BD Live - BOOK REVIEW: The Erotic Drawings of Anton Kannemeyer by Ashraf Jamal
Posted on May 20 2014
- TITLE: The Erotic Drawings of Anton Kannemeyer
- AUTHOR: Anton Kannemeyer
- PUBLISHER: Stevenson
THE STEVENSON Gallery has published a limited edition of Anton Kannemeyer’s most explicitly sexual artworks. Titled The Erotic Drawings of Anton Kannemeyer, the collection fits snugly in relation to the earlier publications, the 2010 Pappa in Afrika and its follow-up, Mamma in Africa. As these titles suggest, Kannemeyer’s oeuvre is all about the family of man and its disturbed origin — Africa.
Kannemeyer has never been afraid to install himself in his works as a Tintin-esque lookalike at odds with the proverbial dark continent; a psycho-geography that is at once tortured, brutalised, and absurdly grotesque.
Humour of a sickening kind lies at the heart of Kannemeyer’s vision, a humour as bracing as it is thoroughly unlikable. But then, it was never Kannemeyer’s intention merely to amuse; rather, his black humour was always intended to disrupt moral rectitude and undo the repressive mechanism which, in essence, kept the subjects of his dark imagination in chains. For what Kannemeyer seeks to do through his toxically graphic art is speak truth to power. After Michel Foucault, Kannemeyer has always been alert to the micro-fascistic-chip implanted in our brains. After Friedrich Nietzsche, he has always known the source of this controlling mechanism — ressentiment.
For Nietzsche, ressentiment lay at the core of the western mind and signalled the internalisation of guilt, shame, and punishment. A punitive psychic surveillance system, ressentiment explained precisely why self-hatred and the abusive repression of others came to define what, in a so-called civilised world, we deem appropriately human.
Within this schema there could be no room for dissension, no private right to the body. Policed at every turn, it was precisely the body, along with its illicit desires, that had to be contained and modified. Kannemeyer’s repertoire of images plays out and challenges this modification. An anarchist, his artistic role has been to unleash our hidden drives, the better to understand why it is that they persist and distort the way in which we live in and perceive the world.
In describing himself as a "nihilist, reactionary, cynic, racist, shameless misogynist", the celebrated and reviled novelist, Michel Houellebecq, captures the mind-set and drive that shapes Kannemeyer. Damned and celebrated for these very qualities, Kannemeyer effectively destabilises the status quo, thereby forcing the viewer and reader of his works to rethink the toxic source that inspires them. For what Kannemeyer embodies is the symptom of a psychological illness, be it the virulent persistence of racism, or the "shameless" objectification of those deemed inferior.
An Afrikaner schooled in hatred and oppression, Kannemeyer’s role has been to reflect upon the damage inflicted by his colonial and apartheid history. However, merely to see him as a critic of a corrosive legacy is also to miss the mark, for Kannemeyer’s jaundiced eye is as excoriatingly trained on the current moment wherein democracy is a mere illusion, rape and rapine prevail, and the horrors, now racially inverted, continue to mock the dream of an ethical, bio-political transubstantiation. In other words, we have more of the same, except that today, irrespective of the afterglow of change, the horrors have only amplified.
For Antjie Krog, who has written a probing introduction to The Erotic Drawings, Kannemeyer is "a born underminer". This is certainly true, and here Kannemeyer belongs to a rapidly growing phalanx of polemical wits. However, there is a greater dimension to the artist for he also belongs to a radical tradition marked by disloyalty and sophistry. To undermine is one thing, to cut to the core of the horror that drives the object of critique is another. Kannemeyer’s take on racism, miscegenation or misogyny is never merely reactive; rather, he wants us to experience the nightmare for ourselves.
This is why the artist inserts himself as a symptom of white male oppression within the travestied tableau he constructs. No one is exempt from history; no one is liberated through confession. There is, it seems, no salvation from the horror that afflicts, informs and shapes our story.
It is precisely because Kannemeyer refuses to shirk our ills — preferring to till them instead — that he has generated a split verdict. His career began with the Bitterkomix series in the early ’90s, after which he and his collaborator, Conrad Botes, kick-started Gif, South Africa’s first foray into a reflexive meditation on our pornographic imagination. Now an established artist, Kannemeyer is internationally feted. However, like Houellebecq, he is also keenly aware that celebrity is fallible, for how can one sustain such brutal critique in the face of a rapidly growing global conservatism?
If, ironically, apartheid has proven to be South Africa’s greatest export, surely it is because the global ascendance of its brutal logic signals our persistent failure as a species, a failure which Hannah Arendt aptly described as the banality of evil.