When a lecturer at Michaelis told Barker that what he really needed was to go to the army,learn some discipline and then go back and paint, he obviously never knew his student. Or perhapsknew him all too well. When Barker returned from Cape Town at the end of 1983 having failed art history, his father insisted that he would do his bit for the country.

Barker ignored the family pressure and spent that Christmas in Johannesburg. The decision would shift hiscontext and redefine the parameters of his work, largely due to the influence of two people working there at the time. In Cape Town he had met a young actress and started helping her and a friend construct the sets for their plays.

The actress was Megan Kruskul, and her friend was Chris Pretorius. Before leaving the country to pursue international opportunities, Pretorius and Kruskul would come as close as anyone ever has to beingunderground stars in Johannesburg. Working with them, Barker acquired skills that would later add weight and conviction to his military performance repertoire.

When critic Brenda Atkinson today writes about the "ravishing aesthetic impact" of Barker's work, and of howhe is able to turn "politics into beauty", the artist should probably, however briefly, tip his hat in the direction ofSouth Africa's alternative theatre scene. Pretorius, a writer and designer, would almost certainly have instilled in Barker a sense of textured space and odd lighting. Kruskul, with whom Barker hadbecome involved, would act in plays with names like Weird Sex in Maputo. She was also known to chant sick ditties and spit political outrage at the singer of a seminal punkish agit-rock band called Koos. Of the authors she got Barker to read, he would say in the Vryeweekblad: "In the army I was three people - Umberto Eco, Carl Jung and Joseph Heller."

Early in 1984, Barker's call-up papers arrived at his parents' home. He and Kruskul were devastated, but she and his mother eventually dropped him off at the military base in Voortrekkerhoogte, Pretoria.

Barker was stunned. "I took one look and decided no way, not interested."

Although the End Conscription Campaign had begun to gather momentum, white boys who refused to march to the apartheid tune for two years and return for camps for years thereafter essentially had two options: to go to the army or go to jail. Conscientious objectors could be - and were - arrested and imprisoned for up to five years. Barker's best option was to have himself classified unsuitable for service. With a renewed recklessness and a grand concentration of energy, he set to work. It took him about two weeks.

"What happened was that in the army I met Jeremy Nathan [later a leading independent film producer], a confused theologian and a poet who'd been studying for nine years. We were in different barracks, but somehow we met and we'd strategise on the parade ground and we'd swap notes. We refused to carry rifles and understood how we were being indoctrinated."

In those days the army was partly an extension of the white education system: on any given Friday afternoon you could see teen troopies strut their stuff in polished boots on well-watered school fields across the country. Because Barker had kicked a soccer ball deftly, in the army he ended up in the sport bungalow.

"I was with all these fucking massive ous built like shithouses. And there I was going into passive resistance mode, pretending to be a bit mad."

Barker's informal education kicked in: his desperate, off-the-cuff fusion of psychoanalysis and theatre had him marching like Charlie Chaplin, as well as bonding "to get to the Corporal to get to the Sergeant to get to the Lieutenant to get to the Captain to get out."

He was duly released. Temporarily disowned by his family, he moved to Johannesburg and started painting.

Fourteen Days in Hell

Wayne Barker: Artist's Monograph
Vienna Calling
60's Suburbia
Johnny Rottenism
Anyone for Tennis?
Fourteen Days in Hell
The Bad Art Attacks
The Famous Five do Downtown
Fragments of a Murder
Have you Hugged a Fascist Today?
Landscape with Target
Blood Money
Le Monde a L'envers
Bigotry on a Stick
The Heart of Neon
Divorce in Paradise
The South African Thing
Storming the Ramparts
The Wax Hand
A Love Story
Frankfurt in Latex
The Talking Curio
Back to Basics
Dirty Laundry
A New Kind of Freedom
Photo Credits & Works