WARNING: Some readers may find the images in this article offensive.
Controversial artist Anton Kannemeyer's comic work was recently dragged into the spotlight again after Twitter users noticed a number of his racially-charged prints for sale on the online shopping platform, Superbalist.
The 53-year-old Cape Town based artist is no stranger to controversy.
One could even go as far as to say he courts it. In 2019, staff at Everard Read threatened to resign from the gallery, protesting the display of Kannmeyer's work.
According to the artist, he has not had a solo exhibition in South Africa since E is for Exhibition closed at the Stevenson in November of 2015. This is not to say he is without success. Kannemeyer continues to show internationally and only recently had his prints removed from Superbalist and The Artist Press.
Through a statement released in June 2020, The Artist Press said that:
In 1989, Kannemeyer and good friend and long-term collaborator, Conrad Botes, published a few panels that mocked a popular Afrikaner character from a war magazine. Three years later, in 1992, the pair would publish the first issue of comic journal, Bitterkomix.
Designed as an anti-establishment publication, Bitterkomix housed the humour and horror of a certain section of South Africa's counter-culture fantasies.
Kannemeyer and Botes, both Afrikaans-speaking South Africans, used the pages of Bitterkomix to critique - through the use of satire - the Afrikaner maschismo that dominated when they were growing up.
Kannemeyer's own cultural complicity equipped him to do so. However, in the years to come, the artist would attempt to speak about race and power in muddled, untidy and offensive ways.
In a 2010 interview with C.B. Liddel, quoted in a 2012 Hyperallergic article, Kannemeyer says: "In the end, I guess I don't see myself as an Afrikaner anymore - I still prefer writing in Afrikaans, but most of my friends are, and virtually all my work is in English. Also, I don't read Afrikaans or watch Afrikaans TV or anything Afrikaans (I don't go to Afrikaans cultural festivals anymore = my God, they are annoying!). I really don't know what constitutes a South African to be honest."
His repeated use of racist tropes; black people depicted as golliwogs; the threat of the black man's penis; black professionalism as inferior, are not only offensive, but they also lack the nuance and intellectual rigour that satire demands.
Where Apartheid provided him with a clear enemy in Afrikaner nationalism, he seems to be struggling for footing with every iteration of the new South Africa. His critiques of Jacob Zuma and other corrupt black politicians are difficult to parse when read alongside his other satirical works.
Take for example, K is for King Klepto, a 225 x 150cm mural of Jacob Zuma drawn in Kannemeyer's illustrative style. A head and shoulders portrait of the former president sits in the centre of the work, with the words "K is for King Klepto" above his head, and "MY PRESIDENT who wiped his bottom with his so-called beloved people" at the bottom.
The critique is clear, didactic even. Exhibited by Stevenson in 2014, this work formed part of Such, Such Were The Joys, the artist's fourth solo exhibition with the gallery.
Drawn in the same poster styling as K is Kleptocracy is O is for Oh my God! in which South African athlete and murderer Oscar Pistorius hangs his head and buries his face in his hands.
Above him are the words "O is for Oh my God! Oscar killed Reeva" and below "from hero to zero" and "proudly South African".
Also on show, N is for Nightmare which depicts a small suburban home in varying shades of orange. Also in the frame, suspended in a bubble, two golliwog figures, replete with loincloths, spears and machetes.
In another bubble, another golliwog holds a serving tray, the decapitated head of a balding white man on it. Why would N is for Nightmare require a different kind of visual reading than K is King Klepto, or O is for Oh My God!? Is the intelligence required here more a matter of sophistry, rather than sophistication?
Arts24 caught up with Anton Kannemeyer for an interview:
What are your thoughts on the removal of some of your prints from Superbalist's catalogue and your prints from the Artists' Press catalogue?
