The ‘Legends’ series were presented at the mid-career retrospective exhibition of Wayne Barker titled SUPER BORING at the SMAC Art Gallery, Stellenbosch (March-May 2010), at the Polokwane Art Museum (September-October 2010) and at the Standard Bank GAllery, Johannesburg (February-March 2011).  The catalogue SUPER BORING was published to this retrospective exhibition by SMAC Art Gallery.

“LEGENDS”, catalogue SUPER BORING, page 32 – 37 :

The ‘Legends’ series deals with individuals. Personally significant to the artist, they also resonate in the history of South Africa.

As ‘household names’ they have lost some of their individuality and have become ciphers for a passage in South Africa’s story that they influenced, precipitated or described. Nevertheless, behind the familiar face and the name attached to it lies an individual life, far richer, more complex and nuanced than the invariable one liner that it evokes. While Wayne Barker is undoubtedly referencing their contributions to our history, he also appears to be demanding that we look beyond their obvious achievements to the personality that produced them. In titling this series ‘Legends’ it seems that he is reminding us that a legend loses its grip on the reality that produced it by being told too many times and by having too much erased (or conveniently forgotten) that conflicts with the ‘official’ story being told.

For Barker the reason why they are remembered is the fact that they challenged the system in one way or another. This defiance, be it of the system or of the conditions they found themselves in, is what draws him to his subjects and underpinning each painting as a process of research into their lives. Each work is his personal take on their actions for change or reform. These are his legends and he has created a tableau in which their need to act, their refusal to accept injustice and their desire to better that which is around them are what engages him. When he speaks of his ‘legends’ he does so with genuine affection and admiration. I suspect he sees them as fellow-strugglers against injustice and this comradery evokes a playful familiarity which sees C.J. Langenhoven, author of Die Stem, facing-off against Enoch Sontonga, author of Nkosi Sikelel i’Africa, in Duel. The punning title has as much to do with them fighting it out, High Noon style, as it does to their dual role as authors of our current national anthem.

Accompanying each portrait is a small sculpture (commissioned from friend Richard Chauke and made to Barker’s design) which dialogues with the legend of the subject. In some cases this is playful, as when a robin is placed with Nelson Mandela, a pun on Robben Island (rather than a literally correct, seal, the Dutch word for which the island is named) but also, according to Barker as a way of respectfully humbling Madiba: the bird can always take flight. (The wooden base upon which the bird sits is in fact the Island). In other cases the sculpture is dramatic and powerful, such as a burning passbook for Walter Sisulu. A neon sign burns bright over all, a word that ties the two together, harmonising the composition and advertising what they stand for as much as resolving dualities in their nature.

Much of Barker’s work has dealt, in one way or another, with the subject of history, especially that of South Africa’s colonial and apartheid past. In ‘Legends’ this history is personalised through specific individuals who symbolise and embody something greater than their own role in that history. They are the accessible and well-known figureheads who represent many others, and the less familiar, who shared the same struggles, achievements or qualities. Barker’s legends are legendary for a reason – they are exceptional – but they also crystallise and concentrate tendencies latent in everyone and present and activated in many others. In this sense he democratises history even as he places one or another individual on a pedestal.

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