Barking up a blind alley

When I met Wayne Barker for the first time almost 20 years ago, he was one of the angry kids on the South African art scene. I was working on an issue of the magazine I was editing, Revue Noire.

Editing that issue, which was dedicated to South Africa, was not an easy task. The 1994 democratic elections had yet to take place and the country was struggling with a recent history that would take more than a Truth and Reconciliation Act to overcome.

It was the first time our editorial team was forced to pay attention to race. Our freedom was limited by the will to give equal treatment to everyone. Historically, many white South African artists attended art schools. Some were able even to attend schools outside of the country.

As for black artists, the story was different. We had to take that into consideration. All of a sudden, we were confronted with — what WEB DuBois called in the beginning of the 20th century — the ‘question of colour”. Until then nothing was important but the artist’s work. Now everything else became important.

When I heard of an artist who deliberately confronted those boundaries to call their bluff, I could not help but ask who that person was. In the political correctness of a healing nation, who would dare address the absolute taboo? It was in 1992.

His name was Wayne Barker. He became the black sheep of the system, because he entered an art contest as a black artist. Had he lost, the question would have been forgotten. But he won. And by doing so, he unveiled the unsaid within South African politics. He revealed the absurdity of a country that would pretend that its people had equal opportunity and at the same time would favour those who suffered from the iniquities of the apartheid regime.

Much of the hatred and reflection this act provoked was based on the fear that a carefully built strategy was taking the wrong direction. Wayne Barker became scandalous. What I am interested in is to analyse the very nature of this status.

It takes time to become an artist, to master the skill of a business in which nothing is planned, in which success and fame cannot be predicted. Hence the very question: For whom are we making art? Wayne Barker is certainly a true artist, in the classic sense, because he decided to work for himself, regardless of current fashion.

He chose to walk naked in the middle of the blind alleys of art, establishing no barriers between his work and himself, and therefore fulfilling the wish of the French critic Pierre Restany who, in 1969, complained about what art had become in Europe. I am tempted to use the term ‘avant-garde” in the same sense that Restany did:

‘The idea of the work we have assumed, of attaining a self-definition of the avant-garde, implies a basic postulate: art is solely a phenomenon of language. Language, man’s expression of thought, is living matter. There are moments when the oscillatory movement of art becomes blocked. Art seems to have lost the internal elements of its own contradiction. It seems to have separated itself from life.” For better or worse, Wayne Barker has decided never to surrender to the force of morality, good taste, gentry or social codes. That’s what makes him who he his.

Simon Njami is an independent art critic, curator and editor. This is an edited version of his essay for the catalogue Super Boring, published by Smac Gallery

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