When l'Association published the Bitterkomix anthology in early 2009, it brought to light the South-African comics magazine in all the strength of its fury and political charges. The panel at during the Angoulême Festival featuring Anton Kannemeyer and Conrad Botes, the two co-founders of the periodical, cemented (if there remained any doubt) the importance and accuracy of their vision. It is during the third edition of the artist residence PFC (Pierre Feuille Ciseaux, laboratoire de bande dessinée) that we had the chance to meet again with Joe Dog, soft-spoken as always, but still burning with the same fire.
Xavier Guilbert : I would like to get back to the beginning of the whole Bitterkomix experience, around 1992. One thing I would like to understand is, what kind of comic book culture was there at the time in South Africa ?
Anton Kannemayer : There isn’t really a comics culture in South Africa. The one thing is – I’d say, for the black population, to start off with, there’s not really a culture of reading. So, there aren’t any black comics, really. But the one thing there was, was photo comics. You know, like comics but using photographs, which started, I think, in the late ’50s and became very popular in the ’70s. Television only started in the ’70s in South Africa, and by the mid-’80s those comics started disappearing. This was kind of a mass-market kind of culture, and there were very specific titles for white people, and very specific titles for black people. In the white shopping areas, you wouldn’t see the black comics, and vice-versa, I think. We read that as children, even if our parents thought it was very bad and we shouldn’t be reading them, that it was bad literature. But of course, we liked it a lot. There were some action heroes, gun-crazy guys, even western comics, all done in South Africa by South African actors.
Xavier Guilbert : Do you know if the racial divide was also at the level of the producers of those comics ? That is, white authors catering to a white population, and black authors for a black population ? Or was it some kind of class domination, with white producers deciding on what would be fitting for the white population on one side, and for the black population on the other ?
Anton Kannemeyer : You know, there were that kind of comics in the early ’70s. There was some sort of government branch that started making comics for the black population, pretending that it was a black publisher, pretending that it was a black editor and everything, and trying to obviously bring propaganda. But it didn’t really work, and those were drawn comics, and it’s not a very well-known fact but they actually got in American artists to draw those comics. I’ve got one copy of one of those comics, I think my brother has like two or three, but they are very scarce. So that existed, but it was very small. But I think that black comics were in fact made by black guys, who were into that sort of thing. I’m not sure about the houses that produced it, the publishing houses. But I am aware that they had, you know, black writers. I mean, all the actors were black, so the photographies and all that was probably black produced. And it was extremely popular. It wasn’t as if black people thought – oh, this is propaganda.
Xavier Guilbert : So there was no political undertones to those ? Or even the promotion of a certain model ?
Anton Kannemeyer : No. But, I would say, reading the comics for white people, that ideology is there. I remember one series that specifically dealt with a guy fighting on the South African borders, and all the time he has to fight against Cubans and Russians, and then he goes explaining how they’re trying to invade our country and blah blah blah. You know, communism is going to take over our country. All that stuff that we grew up to believe.
Xavier Guilbert : This discourse, was it specific to the comic books, or was is also present in other areas of entertainment ?
Anton Kannemeyer : I think it was in TV shows, and I think it was maybe in some of the popular books. But in literature, certainly that wasn’t the case. You know, people like Andre Brink, there was a movement of Afrikaans writers in the ’60s and they were very – that didn’t feature in their works. So when we learned Afrikaans literature, it wasn’t present at all. That was certainly a popular culture thing. So on TV and – that was really for the mass-market, and one could say that it was kind of a propaganda for the Apartheid cause.
Anyways, there were a few comics – very, very few, but I wasn’t aware of their existence. I only became aware of them after Bitterkomix started. In the late ’80s there was a comic book called Pecks, and they made only six issues, and that was some kind of anti-government comics. So there were bits and pieces, but nothing – you know, they would maybe publish 300 copies and that would be for a small, very select group of people who maybe collected it. The only comics we actually saw in South Africa were, firstly children comics – only Tintin and Asterix ; and then, there would be some Marvel and DC comics, like Superman or Spider-man and that was it. But I think the reason why I was into comics was – firstly, Tintin, of course, was very important for me. But then also my mother is Dutch, and she left me when I was three years old, in South Africa, to grow up with my father. But the thing is, she always sent us presents and things. She didn’t really come to visit, obviously my father and her were not in speaking terms. So I did get exposed to European stuff, because she would send sometime things, and I started collecting whenever I could, any European comics.
Xavier Guilbert : What led you to embark on the Bitterkomix adventure from this ?