Firstly, I do not know how they ended up on Superbalist's catalogue. I think there is a context for everything, and art (especially controversial art) is not mainstream or general consumables. I mean, an art gallery would not sell Tupperware as a sideline, it would diminish their status. So I do not have a problem with the prints being removed from the Superbalist catalogue. But the works being removed from the Artists' Press site is what is now called "de-platforming" or "cancelling". Here the context is right to sell my work: there are explanations, references and articles supporting my strategies and practice. And there are other artists being represented on the site, not t-shirts and sneakers. "De-platforming" or "cancelling" are new words for censorship, but no morally righteous liberal would ever admit that.
Many years later, how would you describe the current purpose of the work you made under the Bitterkomix umbrella? Does the work still hold the same political resonance for you?
I think there is a tendency to reduce Bitterkomix to one simple thing or strategy. Bitterkomix is a satirical comic magazine that in the past has overstepped the boundaries of what a conservative society would regard as decent. More than 40 artists and writers to date have contributed to the magazine. Many different topics (often taboos) have been discussed or addressed from different perspectives, but mostly from a satirical point of view. Those topics are often social in nature, but sometimes political. To answer your question: the political landscape in South Africa has obviously changed completely during the last 30 years. The satirist is concerned with exposing and denouncing abuses, follies, stupidities and evils of all kinds, and because the government represents wealth, responsibility and power, it is the first focus of the satirist. At first I was praised for criticising a corrupt, white apartheid government, but now I'm often told I'm a racist for criticising today's corrupt government.
In an interview with The Art Newspaper last year, you said, "My duty is to make people feel uncomfortable". Can you expand on what you mean by uncomfortable and what this discomfort aims to shift and/or address?
By that quote I meant that I always try to find a fresh perspective, one that people will find jarring and controversial. In a way I feel the satirist needs to be a provocateur. I feel that art that complies to any ideology is boring and morally suspect. That discomfort should pose a question to the viewer, one that requires you to come back and rethink the meaning. And the purpose of my art, when I'm successful, is when the artwork has stimulated debate. But I feel we have moved into a time where people are averse to debate.
In the same interview you mentioned how the aim is "never to offend black people". How would you say you go about ensuring this? What's your response when you do?
When you look at an artwork that uses the black stereotype (golliwog) from Hergé's Tintin in the Congo (the only one I use) it is obviously offensive. Remember that it's offensive to both black and white people, not just to black people. For a white person, especially a "liberal", it's a very untimely reminder of an atrocious legacy. One that they would like to go away at all cost in order to avoid talking about race.
But in order to answer your question I'm going to look at an article I read about Mel Brooks recently. In the article he said that he would not have been able to make the film Blazing Saddles (1974) today (a comedy about a black sheriff in a white western town) as race issues are too tense today. He then also said that there is one thing that one can never make a comedy of, which is the Jewish Holocaust. I disagree with this.
I think that the satirist uses comedy, wit, sarcasm, irony, ridicule etc not to make fun of people or something, but to draw attention to a problem. It forces people to talk about difficult subject matters. When I had a solo exhibition in 2011 in New York, I had at one point in the evening of the opening a queue of African Americans waiting to congratulate me: they all said more or less the same thing which was "thanks for talking about race, white people in the States never do".
Several large paintings from that show (with the black stereotype) sold to prominent African American collectors. In order to understand that the work is not offending black people, you have to read the black stereotype as symbolic. The artworks look simple because they are drawn in a comic style, but they are misinterpreted because they're read on a literal level. Once attacked by a mob on Twitter, it is impossible to convince an audience that the opposite of what they are reading is intended.
In an interview with Griot Magazine, you explained your use of the golliwog imagery as such:
"One of the reasons I used the golliwog face is because it is one of the most immediate ways to say: I'm talking about race. The moment you start using a whole person it becomes confusing. I remember once I was a visiting artist at the University of North Carolina and there was a black professor there who interviewed me and asked me: 'Why don't you just use a normal black face, why do you use this face?' And I said to her that the problem is that the message becomes confusing, because then somebody might think that the person that I'm depicting isn't really black, but hispanic or something else."
