once had licked off his<br />

body as he pounded the keys. Why chocolate? "Because it's brown," he says.<br />

Once Barker had posed as a black man in a national drawing competition and bronzed racist dolls to elevate their<br />

status. Neither act is too far removed from covering himself in chocolate. Lying on the floor in Krems, his name a multinational<br />

cultural logo, Barker then rose to switch on a television set. On the screen appeared hundreds of butterflies<br />

as, all around him in the gallery, projected bird silhouettes danced on the walls.<br />

"I think I was trying to find a free space to work in," he says, "trying to move away from work related directly to<br />

where I live. And trying to find a new kind of freedom."

<strong>WAYNE</strong> <strong>BARKER</strong>'s artistic career spans almost two decades, marked by a bitter-sweet mix of politics, poetry, and a<br />

passion for subversion. Tracking that career from apartheid South Africa's most violent years to a new democratic dispensation,<br />

the artist's monograph explores the contradictory impulses of "African identity", and Barker's exploration of a continent's<br />

commodification.<br />

At times part Pop Art, at others a layered deployment of traditional genres and media, Barker's work stands as much<br />

as an indictment of colonialism as of misplaced political correctness. From the first seduction to the twist in the gut, it is as<br />

beautiful as it is provoking.

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