Anton Kannemeyer : When I finished school in South Africa, the natural thing to do – you don’t really have a choice : you either go and study immediately, or you have to go to the Army. Everybody had to do Army service, all the white guys. I grew up showing a lot of resistance – I listened to a lot of punk music and whatever, I was like : « well, f*ck South Africa ! ». So when I turned eighteen, I went overseas to where my mother was staying. She had married a German guy, so I stayed in Germany for two years. I really missed South Africa, but the thing is, when I was in Europe, what happened was that I was – I don’t think I was very politically conscious as a child. You know, there was extreme censorship. So I remember, when I was traveling in Europe, I made some friends, and we said « let’s go to this concert ». So we went to this concert in Germany, and it was a « Free Mandela » concert, and I had never heard of Mandela. I was there, and then I saw – « what ? this is about South Africa ? » This was the first time that I actually heard about Mandela. There were a lot of small incidents – you know, I had to deal with black people, and whenever the issue of South Africa came up, I was incredibly aware and ashamed of the fact that I was South African.
Xavier Guilbert : So you mean that you basically grew up without having an actual conscience of Apartheid ? Because it was a remote thing, and not just the norm ?
Anton Kannemeyer : You know, it’s kind of a complicated thing. Because you obviously think that – well, surely you see it, you must see it everyday, it must be something that bothers you. But the thing is, there were several things. There’s what they call « the architecture of Apartheid » : in the South-West of Johannesburg, you have Soweto, which is a city almost as big as Johannesburg, where only black people live. But when you travel from Cape Town to Johannesburg, you never see this city, because everything goes around it. So we were aware of, you know, black people coming to work in your house, but it didn’t seem all that crazy, because they were paid a salary and would either live in or go away and work in the garden and everything.
Xavier Guilbert : Was that some kind of rationalization ?
Anton Kannemeyer : Well, the thing is, as a child, you don’t necessarily say « hey, this is a big problem ». I mean, I was I think a little more politically aware when I was a child, and certainly from my father’s side I thought – yeah, there are problems or so. But also when I grew up, my father was a professor in Afrikaans literature, and he had a very strong belief that art and politics are two separate things. That art doesn’t have to include politics. In fact, he believed that if people brought politics into their art, that they were opportunistic and trying to promote their art careers. They weren’t true artists. He was kind of a screwed-up guy, because he had very positive and very negative aspects, I suppose like anyone, but he was quite extreme.
So the thing is, I was aware of these things when I went to Europe, but it didn’t, somehow – for instance, I remember going to Holland with a South African passport, and at the border control, we were in a train compartment, and the custom guy stamped everybody’s passport and give it back to them, expect mine. He took my passport and then he threw it in my face, and it fell on the floor. I picked it up from the dust, and you know, I was really ashamed and everybody looked at me and I was very self-conscious. But the point is that it made me very aware of the political situation, and just the way that people felt about it.
After two years, I went back to South Africa and I started studying art. And then, all of a sudden, I was in the ECC – the End Conscription Campaign, as I didn’t want to go to the Army, of course. I joined underground student groups against Apartheid, and then everything became politicized. But before then, before I went overseas, it wasn’t. I was aware of things, but it just didn’t…
Xavier Guilbert : Speaking from experience, going abroad makes you question who you are and where you’re from. And you end up learning as much about yourself as about the country you’re in.
Anton Kannemeyer : Yes, that’s about it. Also, I remember going back to South Africa and sort of having a very different relationship to black people. Before – it’s just because of how things were, you just didn’t see them. You would look through them. And then I came back, and people would speak to me, black people would say : « you know, you’re different ». And I thought that was amazing. Before, I had a very good relationship with the nanny and the people working in the house, but it wasn’t like after I came back from Europe. It was quite different.
Xavier Guilbert : When did Apartheid stop ?
Anton Kannemeyer : Okay, in 1994 was the first general elections and then Apartheid offically stopped. But I would say a few years before that, there was a transition, because then it became clear that was the way that things were going to go, and people started to – you know, petty Apartheid started disappearing around 1990. And petty Apartheid is things like « this bench is for white people only », and « these toilets are for white people ». Those boards and signs were slowly starting to disappear.
Xavier Guilbert : You were involved in many anti-Apartheid movements. Why chose comics as your main approach ? Especially as it wasn’t, as you mentioned, anything particularly meaningful in South Africa at the time.
