HBD: Human Biodiversity

N is for Nightmare

To accompany Andy Nowicki's excerpt from his forthcoming in-depth article on South Africa, I am republishing in full an interview with the South African artist, Anton Kannemeyer. This was originally published in the Quarterly review and excerpted here at Alternative Right in 2010.

Kannemeyer is a South African print artist and cartoonist whose work has commented on the racial and political tensions of Apartheid and post-Apartheid South Africa.

Starting from a conventional liberal position, detesting Apartheid, rejecting his Boer heritage, and welcoming the "New South Africa," his art has gradually evolved into something darker and more complex as disturbing trends become increasingly apparent in the so-called "Rainbow Nation."

LIDDELL: Why did you focus on print art as your main means of artistic expression?

KANNEMEYER: My father is a South African writer (mainly Afrikaans literary criticism), so from a young age I had this idea that I want to publish, or at least make books. As a student I started an art magazine in our department (it only ran two issues: 1990 & '91), but my main aim was to publish a comic magazine. My friend Conrad Botes (who I met as a first year art student in 1988) and I started drawing comics in 1989 together, and in 1992 we published our collected work in a magazine called Bitterkomix I. As we knew a black & white magazine wouldn't make much of an impact on its own, we made large silkscreen prints (in colour) of many of the images in the comic. They were quite popular and often exhibited. It also gave the magazine a point of sale (we struggled initially to get the magazine in bookshops, but when sales were consistent that was not such a big problem anymore). Eventually we would also screenprint book covers (never more than 150), but these were always limited and I guess more like an "art object" than anything else.

LIDDELL: Looking at the Bittercomix series, one of the things that stands out is the way you constantly poked fun at the old sexually-repressed Presbyterian Afrikaner morality, but also mix in a load of racial issues with scenes of interracial sex – almost always a Black man with a White woman. In Bittercomix, Blacks seem to represent an idea of sexual power and liberation, but this is also mixed with a heavy dose of irony that creates a sense of degradation. It seems you are equating sexual repression with Apartheid and associating the idea of sexual promiscuity with the "New South Africa."

KANNEMEYER: The use (or repeated use) of Black men as sexually potent was mainly to piss off White men. I guess in most instances our work was directed at the White Afrikaner (the language was also mostly Afrikaans, albeit a kind of crude slang), and, in this sense and context, iconoclastic. And yes, things have changed. I like your comment about the "irony that creates a sense of degradation." Generally I would not equate the "New South Africa" with a sexual openness (even though now I may say what I want without being persecuted). Sex is still very much a taboo, especially in the Black communities. And to finally get to your question: I see myself as a satirist and therefore mostly critical of those in power (both political and economical power). My use of explicit sexual situations in the comics like Gif: Afrikaner Sekskomix (1994) were mostly metaphorical, criticizing conservative Afrikaans values. The impact of that work, however, made me understand how you can grab an audience's attention visually, and simultaneously undermine that initial visual impact with either language, juxtaposition or other devices. Lately there has been a shift in my work (the last 3 years or so) – and I have been focusing mainly on politics and race.

LIDDELL: How true are the Joe Dog stories? I was looking at "Whatever you do, stay out of prison in South Africa," about gang rapes in prison, including an instance of interracial rape in which a white farmer held overnight in a cell for a minor offence was raped by a gang of fourteen blacks who drowned out his screams by singing the ANC anthem Umshini wami, mshini wami! (Please Bring My Machine Gun). I also wondered why the White victim has inverted commas around ‘Mr.’

KANNEMEYER: My 'true stories' are normally quite accurate. In the case of "Prison in Africa" the incidents are based on info found in local newspapers. The 'Mr' in inverted commas referred to something that I now realize would not be picked up by an international audience: if the victim would have been a black man, the press would not have placed 'Mr' before his name. As the press is not allowed anymore to identify people by race, there are other subtleties in the text one relies on to in fact determine race.

LIDDELL: I get the feeling that in your work, the sexual aspect is also used to symbolize changing power relations, namely the 'feminization' of the former 'masculine' White ruling class. Maybe it's because your work is actually so political in this way (using a perfect metaphor in sex) that you unfairly got dismissed by some as a purveyor of "crude pornographic depictions."

KANNEMEYER: You're right, as a child I felt a huge resentment towards white patriarchs, and in the new South Africa these men have been despised by all for quite a while now (and they're the least likely to be employed as well in government institutions). This of course gave me many reasons to celebrate (the irony, of course, being that I'm also just a white male.) And I'm not too concerned about being dismissed "unfairly as a conveyer of porn" – I've had a lot of support in the media, especially from women! And your comment about the 'sexual content of the work being about power' is quite correct.

