|image breaking: wayne barker's pierneefs, 1989|
I destroyed "Apies River" in a performance in a black working class bar for an SABC television show on the artist Braam Kruger, who was living in town. The bar was called Avanganye, "lets be friends". I destroyed the work while being filmed and interviewed, saying "this is the violence, this is the workers...10"He destroyed Apies River. That is how Wayne Barker described the creation of his own painting, made in a performance before a live audience in downtown Johannesburg in 1989. Barker arrived at the bar, in what was then and is still a rough part of town, with a very large, and exacting, copy in oil of an idylic scene by South Africa's premier landscape painter, Jacob Hendrik Pierneef, titled "Apies (monkeys) River". As he would do in subsequent years with other well-known works by Pierneef, Barker made his copy by projecting the image onto canvas and then adding color in paint-by-number fashion. Once finished, the Pierneef was then erased, crossed-out, or painted over with images of consumer goods, cartoons after the style of Basquiat or Guston, targets, and splashes of blood-red enamel paint. In Barker's "Apies River" the landscape was first roughly smudged out, then various organs and disembodied heads drawn over its surface. The cartoons look stressed out, they sweat and cry under halos of exclamation marks. A large saw with two heads sewn together at the mouth threatens the whole scene from above, and a large diamond pops out of a chute and rises into the middle of the picture. (As in Basquiat's art) these are very goofy looking images, claims Barker, but they are also quite heavy. They are images of pain and torture, murder, dismembered sex, and a hard labor that bloodies the hand, pisses red, lobotomises. In Barker's grim view this beautiful South African landscape shits out diamonds and gold, and buries its shattered men in their place.
Pierneef's landscapes are often dominated by an expanse of sky with a heroic stack of clouds, or a mountain silhouette taking up two-thirds of the frame. Pierneef rarely painted people into these pictures. Characteristic too was his stark, flat, and almost monochromatic use of color, his prismatic atmospheric effects, and his imposition of, "the logic of science on his perception of the logic of nature.11" After his travels abroad in 1925-26 he was aware of roughly contemporary developments in art in Europe, and post-cubist forms of geometric abstraction and decorative ideas from Art Nouveau made their way into his designs for landscape painting12.
Is it ironic that as one of the earliest South African artists to integrate European modernist trends in his work, Pierneef has been called "the foremost interpreter of the South African landscape"? So much so that, in her celebratory discussion of the Johannesburg Station panels, Rina de Villiers could claim:
Pierneef had so intensely made the South African landscape his own, had interpreted it in such a way, that South Africans learnt to see their country through his eyes. Just as certain parts of Provence are regarded as Cezanne's landscape, and the environs of Arles carry van Gogh's stamp, so we identify Pierneef with the Transvaal Bushveld12.Indeed, as one of South Africa's first international artists, Pierneef was preocupied with evoking the national spirit of the Afrikaner in his art. His benevolent-seeming cumulus masses, dramatic rock formations, diminutive placement of architecture, and pyramidal construction of space declare, not-so-subtly, the presence of the divine in the South African countryside. The artist's vision was not simply the sight of god in his creation. For Pierneef it was imperative, too, to promote the idea of manifest destiny. He was, "an earnest crusader for the cause of Afrikaner art and culture.14" And he declared, "You must travel with your own people on the oxwagon,15" at a time, after the Anglo-Boer War and before the establishment of the Apartheid regime, when like-minded intellectuals and artists were still endeavoring to create a sense of cultural unity and a political voting bloc, in opposition to British rule and against competition with African wage laborers for jobs in the cities16. This defensive form of cultural unity, often referred to as a laager mentality, was one based in a repressive Calvinist theology and a nationalist idea synonymous with religious righteousness17. In the words of Piet J. Meyer, a prominent leader in the nationalist movement, head of the Broederbond secret society, and chairman of SABC "The Afrikaner accepts his national task as a divine task, in which his individual life-task, and his personal service to God has been absorbed in a wider, organic context.18"
In Pierneef's painting the South African landscape is cast as God's land, and by extension the providence of His Chosen People, the Afrikaner volk. His view of Apies River, Pretoria, is one purged of any evidence of the Ndebele and other African people who were defeated by Boer commanodoes and scattered as labor onto white farms near Pretoria after 188319. Also erased from the picturesque landscape of rolling hills and bubbling stream is any hint of the city of Pretoria itself, especially the Union Buildings, which would have been an irksome reminder of British rule20. Pierneef's landscapes represent a form of idyl more extreme even than the utopic fantasies of some of his Afrikaner Nationalist colleagues. He grew up in Pretoria at the turn of the century, when it was still a small town. In his pictures of the place, it seems, he wished it would have stayed that way. His art blocked from view the urban industrial congestion, and the presence of gold and diamond mines. His view of the country was void of the Afrikaner's fears of a swart gevaar, of the impending danger of blacks swamping the cities-- an idea which was used to bring the Nationalists to political power in 194821. For Pierneef the landscape was frozen in a state of empty apartness, perpetually ready for white settlement, and timelessly open for the prospect of white prosperity22. His was a utopian fantasy of what the South African landscape never actually was, a big white lie of a rose-colored purist ideology of the land -- sparkling clean, but rotten at its core. Pierneef was not an iconoclast, he was a good old boy. Still, his paintings performed their own kind of symbolic rubbing out of the history of the land.
