Denying the privileged a voice
If racial privilege disallows unbiased commentary, how is a white artist supposed to critique a multiracial nation without being considered racist?
A double-page spread was devoted to Khwezi Gule’s review of Anton Kannemeyer’s Pappa in Afrika, and for that much attention any artist should be grateful. But unfortunately the reviewer never really engages with Kannemeyer’s challenging new work aesthetically or analytically.
There is no comment on the poignant and jarring use of the gollywog image, no observations on technique or the way that these works (many of which are large paintings) mock the high seriousness of work generally exhibited on the gallery circuit, thus blurring the boundaries between cartooning and fine art. What the piece misses altogether is that Pappa in Afrika is, above all, an indictment of white liberal bigotry, which is in many ways exemplified by the gap between the soothing sounds of political correctness and the crude stereo-types that still thrive in the twisted nightmares of white fear.
Gule treats the book as a potential crime scene and the images as clues to the motives and moral blindness of the perpetrator — a privileged white male who has apparently served up offensive, racist imagery without proper reason.
The review starts with a shallow, or rather a skin-deep, reading of The Liberals — one of the central images in the book. Gule simply sees Kannemeyer’s shocking reworking of Zapiro’s infamous Rape of Justice cartoon as ‘a direct comment on the fears of whites generally”.
According to him, ‘white fear lies at the heart of both Zapiro’s and Kannemeyer’s work”. He concludes that the two cartoons ‘are similar in a more fundamental way, in that criminality and deviant behaviour are directly identified with black masculinity”.
The implications are absurd. If one assumes that white fear lies at the heart of Zapiro’s sharp criticism of Zuma’s abuse of political power, does that mean black people have nothing to fear from politicians operating above the law? Or that Zapiro is not speaking primarily as a concerned South African citizen, but as a scared white male when he fingers dubious behaviour by high-ranking government officials?
Zapiro does not equate deviant behaviour with black masculinity — he draws an analogy between a crime (gang rape) and the political behaviour of clearly identified individuals who happen to be black. Complaining about the absence of Jesse Duarte and Carl Niehaus from the cartoon, as Gule does, is like accusing Zapiro of sexism because he portrays justice as a female.
White fear, indeed, lies at the heart of Kannemeyer’s cartoon, and it is he who portrays the rapists as anonymous black people. But Kannemeyer is certainly not trying to tell us that rapists are always black or that they look like golliwogs (or ‘coons”, as Gule calls them). The image is called The Liberals — not The Barbarians or The Rape — and the focus is on the rape victim’s choice of words. The white lady calls her attackers ‘historically disadvantaged men”.
A much more plausible reading of the cartoon would be to see it as an attack on white bigotry — which has always been one of Kannemeyer’s main targets. The Liberals exposes the chasm between polite, politically correct phrasing and white fear. It asks whether the way ‘the liberals” see black people has really changed or only the way they speak about ‘them”.
Ironically, Gule sees the cartoon as identifying black masculinity with deviant behaviour, but it seems that Kannemeyer is actually implying that ‘the liberals” still fear this to be true. The Liberals may well be saying: don’t trust the new noises white people make because the same old views are still festering below the surface.
What makes Pappa in Afrika such an unsettling collection is that it blends offensive images of colonialism and white fear with irreverent humour and reminders of very real catastrophes plaguing our continent. According to Gule, it therefore raises the question ‘whether art that is somehow trangressive or subversive necessarily implies progressive politics”.
Nonsense! Pappa raises a host of difficult questions, but not necessarily that one. But Gule is first and foremost interested in Kannemeyer’s politics and finds them not progressive at all. He is lumped in with a number of white male artists and satirists, such as Zapiro, Kendell Geers and Brett Murray, whose only reason for challenging notions of political correctness is apparently ‘courting controversy and notoriety”. He sees no reason ‘to celebrate the cynicism of arrogant and intransigent products of racial privilege”.
In other words, the social commentary of all these white males can and should be ignored because they have been blinded by privilege, have lost the plot and are now simply trying to seek attention by being un-PC. When they were marginalised and racially privileged — but criticised the apartheid government and its legacy — they were still reliable watchdogs. But their mockery of the new order is supposedly rabid, cynical and arrogant because they are racially privileged.
Gule also refuses to engage with the arguments in my accompanying essay to Pappa in Afrika. It is only referred to as a ‘spirited argument that Kannemeyer is in fact exposing white fears and the racism that inspires them”. I therefore imply that ‘because he [Kannemeyer] is making fun of or ‘exposing’ these fears, he can’t be racist”.
This is a perverse simplification. I didn’t try to vouch for the artist’s character. A central argument of my essay is that it isn’t possible to get to the bottom of race and identity politics without getting your hands dirty. As the American poet Tony Hoagland puts it: ‘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.”
With Pappa in Afrika Kannemeyer puts himself in that ‘tangled middle” and runs the risk of being called racist and cynical by commentators such as Gule. But the big questions Pappa in Afrika raises are necessary ones without easy answers. It implicitly asks whether white people can ever be forgiven for the horrors of (ongoing) colonialism and whether they will ever be able to see Africa as their home when they have been raised to fear the continent and its people and when so many atrocities seem to warn them that their worst nightmares may come true.
So, I would like to ask Gule two questions: How is anyone supposed to draw the anatomy of fear and a poisoned consciousness and be politically progressive at the same time? And what is the responsibility that goes with privilege — the responsibility that Kannemeyer is not acknowledging?
Danie Marais wrote the postscript to Anton Kannemeyer’s Pappa in Afrika