LIDDELL: As you indicate, your position in the new South Africa has strong ambiguities – resentment against the Afrikaner patriarchs from whom you stem. Where is your identity at? Are you 'post-racial' or is your identity based on something else?

KANNEMEYER: I'm not sure about this. I lived in Germany for 2 years when I was 18 years old (my mother, who is Dutch, remarried a German) and I was desperately unhappy there. Back in South Africa (I returned to study) I felt at home, happy and driven because of the turmoil on political and social levels, I guess. Life here is/was meaningful because I felt my work had an impact. But lately I enjoy working in other countries (I have a lot of professional connections in Germany and France especially), but my partner is pretty tied up with her family here. I'm not sure that I'm 'post-racial' (it sounds like such a grand statement). When I was teaching though, especially in Johannesburg (where there were about 70% Black students), I felt 'post-racial': I was just trying to get a good job done. The moment I came back to the Cape (I taught at Stellenbosch University) where Black students only constituted about 12-15% of the student body, I started feeling weird again. And everybody in my department was so painfully politically correct it almost crippled their logic or behaviour. Lots of hypocrisy among liberals, but I'm sure you are aware of that. But, 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: and in that sense I guess some South Africans are a bit "post-racial". I do sometimes watch cricket: whether it's a black, Indian, white or 'coloured' (mixed race) sportsman, there are no differences. They just need to perform. That's the only way I get a sense of nationality - through sports.

LIDDELL: One way to gauge someone's true identity is by the kind of people they associate with in their free time. In your case what kind of picture does this give?

KANNEMEYER: Yes, my partner (or girlfriend) and I have two very young children now and I sort of feel that I do not associate with anyone anymore – it's just work and children. But my best friends are all very close to and interested in all sorts of alternative culture. Are you trying to determine whether my friends are black, white or coloured?

LIDDELL: Yes because the real test of a multiracial society is the degree to which race is "forgotten." Your generation is living the multiracial experiment. How is it going? And, yes, at your own level of whom you feel comfortable associating with, are you effectively post racial? Or do things like work and family enable you to avoid facing this issue too directly?

KANNEMEYER: No, in one way or another one has to face this issue. I have some black friends – two guys who are quite close in regards to their taste in music and interests in visual arts etc. The one guy, who died recently by drowning, was my brother's best friend. But that's not a lot. What has occurred, from a very different angle however, is that our daughter has made some black friends at school, and now we do see their parents socially. One of her friends' mothers turned out to be my partner's gynaecologist, which is quite funny: a while ago I made a painting called Black Gynaecologist, which was quite popular: unthinkable that a white woman should have a black gynaecologist, but there you have it: our reality! The thing is that our Black gynaecologist and her Nigerian husband are looking to emigrate to Australia or somewhere – who knows, maybe we'll end up with a white gynaecologist again.

LIDDELL: I'd like to ask about the Alphabet Series. With its deadpan humour, it's one of the things you're best known for. Some of the pieces, like N is for Nightmare (house with decapitation), remind me of Hergé’s Tintin cartoons – nice, clean draughtsmanship and stereotypical Blacks. Why did you choose this Tintin-esque style?

KANNEMEYER: The stylistic reference to Hergé’s Tintin can be traced back to my Bitterkomix work – I started using it when I made comics of myself at a very young age. At the time (as a young child before I turned 12) Tintin was the only comic I knew, and the style just seemed perfect to open that window back into (especially) my pre-pubescent years. I used the clarity of his style, but added a dark shadow-like atmosphere which seemed quite truthful to me, quite depressing. The use of the stereotypical Black has several functions, one being that I did see all black people (who I didn't know) at that age as looking the same. In the case of the N is for Nightmare series (there are in fact seven pieces in the series, part of the "bigger" Alphabet series), I wanted to accentuate this fear of hordes of faceless "Blacks" attacking White dwellings (and maybe affluent Black houses) – always situated in typical South African middle class suburbs.

LIDDELL: The way you exaggerate this fear in these cartoons feels satirical, as if you are mocking it as ridiculous and out of proportion. But isn't fear, by its very nature an exaggerated state? Also, in view of the disparities in wealth and the social and racial divisions in South Africa, and the experience of much of late 20th century Africa – from the Mau Mau, the expulsion of the Ugandan Asians, the massacres in the Belgian Congo, the campaigns against the White farmers in Zimbabwe, and of course the genocide in Rwanda, etc., etc., might not these fears of "faceless mobs" be completely understandable?

