/ 17 October 2003

Tooning in

As our democracy hits the 10-year mark and prepares for puberty, the British Council has brought out an exhibition of British and South African political cartoons and graphics from the past three decades, designed to stimulate and inspire South African designers, cartoonists and graphic artists towards political commentary.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Upfront & Personal exhibition is that so many of the artworks are critical of the current Labour government ruling Britain who are, in part, funding this exhibition. This is in direct contrast to the United States-linked Centre for Conflict Resolution seminar that ended in controversy when the American Faith in Politics Institute censored three of Zapiro’s cartoons for being “anti-American”.

Juxtaposed against this example, Upfront & Personal represents a new type of culture-to-culture initiative towards fostering a vibrant political and civil society in South Africa, beyond the “window dressing, unilateralism or cynical propagandism that could so easily befall international cultural relations agencies”, explains Paul Johnson, the British Council’s head of communications. And so we find pictures of US President George W Bush with Esso signs in his eyes, a petrol pump in his ear and the words “I get tanked on Esso” printed below. Or images of British Prime Minister Tony Blair with eyes like a wild, bloodthirsty beast. In fact, there is a whole gallery wall dedicated to virulent graphic criticisms of the war in Iraq.

In comparison to the realpolitik of the British political cartoons and graphics, the South African section is a bit scant and somewhat undeveloped, but shows great potential.

One has to take into account that many of the apartheid-era graphics were banned, destroyed and neither kept nor archived.

Minister of Education Kader Asmal, on opening the exhibition, called on South African curators to archive South Africa’s recent history of political graphics from the apartheid era: “My hope is [that] we will invest equal time and effort to ensure the rich history of South African politics is similarly reflected.” Since 1994 South African political cartoons and graphics have largely shied away from directly attacking and criticising the African National Congress government as virulently as the British tradition.

A series of graphics by Jonathan Shapiro and the Treatment Action Campaign are the obvious exceptions. Other criticisms are more subtle, such as Rebecca Goldberg’s “African renaissance” postcard series depicting Madiba as Jesus at the Last Supper and President Thabo Mbeki as Leonardo’s David. On the walls you will also find the Black Labour T-shirt by South Africa’s enfants terrible of free speech, activists Laugh It Off. Despite the obvious exceptions, it seems, as a country, our political cartoonists, graphic artists and designers are still buying into the dominant narrative of the post-apartheid miracle and hold our political leaders, ruling party and society above the mudslinging and realpolitik of direct criticism.

The Upfront & Personal exhibition exposes the great British tradition of roasting their leaders’ shortcomings in the public gaze and will hopefully go some way towards abolishing the South African taboo of holding our leadership beyond reproach, creating a culture of political satire and a vibrant discourse between civil society and elected officials.

Sean O’Toole, editor of Artthrob, points out that “many of the British works come from an advertising background, created by designers in advertising firms.

“But from a South African perspective the advertising industry is caught up in a type of design mimicry of international aesthetics. There is very little originality in South African advertising graphics and it is hardly surprising that few of the agencies have made substantial contributions to the exhibition.

“Rather it is in the work of independent artists such as Conrad Botes and Jonathan Shapiro where one can identify a distinct South African voice, style and aesthetic being developed.”

Upfront & Personal is exhibited at the Johannesburg Art Gallery until November 2 2003