11 Aug As I Please: A personal reflection on censorship
By Anton Kannemeyer (August 2019)
I was once, back in 1995, called into the offices of the Sasol Art Museum in the university town of Stellenbosch. I had submitted two silkscreen prints called “Boerenooientjies hou van Pielsuig” (Boer girls like to suck dick) for an upcoming printmaking exhibition. The curator of the show was a printmaker from Cape Town, Jonathan Comerford. I was called into the office of the director of the museum where Jonathan had made himself comfortable behind the desk of patriarchal power, ready to serve as curator for the museum. I was told to sit down and please explain why I made the two works.
Although I loathe to explain the meaning of my work, I do not mind to explain the motivation for making specific works. I explained that I had recently illustrated and published a comic magazine called Gif (Afrikaner Sekskomix) with other Bitterkomix artists and that it was officially banned in South Africa on 15 December 1994 (Government Gazette, vol.354; no.16175). I was not informed of the banning (apparently it’s the duty of all citizens of South Africa to regularly read the GG) until the date of our right to appeal had expired. On that day several bookshops phoned me to ask why they were told to remove Gif from their shops, and that the publication was (apparently) banned. Later the penny dropped: it became clear to me that old (white) forces in the new government (since April 1994) were plotting against us. According to the new constitution of South Africa, we had every right to publish whatever smut we felt like, but couldn’t appeal the banning anymore unless we were willing to pay at least R10 000 (at the time a fortune to any student and part time lecturer) to re-open the case.
Gif was a small independent publication of only 1 500 copies, published by both Bitterkomix and Hond. Our comics in the early 90s reached a small select group of students, artists, writers and musicians. Remember that South Africa had extreme censorship in the 70s and 80s, and all pornography was banned until the early 1990s. Many books, popular music, films and art were also banned. The idea to combine the Afrikaans language with sexually explicit images was extremely iconoclastic at the time, especially because an art form traditionally associated with children was used. But what drew attention to Gif were four original pages that I exhibited in a staff exhibition of the Art department of the University of Stellenbosch in 1994. My work was criticized in the local newspapers and in the visitor’s book as obscene, pornographic and outright unacceptable to the decent citizens of Stellenbosch. In a newspaper letter at the time I defended Gif, saying that it was a satirical publication intended to stimulate thought and debate, unlike, say, a South African Defence Force recruitment brochure (which everyone apparently thought was acceptable and decent at the time) that resulted in hundreds or even thousands of deaths every year.
The main attack on my work at the exhibition in Stellenbosch however, was by a group of white Afrikaans women who felt they had to do something drastic about my work. I was surprised by this as my work firstly attacks white patriarchy. To my naïve way of thinking women were my friends.
It then occurred to me, I explained to Jonathan Comerford, that these women all support white patriarchy, and that I should make a work about it. To me their behavior was contradictory to our times, to emancipation, to freedom of expression. In the work all the women are either the derivative or property of males as per the law of coverture, they do not possess their own identities.
Jonathan then got up from behind his desk and gave me a short speech that conveyed a few telling points, not least of which why he is a poor artist. Firstly, who did I think I was, to make such offensive work? And how dare I offend the community who I, as an artist, have to depend on to buy my work one day? When he mentioned the second point I had a momentary panic attack: had I not already wanted to sell those very prints? How was I ever going to make money from selling my work? Thirdly I was told that my silkscreen skills were really nothing extraordinary and that this was a printmaking exhibition, focusing on excellence. I was told to take my work and leave his office.
I often tell this story to students when I teach or travel. As an artist you cannot comply to dogma and restrictions. What after all is the point of art? Surely not only money and selling artworks to the community? Surely not to comply to a set of rules to enable your work to enter a museum collection? I know, as a full time artist, that money enables you to focus on your practice, but it always has to be secondary to ideas. Personally I have had very little success whenever I thought I finally made a work that will definitely sell.
Although “Boerenooientjies” was rejected by the Sasol Art Museum, it was soon exhibited by the Natal Society of the Arts (Durban) in an exhibition called “Sex and Sensibility” in 1995. This was a group exhibition exploring sexual attitudes and liberation in a time when South Africa was emerging from censorship.
In the course of the exhibition a member of the public, one Fletcher Reed, a “Christian” and self-styled “protector of public morals”, sprayed over the two works with aerosol paint to cover up the erect penises. This resulted in a nation-wide outcry against me and my work, mainly from people who haven’t seen the works – and how could they, now that the works were obscured by paint? “Boerenooientjies” were nevertheless favourably supported at the time by “liberal” journalists in the media. But stacks of letters arrived at the University of Stellenbosch where I was teaching part time while completing my post-graduate studies, demanding that I be removed as lecturer. The vice-chancellor of the university at the time, Andreas van Wyk, informed my head of department that I would not be reinstated the following year, after which my head of department threatened the university with a lawsuit should they interfere with my appointment. My dismissal would have been unconstitutional, and the vice-chancellor conceded defeat.
I use “Boerenooientjies” as an example of a work that was met with resistance from the community. Throughout my career I made several works and publications that resulted in controversy. When Conrad Botes (my partner and co-editor of Bitterkomix) and I had our first comic story published in 1989, I was warned by some of my lecturers at the university that the apartheid government’s security forces may take notice and come after us. Once we had a new government and constitution that protected our freedom of speech, we experienced a different kind of censorship, one coming from a conservative community. At first the pages of Bitterkomix were returned on several occasions by repro-houses who refused to handle such controversial comics. This reaction was followed by printers who refused to print the magazine. These incidents happened frequently in the 1990s, until we found and worked exclusively with like-minded repro-houses and printers.
