Scratch the surface

Business Day (South Africa), September 01, 2006,
Byline: Braam Kruger:

Scratch the surface STILL unsteady from a two-day binge of booze, women and song, a dishevelled Wayne Barker pitches late and unprepared for our interview, cheerfully missing a few steps as he unchains his shabby garage studio below his flat in Beryl Court, Troyeville, where he’s lived all of the 20-odd years I’ve known him and odd is an understatement. But I don’t mind, because I love this guy, as most cronies trapped in his charm do.

Against the walls stand several large paintings, most complete with his trademark neon, and I marvel not only at the prolific output of my hard-living friend, but at his knack for picking up an idea and running with it into the far corners of art. Like his latest piece, Clandestin without an e, like the French spell it. In the wake of the recent Picasso exhibition, the French Institute commissioned him to do a work inspired by it, so he went back, past Cubism, way yonder to the African mask that put modern art on the map, or was it vice versa? Touched by the plight of Africans all over the world, Barker took the anonymous curio masks and gave them identities, and jobs like the president. The work is plastered with words like immigrant, exile and homeless, and it becomes much more than a collage of masks and newspaper cuttings, and more than a political statement. It makes your skin crawl with its compassion, its poignancy without sentimentality. Scratch below the surface of any of Barker’s works, and you will find a glowing heart, in his life as in his art. He was always an extraordinarily generous fellow artist. When I met him in the tumultuous political turmoil of the mid-’80s, he ran an artists’ co-op of sorts in downtown Gallant House, combining it with music with heaven knows how many musicians living in the warehouse Alan Kwela and the Soweto String Quartet were just some of them while many bands jammed and practised there. The talented, the ambitious and the displaced poured in from the townships, inevitably leading to its downfall. It is impossible to overestimate Barker’s contribution the art world. The list of artists who have passed through his gallery, F.I.G (Famous International Gallery) is a who’s who of today’s art circuit: William Kentridge, Neil Goedhals, Lisa Brice, Joachim Schonfeldt, Kevin Brandt, Kendell Geers, Stephen Cohen, Ian Waldeck, Barend de Wet and Minette Vari. He did the same when he curated Africus, The Laager, a fringe exhibition by various artists at the first Johannesburg Biennial.

His earlier work awkwardly camped up Pierneef, as an approved Afrikaner art style, but he zoomed to higher things at his first solo exhibition, Three Bodies of Love, inaugurating the new Read Contemporary. He was obsessed with old political values pitched against new realities (still is), and produced a series of slave paintings based on Zulu-Lulus, vulgar colonial swizzle sticks. Art critic Charl Blignaut described it as a South African pop art showstopper with a poignant take on racial tyranny and cultural commodification. It was the revenge of the Golliwog. That show also featured Coke adds Life, 1993, a large work of raw ugliness, sugar-coated with the glowing allure of light; Coca-Cola logos, AK-47s, starving people and pink neon hearts.

One of his most celebrated installations was Is the World Flat? in an exhibition called Scurvy which he co-curated, in the Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town. It was a massive map of the world, made up of beer bottles, old army uniforms and a blue VOC neon on the bottom tip of Africa. Critic Sean O’Toole swooned: What swagger, what poise, what promise by an artist gifted with so much enthusiasm and an almost intuitive grasp of the colloquial. Many new works have an eerie, deep and abstract presence, like the pitch-black Hope in a triumph over death, the ultramarine Sorrow, or the moving, bleak triptych, Wake Up Wall, with melancholy messages scrolled in light.

There is always more to Barker than meets the eye, or the heart. His legacy will be an enduring one, as the best SA has produced, reverberating long after his or our time.

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