Wayne Barker Interview

This interview was published in Art South Africa Volume 8 Issue 1 2010

Super Boring

Wayne Barker is putting on a show of new work at SMAC in Stellenbosch called Super Boring. Accompanying the show is a 25-year retrospective catalogue of his work.

RS: Where did the title Super Boring come from?

WB:  The idea came in Venice, when a very famous German artist, Wolfgang Tillmans, was pushing into the bar in front of me. I said, “Hey what you doing?” He said, “Fuck you. You are boring.” I said,  “Fuck you. You are super boring.” When he opened his wallet there were just loads and loads of dollars.  Eventually, virtually the whole bar was screaming at this guy, “Super boring, super boring.” And that’s how the title came about.

From that I’m doing pastiches of some the paintings that have sold for the highest prices in South Africa, like Maggie Laubscher , Irma Stern and Pierneef. They are painted like a colour blind person would see and have neons on them saying super boring.

Friends

Part of Barker’s new work is a series called Legends. They are digital paintings silkscreened onto canvas. They pay homage to people who have changed the culture of the country from artists to musicians and a few politicians. One of the Legends is Jackson Hlungwani who recently passed away.

RS: What was your relationship with Jackson Hlungwani?

WB: I met him in 1995, when he was working at the Ricky Burnett Gallery. On first meeting him, I thought, “Look at this guy who makes beautiful carvings. Am I going to interface with him on any level?” He is much older and has this whole Shaman vibe. But drinking with him every evening after working, I realised he was quite a phenomenal guy. Then visiting him, years later, I saw how in fact the South African arts and culture, and the dealers and international collectors totally exploited this man. There is no sensitivity or empathy or understanding as to how to nurture creative people who represent the country they live in.  It’s absolutely unforgiveable.

Barker also had a friendship with the dynamic artist Braam Kruger (aka Kitchenboy).

WB: He was such an exceptional painter he would never paint an Omo box, he was more into the Afrikaans psyche and of breaking down barriers, in terms of Afrikaans ways of seeing culture. I think he did a great job of it.

RS: Was your friendship with him important to your work?

WB: It definitely was. As a young artist, meeting this guy, thinking, because I love painting, “How do these people eventually get there?” In fact he taught me a lot of techniques, in portraiture, just basic techniques, which he had studied. The techniques of Goya and Rembrandt, he passed them on to me. He was very generous like that.

RS: How did you meet him?

WB: I opened a nightclub and he had a studio there at Gallant House.

FIG

In the 80’s and early 90’s Barker opened a nightclub and studios at Gallant House. Later he opened an influential experimental gallery called Fig or Famous International Gallery, which showed many of the important South African artists of the 90’s.

RS: Tell me about your motivation in for starting the Fig Gallery in ‘89?

WB: There was the Market Theatre Gallery run by Wolf Weinek and Paul Stopforth and that was the only place for people who didn’t want to support the so-called capitalist Linda Goodman at that time. Or she wouldn’t have the people. Although I’m sure they eventually did end up there.

Then I started a nightclub in 1984 with Robert Weinek, where we had artist’s studios. I still don’t know how we afforded it, I think the rent was R1000. In 1984 that’s a lot of money. But we were the first whiteys to have a full-on shebeen, every night 12-piece jazz bands, three a night. But then that became too big and too scary for us.  We would walk in the next morning and there would be 50 rastas crawling from under the stage. It was just too chaotic there and it wasn’t really about art. I thought, “Fuck it, I want to make a gallery.” We were just making our own place to exhibit.. We did some interesting things. And also it was all brand-new, that stuff. We said, “We want installation.” There was a cultural boycott, but we sort of knew what was happening in the rest of the world and we wanted to be a part of it, like anyone does. We sold some work to the museum, which was quite unusual, but otherwise it wasn’t really sales. Then it had a few comeback visits, it would close down and then open up again a year or two later with more enthusiasm. It was interesting for that time in Joburg, because it was an alternative space.

Pierneef

A recurring image in Barker’s work are copies and pastiches of Pierneef’s landscape paintings.

WB: I was angry about the landscape, and did a whole lot of research on Pierneef and his vibe.

RS: Why Pierneef? Surely there were other landscape painters that achieved something similar.

WB: Firstly they were easy to copy, because of their Tintin comic vibe. I saw him as the first South African Pop Artist. Imagine going to the railway station, where there were these massive paintings. I was brought up with all this iconography. This was a target I could attack. He was employed to paint this beautiful landscape to get the Broederbond and to get the whole, Afrikaans nationalist thing to fight against the English, and to say who they are. Which in a way is quite charming in retrospect, but at the time of apartheid I was fucking furious.

RS: Isn’t it as insidious now?