KANNEMEYER: Sure, these fears are perfectly grounded. In fact, we had a series of very violent break-ins in the street where I live a year ago: these gangs would simply smash the front door in and steal as much as they can before the armed response would reply. And in both cases (in our street) the families were held at gunpoint until the guys left. I was very afraid of waking up in the middle of the night with a front door being smashed down. But I think one problem is that white people think they're the only victims in South Africa (oh God they feel really sorry for themselves). The other thing has to do with ownership and entitlement: many white people think they've worked really hard for what they've got and that it's really unfair that they're being victimized. And yes, it's a complex issue: in a "normal" first world country the government will protect you – in South Africa (when white people complain – especially about "service delivery") you're branded a racist. It's a very interesting time (but it has been since I started studying). I made a painting recently of a white woman about to be raped by four Black guys; she shouts at her husband: "These historically disadvantaged men want to rape me!" Now once again there are real situations like this out there – but the issue I'm addressing is something else though. I use this fear to address something else. Regarding this, I found an excellent quote by Tony Hoagland: "To really get at the subject of race, chances are, is going to require some unattractive, tricky self-expression, something adequate to the paradoxical complexities of privilege, shame, and resentment. To speak in a voice equal to reality in this case will mean the loss of observer-immunity status, will mean admitting that one is not on the sidelines of our racial realities, but actually in the tangled middle of them. Nobody is going to look good." (from Real Sofistikashun: Essays on Poetry and Craft, 2006.) I know that I approach the subject from a satirical perspective, but your question (a good one, by the way) tries to get behind/underneath the "visual" figure of speech.

LIDDELL: I’d like to ask you about the dramatic murder of Eugene Terre'blanche, whose death touches upon so many of the areas approached in your art. Terre'blanche is the kind of patriarchal Afrikaner figure that you grew up despising. How do you feel about his death? Any theories or views?

KANNEMEYER: I don't have much sympathy with Terre'blanche - he was a violent man and yes, pretty much the embodiment of everything I despised as a kid and a young grown-up (and, I guess, a "proper grown-up"). I do think the murder was political in nature (even though the media says it was about money) and a result of Julius Malema's endorsement of the "Kill the Boer" song. What is interesting now is that we had similar problems in 1994: Blacks were shouting "one settler, one bullet" and more or less exactly the same angst and issues regarding race are still with us. A lot of people said we had come a long way since Apartheid, but the exact same issues are still the most explosive today. I find it extremely interesting that someone like Malema, who is clearly uneducated and one of the bluntest pencils on the political landscape, can have such a major political impact in South Africa. He accuses the whites for everything that's wrong in SA today, even though the ANC has now been in power for 16 years. What he's doing is very transparent, and I must say he and Zuma look more and more like copies of Amin, Mobutu and Mugabe...

LIDDELL: I always thought that Terre'blanche was the kind of joke figure that made satire pointless – a caricature of White nationalism that served to discredit the very ideas he espoused. I am thinking here of the three-legged swastika, military fatigues, and even his name which invokes "eugenics" and "white land." Did he make your job as a satirist hard by existing as a satire on himself? And isn't this also true of many of the other figures in the South African political landscape?

KANNEMEYER: You're right: it's difficult to satirise him. Even his actual death is satirical – it's bizarre. He's my work come to life, but probably better than I could have executed. At the moment he and Malema are the two extremes on the SA political landscape: the irony is that both of them represent(ed) far right extremism.

LIDDELL: The way he died is evocative of the fears that your art often touches on. Is it about unresolved issues of economic inequality (as opposed to economic justice, which is a different issue), or a nebulous mood of racial hatred that can easily find a focus?

KANNEMEYER: Apparently a white Boer is killed every 18 hours in South Africa. These statistics are not released by the police, but by the action groups set up by farmers themselves. I must say, now that the ANC has shown us where they're heading, now that even the secretary-general of the Communist party is driving a million-rand Mercedes Benz, I'm very worried about the future of South Africa. Also, I'm quite surprised by the "nebulous" racial hatred in SA – I know I'm politically naive, but it slowly dawned on me (in the last 5 years or so) just exactly how racist people still are. Even Mbeki is a racist – he was supposed to be our intellectual leader, you know, an enlightened leftie. You were talking about "post-racism": maybe that's the privilege of the upper middle classes and the rich. Especially the privilege of those in white countries. South Africa was supposed to be this country where a miracle happened – I must say there are so many white liberals who are so disillusioned with the ANC, it's in fact rather funny. So: no, I do not see Terre’blanche's death as an isolated incident, and yes, it's about race and class: and I do not know, with the current education system in South Africa (a senior Black professor at UCT said recently that education is now worse for Blacks than what it was under the Apartheid regime), where this will end.

LIDDELL: Are you planning any artistic response to Terre'blanche’s murder?

KANNEMEYER: I hope so – I don't force anything. Hopefully a lateral solution will arrive soon. I don't think like a political cartoonist, and I do not do this kind of work on a deadline.