|"There's a strong flying story going down," says Wayne Barker of his family history. "Particularly on my father's side. Before me there were three generations of fighter pilots, air force pilots, military men... "|
A cursory glance around the artist's Johannesburg studio - a big old charmed space with arches and badwiring that used to be a hip urban restaurant - and it seems that the family flying heritage stops here. It's as hard to imagine Barker in uniform with a two-car family as it is to imagine him abstaining for any length of time from parties that begin at dusk and career into dawn.
Barker breaks off his sentence to answer his cell phone. It's Vienna on the line, and he is invited to open a show of student work there later in the week. But he's flustered by the idea of another financially thin stint in Europe when he should be home working on his retrospective. He sweetly but firmly declines.
As a key member of the generation of white South African artists who assailed the racist ideologies of thecountry's contemporary history, Barker has been part of the first wave of local producers to be offered air tickets and significant international options. In the process of travelling, his work has been increasingly marked by colonial histories and pop culture signposts beyond his own country's often violently fractured borders: spice winds and trade routes, exploration and invasion, the traumatic semiotics of cultures meshing. In the back half of Barker's portfolio, birds, butterflies and aeroplanes suggest that there's astrong flying story going down here after all.
When he talks about growing up in the dire political and cultural conservatism of late-70s Pretoria, it's clear that flight then was much more about fleeing than flying. As a teenager, he would run away from home to become a wood carver at the coast. And as a conscript in the South African Defence Force, he lost notime in fleeing the institution that had been a second home to three generationsof Barker men.
Coupled with the contradictions of a country where freedom was a highly relative term, his family's nationalist politics and patriarchal values created a schism that Barker would compulsively concentrate on straddling in his artistic work. Writing about the paintings on Images on Metal, Barker's debut solo show in 1989, Weekly Mail critic Ivor Powell put it this way: "It's as though [in Barker's work] meaning is the point where the lies of one's childhood meet the realities of the present, not a fixed point but an intersection." Shaped by those schisms, Barker would later emerge in the national press as a prankster and cultural agitator, in one instance assuming a black identity for the purposes of entering a national drawing competition. Still later, he would devise a performance piece that had him covered in brown chocolate and playing the piano naked: a bittersweet brown-white man with something to say about the stages of personalinitiation, the commerce of cultures, and the agony of political entropy.
"In a way it's a bit like having two identities," he says today. "But one was an identity I had to reject, which was based on my entire education as a white South African male."
Wayne Barker: Artist's Monograph