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;

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.

ISBN 0-620-26018-1

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.

4. Introduction

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

54. Biography

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After the considerable amount of unpublished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



and contemporary


sculptors still

insist that every


should commit

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

regurgitated iconology.

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.

Alan Crump



"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:

a bitter-

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

African male."

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

is imported."

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

muttering aloud.

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

South Africa's

alternative theatre

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

independent press.

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

Barker worked.

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

African curios.

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

international market.

"For the first time I saw the real

power of the media," says

Barker, "and it was really

quite overwhelming."

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

white experts."


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

a laager.

"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

contemporary culture.

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

Angolan war.

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

performance art.

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.

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