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Art and Politics

Art and Politics

by Sean O'Toole / 16.10.2009

You know that old chestnut about people saying the darnedest things? Well, it’s true, they do. Take the guy in the tan fedora sitting on the lip of a bookshelf at the launch of Sue Williamson’s new book, South African Art Now, at Melville’s Boekehuis last Saturday. I dunno who he was. Let’s just call him Steve, as in Steve Irwin, you know, the crocodile hunter.

It started like this. Sue gave a brief introduction to her book, a sexy tome commissioned by a New York publishing house and covering over four decades of local art making. Sitting next to Sue was art historian Thembinkosi Goniwe; Sue had invited Thembinkosi to respond to her introduction and share any thoughts he might have on her new book, which you’ll recognise at Exclusive Books by the colourful if kitschy portrait of a young woman by expatriate painter Mustafa Maluka.

Turns out Thembinkosi had many thoughts to share. One in particular intrigued. He said it was perhaps time-out now for commentators to always and singularly interpret this country’s art through the prism of our beleaguered history. Soon afterwards it was question and answer time. Steve stuck up his clawed paw high into the air. He wanted to say something, not ask a question, just say something. (Why is it that at book launches and similar such public talks, people interpret question time as microphone time. Life isn’t 702, people! We don’t care about your confused ramblings, really. If you don’t have a question, zip it!)

“We have a fine tradition of satirical cartoons,” ventured Steve from his seated position. Aye to that, I thought. But then the game ranger in a hat started talking about “failed politics” and “national breakdown”. From there it was a quick step and jump to the retreat of “high art” from contemporary politics. Like Steve, I dunno when last you visited a local gallery. Not all that much has changed, dude, especially since the days you wore a kikoi and arrived late at zoology lectures.

Like did you see Stuart Bird’s Master show at Michaelis last year? Besides his four Zuma Biscuits, each embossed (Iced Zoo-style) with an icon reflecting moments in our main man’s peculiar political biography, there was also a thicket of knobkerries that had a distinctly phallic look. The latter work was titled Traditional Weapons.

Okay, so you missed that one. No sweat. How about Brett Murray’s exhibition at the start of this year, Crocodile Tears? You know, the one in which he showed a portrait of Robert Mugabe flanked by the quote, “I am an African too”. You missed that. Like fuck, Steve, you can’t be doing buffalo sterilisation all year round. What about Anton Kannemeyer’s show Fear of a Black Planet? Now that I come to think about it, Steve, the lanky bald painter’s show contained a work that reminds me of you. “I love the white middle class, with their values and everything,” says a black man dressed in colonial-era hunting gear and carrying a rifle to his companion as they stroll through a neat suburb.

Missed that one too. No doubt then you also missed Kudzanai Chiurai’s show. Perhaps his paintings don’t deserve much of a pause but his political graphics and photos of a pimped-out cabinet officials were oodles of fun. Oh, your Land Rover broke down. Ag shame. Listen Steve, here’s some advice. Get off your arse and go to a gallery….

Art and Politics_Anton Karstel_Die Rapportryers

And just so you don’t have any excuses, punch in De Wet Centre or Church Street or SMAC Gallery, whatever it takes to get your Garmin to guide you to Stellenbosch. Dealer Baylon Sandri has put on a timely retrospective of mostly paintings and some photographs that chart the stellar career of the expressionist painter cum conceptual prankster, Anton Karstel. Never heard of him? He lives in Betty’s Bay. He used to live in Pretoria. His paintings are about rapportryers and dead old white men with surnames like Verwoerd and Botha and Vorster. They possess an eerie poetry. I suppose they’re lank political too. You tell me, Steve?

Art and Politics_Anton Karstel_PW Botha

1 – Anton Kannemeyer, ‘I love the white middle class …’, 2008, acrylic on canvas, 120 x 120cm
2 – Anton Karstel, Die Rapportryers ry Tzaneen binne deur Œn ereweg van Voortrekkerseuns en ­dogters, 2008, oil on canvas, 110 x 150cm
3 – Anton Karstel, Pieter Willem Botha (Ou Presidente Reeks), 2008, oil on canvas, 70 x 50cm

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  1. Phalafala says:

    “Like fuck, Steve, you can’t be doing buffalo sterilisation all year round.”

    Classic O’Toole!

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  2. Jason says:

    Damn, I’ve never heard of Anton Karstel, but at least i don’t drive a Land Rover.
    Those paintings are epic. Nice one.

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  3. carmen electro says:

    Very much appreciated article! Sitting here in Europe, i get very little news on the development of ZA’s art circuit. Also wonderful to see political art that doesn’t neglect aesthetic value and combines humour with a message…South Africans have a knack for that. Thanks!

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  4. peter pan says:

    That guy, the guy with the microphone, he also did a funny thign with his finger. It went round and round. Then a caravan came off stage, but it was only a hypnotisation, and I went with the caravan through the back of the boekehuis, and ever since then I don’t know where I am.

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  5. Anonymous says:

    astute and spot on the money

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