In 1986 Barker had made his commercial art debut on the experimental wall at The Market Galleries (a new artist who painted on glass made a small notice in Johannesburg's daily newspaper The Star). Showing in the main space were friends up from Cape Town - including Barend de Wet and Kevin Brand. With Fig these artists and their Johannesburg contemporaries had a free space in which to test new work on their peers and on the arts press, often seen at openings looking somewhat beleaguered by having had to drive into the downtown badlands on a Sunday night. But no matter how vinegary the boxed wine, nor how sour the press, Fig would come to be regarded as a vital stop-over on the way to the mainstream success achieved by many who exhibited there. William Kentridge, Robert Hodgins, Joachim Sch¨nfeldt, Neil Goedhals, Kate Gottgens, Lisa Brice, Kendell Geers, Steven Cohen et al all stopped over at Fig on their diverse paths to local and international recognition.

A black South African art scene never happened at Fig - not for lack of trying, but because it would take some years for a mainstream system for black artists to emerge from a painfully segregated society. When it did it would settle at the Market precinct and then at the revamped Goodman.

Barker still recalls every blurry detail of the opening show at Fig: "The Cape Town crowd came up and we did our first show, Urban Melodrama. We called ourselves The Famous Five. We covered each painting in newspaper and we got the Prince of Swaziland to open the show. He used to walk around town in heels with a cigar mic shouting into a megaphone - wearing an afro and a kilt... "

It was scenes like this, coupled with the arrival of a new breed of art intellectual from the more liberal universities, that would, by the early 90s, prompt much press speculation about the emergence of "an authentic Johannesburg avant-garde". For most, though, the label would seem frivolous in the face of an unprecedented national State of Emergency facing the country.

The Famous Five do Downtown

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