Barker, like Pierneef, grew up in Pretoria and his upbringing was also in a military family -- his father was a pilot -- and staunchly Afrikaner Nationalist. But he identified with a different generation of Afrikaner youth, many of whom wanted nothing to do with Apartheid and chose to live in the inner city, where the streets were dangerous and the art scene, and the party scene, was more multiracial than in the suburbs. Most white people fled the inner city of Johannesburg after the Pass Laws, designed to keep Africans out of the cities, were abolished in 1986. But a small number of intrepid artists of all races moved into downtown, which became a sort of "grey" area -- neither purely "black" nor "white" according to Apartheid urban areas restrictions. At the time he painted over the Pierneefs, Barker was living in the center of town, squatting in a gallery he had founded, jokingly called "Famous International Gallery". As if still piqued somewhat by the memory, Barker described his iconoclastic relationship to Pierneef's paintings to me:
My initial feeling was instinct: there were these paintings, and they represented [President] Paul Kruger, the [Voortrekker] Monument, the [train] stations, the air force -- it was like one melting pot of like this fucking Apartheid that I was against. There was a state of emergency in Johannesburg. There was chaos. . . . I was very interested in pop art. For me they were the first pop images, they were the [train] station panels, originally. So the third class citizen comes to work for the white guy. . . And then he gets these magnificent landscapes, that are overwhelming. And he's the worker. That can really fuck with your mind25.For the "black workers," where was there room to imagine themselves in the monumental and vacuous images of the land depicted at the Johannesburg Station?
Barker took offense at these "cleansed landscapes, uninhabited by people, least of all blacks.26" Asraf Jamal comments: "The land was never an Eden, never a site for pure contemplation, never a sphere which affirmed the perceiver's being in a manner which could be regarded as 'pure'. Rather, the South African landscape has always invoked anxiety and fear, has always been subject to the 'dreamwork' born of cultural and material domination. . . a boundless zone condemned to exploitation.27"
Barker comments that his Pierneef series, "dealt with breaking down the icons of the apartheid era.28" In retrospect, he chose Pierneef because,
His monumental landscapes represented the newfound land of the Afrikaner nation, which they believed was given to them by god in a covenant against the black people, which were heathen and barbarian in their view. They saw themselves not only as superior but as a "chosen people" in a "promised land". The irony of Pierneef paintings is that they are "landscapes" of the land taken from the native black people. The style of these monumental portrayals of the land enshrined a white supremacist- colonial view, which was used to consolidate the Afrikaner national identity.At the time he had claimed, succinctly:
As I understand it, Pierneef was a kind of propagandist for the white view of South Africa. He belonged to a ruling class and invented South Africa for that class. I try in my work to pull that vision apart by bringing in other possibilities30.
In his discussion of nudity in art, Freedberg notes that in the history of Christian censorship, a central motivation has been to keep the spiritual uncontaminated by the "fleshy", by the material sensual world. The divine and the everyday need to be kept clearly separate32. Where Pierneef's art enacts a similar kind of censorship, separating the image of the "divine land" from the people living within it, Barker slaps them back together roughly. He puts manifest destiny back into bed with the mine dumps and the mass graves. Barker's Pierneef's don't remove the hated symbols of the old order, they are kept around, roughed up a bit, and cast in a new mold -- or, should we say, the mold from which they were cast is what is revealed, and the mold is what we are left with in the end? Here destruction is in the service of re-creation, and in this case of a re-inclusion, by means of scratching-over, what is censored out iconographically, aesthetically, and ideologically from pictures of the South African countryside.
Within this context, Barker's painting imposed a very different geology on the South African landscape: he takes us down the mine shaft and shows who is getting shafted there. He pulls up Pierneef's dead craggy trees and spreads their rotting roots over the flat gound -- thus flattening Pierneef's (and the Apartheid ideologists') three-dimensional picture-perfect view of the place. Barker's iconoclasm enacts a return of the repressed. Pierneef's paintings, though calm on the surface, are, in Jamal's terms "anxious" -- and Barkers symbolic destruction of them placed all the censored anxiety out on their surface.
10 Wayne Barker, interview with the author, 7/1/02. Unless otherwise noted, all subsequent quotes by the artist are from this interview.
|censorship and iconoclasm -- unsettling monuments|
image breaking: wayne barker's pierneefs, 1989