WB:  In a way. Just the idea that through art and culture they could make this nationalism. Which is completely fucked up anyway. So obviously I’d put targets and stuff on. Now in the Legends Series, I still often use Pierneef.

RS: How do the Pierneef’s relate in this new work. I understand in the old work, there was a sense of anger against nationalism. How does it tie in with the heroes theme?

WB: The way that I’ve seen it, is when you are in the Karoo or Cape Town and suddenly you look at this shit and you’re like, “Fuck it! It is very Pierneef-esque.”

RS: Do you think he has come to define the landscape after all?

WB: No. Yes, Probably he did. The way I’m using it now, it’s a readymade, a copy of a copy of the landscape.

RS: In John Peffers recent book, Art and the End of Apartheid, he talks quite extensively about the Pierneef painting that you smashed.

WB: It was basically the first performance I did. It was a beautiful copy of Pierneef’s ‘Apies River’. I befriended a real workers shebeen, a totally low bottom of the range shebeen and I decided to do the performance in there. I was friends with the owner and some of the locals but sometimes it can become quite tricky, because, here is this whitey who could afford a little bit more beer than the locals. At that time maybe not so much more. And it was often quite scary. In the performance on video, it was quite interesting to literally absolutely destroy that icon.

RS: Why did you choose that particular shebeen to do it.

WB: It was over the road from me and it was where I used to hang out and drink and they always asked what I did. Often I’d get workers and stuff to visit my studio. And a good test for me was if they liked the paintings. So the shebeen seemed a good place to destroy it. The place was called Avanganye, which means lets be friends. I was trying to be friends with the nation by destroying the old icons.

RS: How did the people react?

WB: I think they were horrified. It really was well painted, I really studied Pierneef and his painting techniques. And suddenly red enamel filled the whole surface area. And they said this guy must be crazy.

RS: Have you seen that work by Avant Car Guard where they dance on Pierneef’s grave?

WB:  I really like what they’re doing. At one point you think it’s a cheap trick and its not going to have sustenance. I think it is already gaining a good momentum. Because it is very easy to attack targets, but difficult to sustain it and keep it interesting

RS: Do you think you have managed to sustain attacking targets?

WB: Maybe now I am becoming soft. Fucking celebrating Ingrid Jonker and JM Coetzee [In his Legend series of paintings].

RS: Do you feel softer?

WB: Not really. I think art should always be challenging and thought provoking. That’s what makes good art. The only way it works is if doesn’t come from a thing where I want to go and piss on somebody. If it comes from a genuine feeling.

RS: So you’re less angry now?

WB: It’s a different anger. The society and the environment that I came from, informed my life. Informs my life. And being brought up in all that apartheid shit. I mean its quite boring, its fucking boring, but it was quite heavy. All my rebellious, anarchic actions were obviously informed by that. I didn’t want to be controversial. But there were icons and shit to be broken down. The reputation  of me being a rabble rouser, well I guess sometimes I am. It was about breaking down systems. I suppose art was a release.

In a way there is a sort of a cynicism. I was thrilled when Mandela was released. Now maybe I’m not so thrilled about so many things.

BAD BOY

Barker has a reputation for being the bad boy. Legends of his exploits, from being thrown out of Michaelis School of Fine Art, to drunken brawls abound.

WB: In fact, I wasn’t asked to leave Michaelis. What happened was Hayden Proud took History of Art. I wrote an essay on Picasso, and I’d really studied and knew what was going on. But I think I am dyslexic so the spelling looked like a Jackson Pollock. And he said, “Dear Mr Wayne Barker,” in red. “This is not a nursery school.” So I failed and my parents obviously didn’t like the fact that I was studying art. Because it’s like you’re a communist. And then I’d failed the second year and they wanted me to go to the army to get discipline and be this monster. I’ve only just worked this out with Andrew [Lamprecht] and I’ve since found out from my mother.  It wasn’t actually Neville Dubow who kicked me out, it was my parents who said, “Now get discipline.” So, in fact I’ll have to take that back. I was fucked for twenty years. I was paranoid about Michaelis. Like, “Fuck it these guys abandoned me.” And there I was holding the flag of freedom. It took Andrew to say, “They wouldn’t have said that. Go and do a little research on this. “

RS: So your own legends have grown up bigger than you expected? That’s a story that is quite well known, but it isn’t true

WB: Ja. I’m quite an innocent guy, actually. And I actually am quite disciplined, I suppose, in making art.

RS: Has the bad boy image become an important part of the work?

WB: The most important thing is to be in the studio really. I mean for years I didn’t sell work. To this day I don’t know how I paid my rent. I have always maintained a studio even if it was a hovel in someone’s garage. Even if it was without a home, sleeping on people’s couches. So the bad boy image I think people like talking about it. It’s the media. They talk. Often I meet people and they come to the studio and they’re quite amazed at how much work gets produced by this so-called drunk. And more and more I want to be in the studio. I mean it is fun going out and getting trashed but it is a lot of fun making the work.