In 2006 I resigned as full time lecturer and became a full time “gallery artist” working with a prominent gallery in South Africa, and also with a very open-minded publisher. My work turned more political between 2006 and 2015, and I exhibited much more internationally, mainly in the US and Europe, but also in South Korea, Mexico, Australia and Russia amongst others.
Although there were still several incidents regarding works and publications, I feel that the time from 1995 to 2009 actually allowed for an unprecedented period of freedom of speech in South Africa. The publication of the Big Bad Bitterkomix Handbook (2006) is certainly a highlight – I cannot imagine that any publisher would touch that book today. Although a similar book entitled Bitterkomix was published in France in 2009, there were no real controversies that I’m aware of, with the exception of an exhibition that coincided with the launch of the book at the 2009 Angoulême comic festival. One of my works that was removed from the exhibition was subsequently published on the front page of a local newspaper in protest, and the exhibition was fully reinstated (albeit with an age restriction). This kind of censorship mostly results in good publicity, and the exhibition was probably the best attended during that year’s festival.
But over the years bookshops also started refusing to sell my books. I must admit that many independent bookshops that normally stocked Bitterkomix in South Africa closed down due to economic pressure. But the larger stores (who often stocked Bitterkomix) simply would refuse to sell the books if the content was too explicit. In 2014 my publisher refused to publish a book we agreed working on, because, once they saw the actual content, they believed that no bookshop in South Africa would sell it. A notable incident the following year in Lisbon, Portugal, also resulted in a Portuguese translation of my Pappa in Africa being removed from a bookshop specializing in art books.
In 2017 I was approached by Fantagraphics, one of the biggest publishers of underground comics in America. They wanted to do an English version of the French Bitterkomix book, with the idea of adding on some more recent comics and work. Just before they started working on the book however, a comic of mine was to be published in Insect Bath no.2 (a comic compilation edited by Jason T. Miles). One contributor complained about my inclusion, the argument being that my work is so ambiguous that it’s unclear what my political position would be. An interview I did with Colin Liddell in 2010 convinced the contributor to pull out of the compilation. Because of fears of reprisals on social media, Fantagraphics decided to cease publication of both Insect Bath no.2 and Bitterkomix. I was sent a patronizing email from Fantagraphics saying that it “would be a bad move” for me to be published in America at the moment. I wrote back that it will never be “a bad move” for me to be published by the best publisher of underground comics in America, it could only be “a bad move” for them… I was pretty disappointed to hear such condescending nonsense from the publisher of Robert Crumb, Johnny Ryan, Ivan Brunetti and KAZ.
In April 2019 I heard from a lecturer at the University of Cape Town that Bitterkomix had to be excluded from a South African comics-module in the History of Art course because some students find it offensive. To critically analyze or investigate WHY it is offensive was not an option. The academic establishment at UCT, moral cowards that they are, complied to these demands. I find it shameful that an institution known for its fight against apartheid and censorship, has now become such a blatant enforcer of the latter.
After the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris in January 2015, as far as I can assess, general opinion internationally, especially in English speaking countries, started to turn against satire. Satire, although using symbols metaphorically, and incorporating all sorts of visual iconography such as stereotypes, hyperbole and paradox, is now generally regarded as hurtful and in some cases as hate speech. The interpretation of complex messages is often read on a very literal level, and it becomes increasingly difficult to convince an audience that the opposite of what they are reading is intended. Comic iconography is often easily understandable, but this does not mean an artwork incorporating such elements is necessarily easy to understand. With my work I aim to make a reader or viewer uncomfortable and to challenge them intellectually. My aim is to stimulate debate. I also believe that I should postulate the correct question, not supply an answer. Hence I find it almost banal when people insist that I should position myself politically in order for them to clearly understand my work.
Recently the South African gallery that represented me for 12 years decided to stop working with me, claiming that my work makes people “deeply uncomfortable”, and insisted that this is a legitimate criteria of art nowadays. Recently a delegation of museum directors and curators from Chicago visited my studio and referred to Balthus as “the paedophile artist”, a sentiment that’s all too common in America. These shallow perceptions from viewers, readers and often so-called specialists, coupled with the easy and superficial use of social media, have compelled galleries, museums, publishers, etc. to seriously rethink representing controversial artists. In the end it makes no commercial sense.
The irony of contemporary attitudes towards controversial artworks is that many of the same arguments that conservatives used in the past are being used by “liberals” today. The ability to interpret and understand has become secondary to the initial impact created by an artwork. If that initial impact is negative, we often hear that it is ample justification to act against an artwork. The strict adherence to an ever tightening politically correct moral code shown by academics, journalists, critics, etc. has developed into a narrow and intolerant fascism, eager to box ideas or people into specific categories. The use of social media to shame and accuse people is reminiscent of an ugly witch hunt, and signifies a difficult period for creativity and satire in the immediate future. Unfortunately it has become clear that institutions and commercial enterprises are more and more willing to enforce and embrace censorship as a means to avoid any confrontation or negative publicity. The same goes for people who are afraid of losing their employment if they voice an honest opinion. I often hear individuals saying that things might improve in a few years’ time.
Those who have not lived through censorship have no idea what it’s like. Once it becomes a political tool the results are devastating, as witnessed under many oppressive regimes in the 20thC. Ignorance prevails and ideological propaganda, which runs hand in hand with censorship, becomes the only accepted truth.