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THE BIG INTERVIEW: What doctors ordered

Tymon Smith | 2012-06-08 00:02:56.0
SELF-MADE MEN: Anton Kannemeyer, artist and Bitterkomix creator, with his portrait of rapper Ninja from Die Antwoord
Image by: Picture: LAUREN MULLIGAN

If you Google Anton Kannemeyer, the third suggestion offered by the search engine is "Anton Kannemeyer racist".

The founder of Bitterkomix, creator of the persona of Joe Dog and of the art series Papa in Afrika and the Alphabet of Democracy, has often produced work that makes people uncomfortable about race, politics and white identity in post-apartheid South Africa. Despite this, no one has hauled him in front of the Film and Publication Board and slapped an age restriction on any of his exhibitions.

He's certainly not a racist, but when you challenge middle-class complacency and questions of race in a country as divided by the topics as ours, it's an easy tag to pin on him. In person, Kannemeyer is a gentle, earnest and quietly humorous presence, as far removed from his Joe Dog alter ego as Joe Dog is from the artist himself.

In a month in which the subject of offence in art has sparked such wide-ranging and angry debate, it is ironic that the new exhibition of one of the country's most controversial and challenging artists at first might seem a departure. But for those who know his work, it is a logical progression.

As Kannemeyer says to me while we walk through Paintings and Prints for Doctorsand Dentists at the Stevenson Gallery in Braamfontein: "It may strike some people as quite odd that I exhibit these things after I've done Papa in Afrika and the Alphabet of Democracy and just focused on political works, but this work is very natural to me, and I think if anyone has followed what I've been doing over the last 10 years they will get it.

"People may think everything is super-personal, and it is in a way, but on the other hand they have to understand I'm a visual communicator, which means I'm not obsessed with navel-gazing, I'm interested in bringing an idea across.

''You work from your own experience. What I found drawing comics is that you could draw something supposedly autobiographical and do unique things with it, and it didn't have to absolutely draw on your personal experience, and people would eat it up as being real and then, of course, get offended."

Sparked by his doctor's suggestion that he pay in art instead of cash, the exhibition consists of a series of landscapes, portraits, personal drawings and paintings, some of which you could imagine meeting the approval of the wives of doctors and dentists, as acceptable for their living rooms.

Others (a large portrait of Ninja from Die Antwoord, for example) would be approved only by the more risque. None is nearly as in-your-face and challenging as work found in previous exhibitions.

Also present is the ghostly presence of the artist's father, Afrikaans literary critic JC Kannemeyer, who died in December and with whom the artist had a fraught relationship. Beautifully executed and finely observed etchings of the Swartberg Pass in the Karoo are also pictures of an area the elder Kannemeyer always told his son he should visit. This adds another dimension to them, creating a meeting between landscape and memory.

As for the portraits of Ninja and Yolandi Vi$$er from Die Antwoord, Kannemeyer explains: "[They're] people I find interesting and people I think are visually interesting. Conrad Botes [his Bitterkomix partner] and I were in Reunion and I played him Doos Dronk by Die Antwoord and I said to him, 'If there ever was a Bitterkomix song this is it'. Then Ninja phoned me and asked if I wanted to do the video for the song - out of the blue - and I almost fell on my back. The other thing I realised is that Ninja and I had sources in common - David Lynch, Liberatore, Jodorowsky. People criticise them for not being real and being a construct, but everything is a construct. Joe Dog is a construct, the way I work is a construct."

The only penis to be seen in this exhibition is Kannemeyer's own. A self-portrait shows the artist naked taking a picture of the viewer. It was made in response to David Goldblatt's request to photograph the artist nude.

It is in the final section of the exhibition, across from smaller-scale portraits of Antjie Krog and Ninja, that you find the works with a hint of political satire, in a large-scale series of paintings titled Splendid Dwellings. These show seemingly perfect suburban homes underlined by a question from the Stendhal novel The Red and the Black, "How can anyone be so unhappy in such a splendid dwelling?"

Of course, as Kannemeyer's take on the answer shows, you can be unhappy in a splendid dwelling, especially if that dwelling is an apartheid-era suburban home cleaned and landscaped by people who can never live there and there is an unnerving sense of the depressing, suicidal atmosphere of life in the 'burbs that carries no hint of nostalgia or escape.

Seen within the context of Kannemeyer's larger body of work, Paintings and Prints fits in with the autobiographical work that has been part of everything and highlights his technical skills.

Those who go to Kannemeyer's exhibitions looking for a kick in the balls and a little spit in their faces should wait for a coming Bitterkomix - and be thankful the ANC's Jackson Mthembu doesn't read Afrikaans counter-culture magazines.

As the interview ends Kannemeyer reflects on the space he occupies in the cracks between the comic and fine art worlds: "I think the big difference is money. In the comic world there's absolutely no money and in the fine art world there's a hell of a lot of money, and that creates a thing where whenever I go to a comic festival I'm surrounded by really nice people, but when I go to art fairs I'm surrounded by people who are cut-throat."

I leave him to await the arrival of the art crowd and think he'll survive just fine.

  • Paintings and Prints for Doctors and Dentists is on until June 29

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