This makes me wonder if racist stereotyping can be used in a subversive manner? Additionally, why do you believe that consumers of your work would not understand it to be about race without using racist imagery? You've also spoken about how reading Tintin to your daughter may have inspired you to use the work to address issues of race. I guess I'm struggling to understand how you could understand that Tintin is racist but then essentially use its racist tropes in your work? Do you feel that your work is racist and what is your response to people who do?
One can of course talk about race without using racist imagery. The reason I used it in the first place was as a reaction to the first colour mass publishing of Herge's Tintin in the Congo in 2005. This book was not available before in the English language (only limited copies were published independently in black and white). The reason for this is that Herge's English publisher didn't think it was a good idea, and Hergé agreed. He knew the book was racist, but said in an interview that it was done in the spirit of the time (1931). With the publishing of the book in 2005 (by the new owner of the Tintin empire, Nick Rodwell) there was quite an outcry, and the book was subsequently removed from the shelves of several libraries in New York. It was made available for viewing by appointment only. This was regarded as censorship by some. My feeling, since I do not support censorship, was that an age limit (like they did with offensive lyrics on some CDs) could be placed on the book. Since the book is one of the few Tintin's that are really made for children only, it would kind of defeat its purpose. The book is really offensive, supporting the coarsest racial stereotypes, certainly not a book for young children. But it would be a great book for a teacher to discuss with young children and explain why the stereotypes are offensive. Unfortunately, once a book like this gets censored, everybody regards it as toxic and best to forget about.
The reason I used the imagery from the book was to expose the problems with the book and to shed some historical light on the issues in the book and also the history of the Congo (and broadly speaking of colonialism in Africa). My book, Pappa in Afrika, which came out in different versions in French, English, Portuguese, Finnish and German, was a parody. And how can it be a parody if I do not use the stereotypes in the book? This is unfortunately one of the ironies of satire: you perpetuate that which you attack. A satire on Hitler or Trump perpetuates those people as well. But I think that it's historically significant, even if people do not want to see it now. I think that what's happening now is that people want to place my work in the same pigeon hole as the original Tintin in the Congo. Simply put, my work is post-colonial and Tintin in the Congo is colonial. To just classify them in the same category is really insulting to me.
Can you tell us about how guilt, shame and white privilege function in your work? What is white empathy and white guilt? I'm thinking here about your work with "limitations to white empathy".
The work Limitations to White Empathy was on the cover of a limited editioned magazine I made for the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London. It was also twice painted as a mural (in New York and France). It is a reference to an article I read by a black journalist after the outcry of Dana Schutz's Open Casket painting made in 2016. The journalist basically said that there are limitations to white empathy, and therefore white people should avoid talking/writing/making art about certain subject matter. To tell you the truth, I can write a whole essay just about my thoughts around this incident. But I used that title as an ironic reference to that specific incident.
White guilt and shame are very much part of my investigation into race. I very much live with guilt and shame, even though a good communist would regard these as the most bourgeois of sentiments. Every day in South Africa we are reminded of our privilege. Driving in an expensive car, for instance, is shameful. My work often points this out, and I implicate myself, there's no getting away from it. But I deal with it in my work, I do not try to skirt the issues or hide them. I must say, generally, that I feel South Africa did a lot of investigation and self-analyses in this regard (such as the TRC in the 90s), as opposed to the US where white liberals mostly tried to ignore their legacy of white privilege. I think they are now confronted by it more than ever before. In South Africa the race debate has been central to our lives forever, one could almost argue it's part of our culture.
Do you have an idea of the money Bitterkomix has made for yourself and Conrad?/Do you have an idea of how many works Bitterkomix has sold over the years?
