|After the considerable amount of unpublished material I have read about Wayne Barker's work, I find it somewhat strange that the artist should ask me to contribute to this publication. After all, it was I who accused him during the last Standard Bank national drawing competition, over a decade ago, of "playing silly games" and of "shameless self-promotion (See 'Art expert slams Barker's ethnic bias allegations')." The outcome of this exchange was, for some, and undoubtedly Barker, that areversal had taken place. I had become the mouthpiece representing an authority "dominated by patronising white experts." Long before the change to a democratic government a new cultural political correctness had arrived. The days of judging art, especially judging art for no remuneration, were nearing the end. The question of who was capable of judging whom, who represented who, and who was acceptable to all parties made the task unenviable and became a political minefield. Wayne Barker has always had problems with authority both at the level of the individual and that of a system. In fact any young artist who does not possess a healthy degree of irreverence against previous art systems has some causefor concern. Brancusi believed this of Rodin at the beginning of the twentieth century, and contemporaryBritish sculptors still insist that every generation should commit patricide of their previous masters. After Henry Moore, their sentiments are comprehensible.|
In South Africa, the tradition of artists waitinginterminably for the nod from a commercial gallery or museum curator to exhibit their work is still in existence. But an alternative group of artists began to question thetraditions of this system more than ten years ago. Wayne Barker was certainly one of them. Audacious, truculent, witty, highly critical and iconoclastic, the works he produced and the alternative venues that he found and encouraged artists to use, posed a genuine alternative to the existing system. Most artists felt more comfortable in the somewhat confined area of only making art works. The possibility of an artist challenging the domain of museum curator and orchestrating contentious exhibitions with work from different and sometimes jumbled perspectives was initiated and encouraged by Barker. Though much of the work was not purchased that was by no means an indication of the quality of the shows. The South African art public had generally been used to logical and sequential exhibitions which dealt with single themes and comprehensible parameters. For artists to curate cutting-edge exhibitions without the experience and qualifications of seasoned museologists was both foreign and risque. This was one important contribution that should not be underestimated when summing up this artist's creative output. It requires as much ingenuity as the making of an artwork itself.
Superficially, Barker's work often possesses a cavalier quality and his personality appears to be that of a cultural cowboy reminiscent of the young Robert Rauschenburg of the mid 1950s in North America. The cultivating of a persona also seems for some artists to be an inextricable part of the making process. One has only to consider the cultivated egos of two titans of the twentieth century, Duchamp and Warhol, to recognise this trend. Underlying this outer appearance, Barker is an extremely serious artist, whose concerns deal with the human condition, a condition far more about tragedy than comedy, and of loss, confrontation, vulnerability and the insecurities of change. Dealing with these potent issues is not foreign to many South African writers, playwrites, and movie makers, but to be an artist there is the language of materiality with which one has to contend. In all Barker's works, whether they are paintings, installations, assemblages or objects, there remains an underlying aesthetic, which is the understanding of how to "put things together" and how to incorporate "stuff," in a way that only experienced artists succeed in doing. The materials he uses may not necessarily be traditional (after a century of using found objects nothing can really be regarded as sacred), but the manner in which he allows objects and surfaces to coexist, and how new meaning is invented and evoked, is part of his unique visual alphabet and narrative. I have selected three of the many works that he has produced.
Much of Barker's works reflects the complexity and diverse values of many cultures in one country. It is thiscomplexity, the multi dimension of different worlds with different voices which he manages to sew into his works. The creative space he has forged appears to have been germinated in his challenging and questioning of established structures from an early age. The journey does not make for easy living but also does not suffer from the taboo of talking about "the other." Nor is his work regurgitated iconology.
During the South Africa of the 1980s, the cultural boycott had some positive effects on the creative output of many artists in the country. As the groundswell of social and political resistance increased, so too arose a questioning of rigid cultural authority and fearsome political repression. Out of this crucible, Barker's career began. Inevitably this cultural isolation could not sustain itself and the need for artists to experience and exhibit abroad has been enriching for both them and for this country's art. To become part of the world there are certain systems which the art world requires. I refer to the quality of publications and theproliferation of the written word which automatically internationalises the art. South Africa has, in my opinion,several artists of unquestionable merit who have the ability to take their place on the international exhibition arena. At present there is a shrinking support for all the arts which is a matter of grave concern and in the end it will be left to the ingenuity of the individual to survive both in this country and abroad.
I have willingly contributed to this publication because I believe this artist has a proven track record which warrants the kind of exposure that he deserves. South Africa has ever been a boring country and the unique and often traumatised dynamism which acts as a catalyst to unleash the creative energy of certain makers is missing in secure environments. So much of first world art has had the visual and conceptual corners sanded off it. Although some of Barker's works could well do with editing, his energy and iconoclasm has produced art which at best is raw, maverick, beautiful, tragic and humorous. The all South African boy he is not, a good artist he undoubtedly is.
Wayne Barker: Artist's Monograph