The bad boy image is never going to go away, if I suddenly stop drinking and become a reborn young Hindu boy that reputation will be there anyway. Often in the 80’s I’d go to openings at the Goodman and I’d take off my clothes and rugby tackle the artists. I’d say to Goodman, “There’s a revolution going on and why are you showing such shit art.” It came out of a Pretoria hooliganism and frustration with the world. I still cause shit, but if I feel its necessary. I was in Venice and I did a thing and I would have liked it to get more publicity.

RS: The ‘whose world is it’ thing? [During Venice 2009 Wayne snuck a text piece into the main show Making Worlds, questioning the theme]

WB: Yes. It’s a bit more considered than going to the curator drunk in the hotel and telling him he’s a fucking asshole. Which I think I probably did. But it is a little bit better. I should have informed the media about that work.

Those YBA people, they get so much media attention. That’s why I think it is quite tricky to base your whole character on that basis here. The media there loves it. They’ve been at it for years. Tracey Emin walks down the street and she gets too fucked up at some place and they write about it. Here people are still very nervous of artists here. They don’t really celebrate our work.

About The Army

One of Barker’s famous exploits was getting removed from the army, but the army has also played an important role in his work.

WB: I made this work called Hope. I think I made it in ‘95, and Mandela had been released. Then it was invited to be on the Colours exhibition. I thought, “Hell, I’m going to do a Dada performance here.” So I wore an old South African T-shirt with ANC written on it backwards and of course, I’m going to meet President Mandela. He saw the work, and I was like, “Mr President, it’s about hope and there you are, and I painted you into the story and I didn’t even know you were going to be opening the show.” And then he signed it.  All these painting were based on the initiation ceremonies of the Xhosa people, when they go into manhood. They throw all their old stuff away and they burn it. And they get new Western clothes. A little suit and a little hat. My army jacket is on the painting. I got out of the army in like 14 days pretending to be a mad person.

RS: Was not going to the army an initiation for you?

WB:  It was my mother’s birthday last night. So obviously there was family and we were all talking about the past.  Fuck it, we were brought up in a military camp, really. I was almost brought up in a super right wing environment. Of course, when I didn’t do the army, I let down the whole patriarchal male fucking story in my family. They were devastated. It was worse than being bust for marijuana when I was fourteen. You’ve betrayed the entire white race.

RS: Why didn’t you want to be in the army?

WB: At that point there was a state of emergency.

RS: You were aware?

WB: In fact I became aware when I was sixteen, listening to Bob Marley and stuff.  My brother in fact did the army twice. He did the army, then the airforce and then became a pilot.  So he did my service.

On 25 Years

WB: I’ve never worked with a gallery. Often because people were quite nervous of the professional relationship, in terms of that bad boy guy. And also because I wasn’t really that interested. I could definitely not be told what to do. You can only have an exhibition after every two years? I’d turn into a complete alcoholic. I like working.

I met Baylon [Sundry]. It was the first Joburg Art Fair. Which I think is a really good thing. And his father saw portraits of mine and liked them. And phoned me.

I just jokingly said to Baylon, find me a studio with a kitchen and a bed and a place to work for two months I’m coming to Cape Town. And I’m still here. And then our relationship has grown and we did Venice together and we’re going to China.

RS: Baylon is very supportive of artists. He has his head screwed on right.

WB: He’s very interested in culture and art but it’s like a passion for him. I’m sure for Stevenson and Goodman it is as well. The relationship I am having with him is how I imagine a lot of galleries in New York and Europe treat their artists. If I need some canvasses they’ll be there. Obviously it comes off. There’s no free lunch. But I’ve been around for a while and it is quite reassuring to have a bit of back-up, even if it is out in Stellenbosch. It’s a year and four months down the line and already they’re publishing a 25 year catalogue of my work.

RS: What’s it like looking back over 25 years?

WB: I’m not that old, I still feel young. To be honest when I first arrived in Cape Town and going to the Kimberley Hotel, I thought I actually feel a little bit old. Only because there is a whole new way of making art. As an artist I always think you must try and keep up with shit. Looking back, I don’t know how I survived without selling work. But I must have.

RS: Is there a continuity, a thread that links your production over the 25 years?

WB: I’ve been incredibly interested in pop art. But if I were to define what I do now, and what I did then, it is using the popular and the vernacular, the everyday, but in an expressive way. I think it has a lot more thought and meaning than say just pop art. So I think it’s a merging between this neo-expressionism and pop images of South African culture.