Yes, I have a fairly good idea: we made hardly any money with Bitterkomix. This will be confirmed by any of the publishing houses we worked with as well. The first four issues of Bitterkomix made only enough money to pay for the next printing. And we had to distribute ourselves, which was an incredible amount of work, without ever getting paid. To earn money I had to teach, and later sold works on exhibitions, from 2006 onwards. Bitterkomix really is/was a labour of love. I do not know how many artworks I sold, but I see that as independent of the comic magazine. I would say that I maybe make about eight large works every year, some years less, but not all of them sell. (This will take some time to figure out).
In general, mainstream media and art has lost some of its narrative dominance to social media. The general public is able to respond to and critique art without the intervention of galleries and editors. This has changed the face of the critic in that it can be anyone. How has public opinion towards your work changed (if at all)? How has it influenced the ways in which your work is read and consumed?
It's true that my work can now be viewed by anyone with an internet connection. Unfortunately it is also now read on the most literal level, without any consideration of the context or motivations from my side. The comments I receive from people nowadays are very similar to comments I received back in the 90s from conservative white South Africans. Back then I was backed up by a liberal media and academics. These people are quiet now, mostly in fear of reprisals or being called out as racists themselves. The media today is led by social platforms and this is an extremely sorry state of affairs. The levels of ignorance and intolerance are astounding. So, in a way, public opinion has changed: before I was hated only by conservatives; now I'm hated by both conservatives and pseudo-liberals. And I think the very notion of what liberal means has changed today: in my mind liberalism stands for gender and racial equality, and, most importantly, freedom of speech.
Two things that influence how my work is read currently: firstly I'm not being asked to talk about my work anymore, which I always thought was helpful, even to the most informed audiences. Secondly, and this is most alarming, my works are being excluded from art courses (it was recently removed from a South African comics module in the History of Art classes at UCT after students threatened to boycott classes if Bitterkomix is discussed) in order not to offend. Now that we saw that the NY Times stopped editorial cartoons last year, satire is under serious threat worldwide. So if satire is not discussed in class anymore, and art students do not even understand basic visual satire, how can we expect the twitter mob out there to understand it? By cancelling art we are making a visually illiterate world even more visually illiterate.
You also mention in the Griot interview that you will no longer be making "such work", largely because galleries are refusing to exhibit it. Do you feel censored? How is this changing the way that you approach your work?
Well, I have been completely "deplatformed" in South Africa. I used to be a successful South African artist and that has come to an end because mainly white "liberals" decided that my brand of iconoclastic satire is unacceptable. They will tell you that they never censored me, but that we have "creative differences" or some similar kind of vague political nonsense. It boils down to the following: what is the point of making a large painting if I cannot exhibit it anywhere in South Africa? Luckily Bitterkomix and my work is known in Europe because of the few publications I did there. So now I have two galleries in Europe representing me. I have discontinued my long series called Alphabet of Democracy because international audiences find it too specific to the South African political landscape. Ironically, here I hardly ever used offensive imagery.
You know, I had very positive reviews in The New York Times, The New Yorker and Art in America after solo exhibitions in NYC. I exhibited in the Museums of Modern Art in New York and San Francisco, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, the Guggenheim Museum Bilboa in Spain, the Museum of Modern Art in Denmark, etc. Anyone who thinks that it was possible to achieve such success on the back of racist art for a white male from South Africa after the year 2000, is delusional. I'm now accused of racism because I put the spotlight on racism.
Regarding the use of the black stereotype or golliwog face in future: I think that my resistance to, and argument against racism has run its course - the very things I wanted to make people aware of have now reached the centre stage. I still have a few very good ideas in my sketchbooks, but I think I'll keep them back for now, or maybe never use them. The changing times call for new strategies and more subtle resistance. The thing is just that I now feel I must fight against censorship and intolerance, insofar as that is possible. In a way, I have been pushed back into the underground, and that obviously has severe consequences for my income, but it's possibly very good for the quality or content of my art. All in all I see this as an opportunity - if I have to be honest with myself I was never the artist who was going to win prizes or be rewarded for all my hard work.