Wayne Barker

Wilhem van Rensburg, Art on Paper Gallery, Johannesburg

Wayne Barker is a latter day Guy Debord, a belated artist who would have fitted in perfectly with Debord’s coterie of Situationist International artists. Such artists are ‘psychogeographers’, exploring and reporting on psychogeographical phenomena, or on the specific effects the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, have on the emotions and behaviour of individuals . Their chief means of psycogeographical investigation are the strategies of dérive and détournement, the former being defined as drifting and deliberately trying to lose oneself in the city, a feat early and admirably achieved in Barker’s 1980s Pretoria map works, and also, admirably, and ironically, in ‘loosing’ himself in his South African National Defense Force stint. The latter, détournement, is defined as the transformation of both everyday ephemera, such as advertising slogans and comic strips, and significant cultural products, such as old master painters. Barker deconstructs typical Pierneef landscapes, using them as ‘wallpaper’ for his own exploration of place. Barker is a veritable psychogeographer of the South African landscape.

For these ‘geographers’ détournement is “a method of propaganda, a method which testifies to the wearing out and loss of importance of these [old cultural] spheres.”  Essentially, it is a form of redistribution of culture. Détournement could, however, also be described as ‘creative plagiarism’. According to Lautréamont, however, “plagiarism is necessary. It is implied in the idea of progress. It clasps an author’s sentence tight, uses his expressions, eliminates a false idea, and replaces it with the right idea.” Many precursors of the Situationist International can thus be identified such as the Dadists, the Surrealists and the Lettrists.

Wayne Barker’s psychgeographical strategies have evolved dramatically over his prodigious artistic career. He no longer loses himself in and through his art. He has found a place in the South African art world. He redistributes culture in a unique way. “Everybody wants to find their place in the world” according to Tacita Dean and Jeremy Millar.  But where is it and what is it? How does one recognize place as important and not merely empty space? What makes one place special and another not? In a world where people continuously fight over land, where land is readily and sometimes violently redistributed, where some spaces are safe and others not, place is a living reality that can cause conflict or bind people together. In Barker’s art he is quite explicit: the words, ‘worlds apart’ echo through many of his landscapes.

Barker’s art stands midst in the contemporary art world and its endeavor to reinvent place: Dean and Millar’s book explores exactly that: they show that “some artist find inspiration in the heterogeneity of the crowded city street, while others celebrate the wilds of nature as a counter to urban life. Some present imagined or fantastic worlds of their own invention, or explore the way place is often a creation of the mind. Others investigate the deep marks that myth and history can leave on the land, or consider how place can be used as a form of political control. Territorial divisions demarcating one place from another, often with terrible consequences, are the chosen subject-matter of many artists; others prefer to look at itinerant wanderers with no claims on the earth, or to focus on anonymous non-places that lack any real identity of their own.”  Barker stakes his claim in this landscape of landscapes unequivocally: “I am interested in how the media, through popular images, inform, confuse and rape the African continent. For the past two decades, since 1987, I have also been dealing with land, which is quite trendy now. My approach has been to deconstruct the icons of South African painting, particularly works by Pierneef.”

Barker’s art is as much the deconstruction, the ‘wearing out’ of obsolete cultural icons, as it is about the reconstruction, the restitution of the landscape. He was, however, overlooked for many prestigious exhibitions dealing with issues of land and place, notably, Panoramas of passage: changing landscapes of South Africa that toured the US in 1995. His work is also often omitted from political redress in perfunctory exhibitions hailing the South African ‘decade of democracy’  or from the faddish quest for a new South African identity. Wayne Barker is, however, not a marginalized artist, working in the margins: he has made his mark, quite literally, on Pierneef prints, and on the South African art scene, as well as the international art circuit, having exhibited his world map installation of army uniforms and beer bottles, entitled The World is Flat at the Trade Routes:History and Geography Biennale in Johannesburg (1997) and doing his performance piece at the Venice Biennale (1997), washing the feet of the curators, forgiving them for the sin of omitting Africa from this prestigious event.

He has not only become a (re)distributor of culture, but also a painterly cultural theorist, analogous to the literary cultural theorist, JM Coetzee. It is no coincidence that when Coetzee wrote White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa (1988), critiquing the picturesque and the sublime in the South African landscape in the travel writing of the 19th century colonialists William Burchell and Thomas Pringle (and their futile attempts at taming this wilderness),  Barker was critiquing the picturesque in contemporary South African art. Barker has been trying indefatigably to make sense of the morass of the post-colonial apartheid legacy with regard to land, as well as of the effect globalization has on place. Barker’s art is no mere critique; it is a quest for the essence of freedom of a place. He realigns the politics of place: violence in and conflict over land give way to introspection over the peace of and in a place. Barker ceaselessly asks whether freedom is merely fought over, whether freedom is bought, or whether freedom is simply given to people. Wayne Barker has always reflected the complexities of the South African cultural mix in his work. Cultures in his work, however, are never ‘worlds apart’. Rather, they are hybrids of each other: mutually affecting and reflecting change among one another and finding mutual co-habitation in this place we call South Africa.

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