Known for depicting things as he sees them and often to the outrage of others, Anton Kannemeyer’s current show at Stevenson E is for Exhibition is no exception. The body of work continues his Alphabet of Democracy series, adding new socio-political syllabary commentary to recent events. Incorporating a range of formats of works including strip comics, large-scale portraits and hand-lettered text-based pieces, the show juxtaposes image and text; surface and metaphorical readings to present a sharp satirical view of the state of the nation. Brightly coloured portraits of political leaders hang beside muted text pieces sourced directly from news snippets. The contrast between the cheerful images and the candid text complicates and highlights absurdities and disparities between notions of ‘official’ readings. Issues around freedom of expression have been a longstanding theme in Anton’s work and feature prominently in this exhibition. His painting R is for Respect, which features a massive disembodied rendition of the president’s private parts above a group of toyi-toyiers, was made in response to Brett Murray’s work The Spear and continues the conversation around freedom of expression. Ironically, but not surprisingly, this single work has been the focus of the media’s coverage of this nuanced show. What this proves however, is what Anton’s work has been blatantly saying all along – that talking about South Africa – and race, sex, class and politics, is not simple and tidy. Rather than reducing life to a series of dichotomies, satire revels in messy complexity and contradictions.
In the past you created strip comics, but have in recent years moved to more single-frame images. What potentials and limitations do these different formats offer you and the kind of art you make?
I have actually exhibited single-frame artworks since the beginning of my art career – and I’m still making comics, but it’s true that I’m making much less comics than before. I think the main reason for exhibiting in art galleries and drawing fewer comics, is that comic drawing is a laborious process that does not really put food on the table, especially if you draw the kind of comics I do. I also think that the gallery exposure is very different to the printed format in the sense that you can work much more with size (and the impact of size) and a tactile quality in the artworks, which mostly get lost once printed. Print is also more narrative to me, the gallery focuses more on each artwork as an individual piece, although we still group and juxtapose works together. Single-frame works obviously also need to work conceptually and formally – a comic or narrative relies on a different set of criteria.
As someone who has been published in several forms, and who doesn’t limit oneself to a single genre or format, how do exhibitions relate to your work and ambitions?
I think most of the answer is in the previous answer I gave. I do not see myself really as working across different genres or formats – if you look at the history of art you’ll find that many famous artists did painting, sculpture, printmaking, drawing and even comics. Goya did a fantastic series of paintings where a Franciscan lay brother single handedly caught a notorious bandit. That is most certainly a comic. As far as exhibitions go I think it is a privilege to be able to exhibit – and one should make use of the chances as I do not think they may/will last forever.
In an interview you did several years ago you referenced a quote by Tony Hoagland that speaks to the messiness of engaging with the subject of race and the inherent loss of observer-immunity status that comes with this. Do you still feel like this sentiment holds true for yourself as an artist and the kind of work that you create?
Certainly. I think if you talk about race you get your hands dirty. If you don’t, and you are trying to be nice and politically correct and watchful of criticism of fellow (white) liberals, you often end up saying nothing. Or you make one of the worst offences as far as I’m concerned: being patronizing or condescending.
What are your thoughts on the giving and taking of offense? Is it valuable? Constructive? Limiting? Something that can be dismissed?
I think there is a place for everything. Being offensive isn’t the only way to make a statement. I’m just wired in a certain way where I look at certain things and often respond in a way where I offend “decent” people. Truth be told, I see myself as a fairly decent person. Satirical works often offend, maybe to make an impact. It draws attention and definitely requires a second reading. The obvious aspects in the work can sometimes be interpreted literally. I see this as a limited and shallow reading. Also, I think that my work is mostly read in the context of the gallery or “art world.” I do not publish my work in family magazines or newspapers. It’s easy to take something out of context and condemn it.
The media’s response to your current show E is for Exhibition has been primarily centered around one specific work. Are you surprised by this at all? Does it disappoint you when an entire body of work is reduced to a single point of engagement?
I’m not really surprised by this. But I’ve been making art for a long time now, and I cannot always tell what will upset people. I work continuously on several projects, and sometimes there is very little response. Other times there is an exaggerated response. It is disappointing when a body of work is reduced to a single argument, but as an artist I do not regard that as constructive criticism.
Satire, humour, and art more generally are arguably activities that seek to complicate, or at least to actively acknowledge complexity. The nature of interpretation and political response is necessarily reductive. How do you navigate the space between?
This is a good question. I just have to stick to my practice. It’s difficult when no one seems to understand satire anymore. In some ways the world has become very literal. Apparently even the Bible is interpreted far more literally in the last 100 years than before. Every Christian nowadays wants to prove that Jesus did in fact exist. A metaphoric interpretation of the Bible would be far more literary and instructive, I think. But this does not answer your question.
What role do you think art has to play in play in society?
There are many roles, I guess. And people should certainly feel free to choose who and what they like or dislike. My art is often iconoclastic in nature and that is often the kind of art I’m drawn to, but this is just a personal opinion.
There’s a contrast between the bright, ‘sunny’ portraits in E is for Exhibition and the hard-hitting text excerpts. Can you tell us more about this?
I like the text pieces. For the piece about corrective rape (S is for Shamefully South African) I had difficulty in solving it visually. As a white male I feel that it’s a difficult subject matter to depict visually. And Zanele Muholi has already done some terrific work on the subject from her perspective. I eventually felt that the only way I could deal with it would be to exclude the figurative element(s) and to try to be as unemotional as possible. But I also felt that it’s an absolute must for my alphabet-series. The others are less somber (they all have an element of comedy in them) but still punchy. The interesting thing for me as an artist is that all these letters are drawn by hand in pencil – visually I find them very stimulating and it’s best to see them in real life in the gallery, and not reproduced in a book.
There’s also a range of styles and formats of works in this show. Why is this?
This was a strategy from the outset with my alphabet-series: to be “democratic” with media, framing, styles etc. I’m also an eclectic artist: I often employ a style or media conceptually – in that respect I’m quite a formalist.
Your new book Pappa in Doubt launched with this exhibition and continues on from Pappa in Afrika. What stylistic and conceptual paradigms do Tintin and other Herge characters offer you?
I would say that the Tintin-style was very much parody, mainly aimed at the original Tintin in the Congo. Pappa in Africa was a direct parody, whereas the new book continues from there, but also includes older political comics, much of them also influenced by the Tintin-style (or rather the “Ligne Claire” or clear line style). Much of the work (in both my books) is an attack on Herge’s obvious racism. Tintin in the Congo is still available in bookshops, and as this book is aimed at children (more so than the later Tintins) it is to my mind especially problematic. Apart from that, I have huge admiration for Herge’s later work. A huge influence on me.
While you use stereotypes as a trope in your work, do you ever feel like people stereotype you?
I’m not sure that they stereotype me, but they certainly like to box me in. Critics and journalists always want to know what they deal with and quickly label the artist as this or that. Is he a racist? I’ve been labeled many things before: misogynist, pornographer, pop artist, iconoclast, subversive kakstoker, etc.
E is for Exhibition is on at Stevenson in Joburg until 13 November 2015.