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23 Aug 2010 17:54
Is Anton Kannemeyer’s new Bitterkomix collection, Pappa in Afrika, flagrantly racist or is it a lament for a continent ravaged by centuries of colonial rule?
I am less tempted these days to believe the outlandish claims by artists and critics that art is necessarily revolutionary, but if the Bitterkomix generation did convince some young men that apartheid was not worth dying and killing for, it was certainly a good thing. Whether that brand of acerbic humour is striking the right note today requires further reflection.
In Kannemeyer’s recently published Pappa in Afrika, an image titled Liberals (2010) is a retake of Zapiro’s Rape of Justice, except that in Kannemeyer’s version a ‘coon” is slitting the throat of a man one presumes is one of Kannemeyer’s alter egos. The alter egos populate the comic book. The rape victim screams: ‘Do something, Harold! These historically disadvantaged men want to rape me!”
The relationship between Zapiro’s cartoon and Kannemeyer’s is quite obvious, but with a few significant differences. Zapiro’s is a bit more literal in the sense that Zuma was accused and acquitted of rape charges, whereas Kannemeyer’s perpetrators are anonymous ‘coons”. Second, Zapiro’s victim is the mythological figure of Lady Justice in the form of a black woman. This is what sets Zapiro’s work apart from Kannemeyer’s in that the whiteness of the victim is a direct comment on the fears of whites generally, a theme elucidated in JM Coetzee’s Disgrace.
Apartheid, in both its ideological and administrative manifestations, made one’s place in the world quite clear; social roles were narrowly defined. For many South Africans, both white and black, it seemed the world had turned upside-down in the post-apartheid era. Even during Nelson Mandela’s presidency people across the colour divide were struggling to come to terms with a Constitution that gave women equal rights and increased protection for children and minors.
The perceived loss of power and identity that came with both political and, to some extent, economic changes has left white South Africans, in particular, with feelings of insecurity. On one end of the spectrum there are those who are preparing for war in paramilitary training camps and on the other you have cynical liberals who are constantly making buffoons of current leaders.
There is no doubt we are living in a country of excess. There is pervasive violence and rampant corruption and artists and journalists cannot be blamed for pointing out these horrors. But a number of traps are set against these crusaders of truth and justice. These are the tendency to reduce the African experience to a kind of pathology, the temptation of African exceptionalism, the equation of transgression with progressive politics and the blind spot of their own privilege.
To a large extent the reasons negative images of Africa continue to be peddled not only by the right but also by liberals and so-called progressives is that they are compelling because they bear some resemblance to the truth and they have been internalised in our psyche and popular imagination. There are so many black and white South Africans who see immigrants from other African countries as being parasitic on South African ‘success”, which suggests that it is difficult or near impossible for South Africans to imagine that people from other African countries have anything to offer and that visiting or working in those countries can be anything but traumatic.
The first and most obvious temptation is to suppose that the only response people can and should have to colonial violence is murder and rape. The notion that oppressed people can have novel and even non-violent responses to racial violence is a trap that even progressive movements seem unable to escape from. In the rhetoric of films such as Birth of a Nation, this endemic violence is a sign not of colonial violence but of a less developed, uncivilised psyche.
In this way the historical-materialist analysis that purports to be more politically aware than the essentialist notions of African experiences also has the tendency to pathologise African subjects as nothing more than prisoners of history and violence. Unfortunately for all their political savvy and attempts to be critical, these assumptions maintain that the cartoons of people like Kannemeyer are unable to subvert.
In the concluding pages of Adam Horschild’s Leopold’s Ghost, the author raises questions of what motivated the groundswell of criticism of Leopold’s excesses in the Congo and why similar excesses by other European powers, not only in other parts of Africa but also in the colonised world generally, did not elicit similar outrage. In the attempt to answer the question he notes that the movement for change in the Congo came on the back of the abolitionist movement. Paternalism and philanthropy in protecting defenceless Africans against the Arab slave trade gave King Leopold II a pretext to enter the Congo and to turn it into his personal fiefdom.
The idea that there is something special about Africa, even though putting a finger on exactly what that thing is often proves illusory, does not prevent people from insisting that it is there.
One of the questions that Pappa in Afrika raises is whether art that is somehow transgressive or subversive necessarily implies progressive politics. Pappa in Afrika is awash with imagery of African atrocities, the buffoonery of its leaders (Idi Amin appears a number of times) and corruption, but also the complicity of the West. In the world of art, as in the world of political and social satire, evidence that the audience is offended is seen as affirmation that the medicine is working.
Courting controversy and notoriety has become the stock in trade of artists of the post-1994 era. This is especially true of white male artists. Challenging political correctness has been their rallying cry. Such notoriety has been interpreted as a sign of genius in itself without really interrogating the content of the work. Among these have been people such as Kendell Geers, Brett Murray and, more recently, collectives such as Avant Car Guard. But there is a reason we don’t go around calling people ‘kikes” and ‘kaffirs” in the street, even if it is done in the name of humour. But if some infantile artists do just that, we are supposed to say they are not racist.
In the accompanying essay in Pappa in Afrika, Danie Marais makes a spirited argument that Kannemeyer is in fact exposing white fears and the racism that inspires them. And the implication here is that, because he is making fun of or ‘exposing” these fears, he can’t be racist. Whether his use of racial stereotypes, subversive as it might be, is sufficiently removed from its source to make it transformative is a question we have to ask Kannemeyer. Personally, I am not convinced that they are.
In an interview with the Sunday Times, Zapiro, in defence of his Rape of Justice cartoon, claims he is not racist because his record in the anti-apartheid struggle ‘speaks for itself”. If we say that struggle leaders are to be held accountable for what they are doing now and that their struggle credentials are of little consequence, then by the same token we should hold Kannemeyer and Zapiro to the same standard.
It is not that Kannemeyer is ignorant of the privilege that comes with being white. But acknowledging one’s privilege is not the same thing as acknowledging the responsibility that goes with it. In a world in which artistic freedom and creativity are rightly valued above the instrumentalisation of the arts, ‘responsibility” is a dirty word. I am the last person to advocate that an artist’s creativity ought to be stifled in favour of political correctness, but that is not to say one ought to celebrate the cynicism of arrogant and intransigent products of racial privilege.
It is not only on the level of race that I find Pappa in Afrika reprehensible. In one of two works, titled Thank You, Black Angel, a black angel gives the artist a blowjob. Whether they are intended to be subversive or simply funny, much of the imagery is condescending. So what if the black people, men and women, in Kannemeyer’s cartoons lack agency and when they have any they act as agents of disaster—and then serve only to populate white fears and Kannemeyer’s fantasies?
It does not matter that they are offensive. It certainly does not matter that he dredges up a host of racist imagery and stereotypes. Indeed we are supposed to look and laugh—because ‘Anton Kannemeyer is not racist”.
Khwezi Gule was formerly the curator of contemporary collections at the Johannesburg Art Gallery. He is now chief curator at Hector Pieterson Memorial. Pappa in Afrika is published by Jacana Media
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