Anton Kannemeyer : Firstly, I had a choice – I could decide where I would study, and I went through three or four different art departments and I talked with the people who were there, to see what it was they were offering and how I could, maybe do – because I had a very fixed idea that I wanted to do comics. And finally, I went to an art department that had a very strong illustration component, because there simply wasn’t anything like comics. And about your question – I don’t know. I just absolutely love comics, and I wanted to do comics, and I knew there wasn’t going to be a job doing comics in South Africa, but I thought – well, I’m a student, I can do it. And then I met Conrad [Botes] in my first year, and we became close very quickly as we noticed we could work together. And during my second year in art school, we drew our first comic together – that’s not published in the French anthology, it was an anti-conscription comic.
I always had this idea of wanting to draw a Tintin kind of adventure comic – I never imagined I’d draw political comics. But the moment I started working, it was just political elements and things that started appearing in the comics. It wasn’t a conscious thing of « I am going to do political comics », that wasn’t actually the case. We were like : « okay, so we have this guy, he’s playing in a band, blah blah blah, and then – the Army’s looking for him ! ! » I’ve always been quite a strong believer that comics shouldn’t be didactic, they shouldn’t try to teach people things like saying – okay, now we’re doing a political comic, and then nobody wants to read it. It has to be something that’s about things that people can relate to. And then there’s undercurrents, and things that deal with politics, basically.
Xavier Guilbert : At the time, how open could you be about this kind of political speech ? You said you had discussed with various art departments before making your choice, was that the kind of topic that could have come up ?
Anton Kannemeyer : No, no. I mean, for the university, I didn’t say a thing. There was no – you know, I had lots of friends who were really hunted down by the military police. It was crazy. People would get called at one o’clock in the morning, and people threatening them. So I knew it was good to keep a low profile, so that they wouldn’t notice you but you still could do the work you wanted to do. When we made our first comic, one of my lecturers came to me and told me : « listen, you have to be very careful with that material you’re making, because you could get into deep shit. »
Xavier Guilbert : Were you already using the « Joe Dog » name ? Or was it under your name, Kannemeyer ?
Anton Kannemeyer : No, no, the funny thing is, I started signing it Joe Dog. That was because in fact, when I was a teenager, I was listening to so much punk music, and you had Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten and Jeremiah Frenell, these people with alternative names, and I thought – I’d be Joe Dog. And I started doing little graphics with Joe Dog, so I never – it was Joe Dog from the beginning. And when we did Bitterkomix #1, I signed everything « Joe Dog », but afterwards I thought that maybe it wasn’t a good idea, because this « Joe Dog » – what is it anyway ? And I just remember people coming to see us and say « hey, I saw Bitterkomix – what’s this guy ? Joe Dog ! » That was the only thing they could remember : Bitterkomix, and Joe Dog. (laugh) So I thought, okay, this catches people’s attention. So I stuck with that.
Xavier Guilbert : So the choice of that pseudonym was not for anonymity in the first place ?
Anton Kannemeyer : It’s almost as it was that way around. Because I just wanted kind of a punk name, and even if I said to my mother, at some stage : « you know, that ‘Anton’ name is bullshit, I’m Joe » – and she started calling me Joe for a while ! (laugh) But that’s why people know me as Anton Kannemeyer or Joe Dog. I still sign my comics as Joe Dog, but what happened was that when I started exhibiting a lot in galleries, I got pressure from gallery owners saying : « listen, we feel we need to separate Anton Kannemeyer from Joe Dog, because you know – Anton Kannemeyer is the gallery artist, and Joe Dog is the comics artist. » But now, I’m working with a gallery where they feel – I mean, this is nonsense. You cannot separate the two, you’re one person. Now I’m already schizo, when people want me to sign a comic, I’m not sure wheither I should sign my real name or Joe Dog. Anyway. (laugh)
Xavier Guilbert : So you started publishing the first issue of Bitterkomix in 1992. Why did you do something that was a collective – because it featured Konradski, and your brother Lorcan White…
Anton Kannemeyer : In fact, he only came on board by issue number 3, the first one was only Conrad and I. Basically, we were dead set on doing a comic – we thought we must do a comic, and we had done work from our second year onwards. In the art school, we never handed out comics as projets, we only handed out illustration and graphic design, so doing comics was always extra work. But because we were prolific and because we worked really hard, we had – I think, triple the amount of work that other students had, so, that resulted in both of us getting really good marks. So we thought – this is good, because we can apply for bursaries. And in 1992 we both started our postgrads, and that was the first bursary both of us got. We just took all the money, and published the first Bitterkomix, we didn’t use any of that money for studying or whatever it was supposed to.
Xavier Guilbert : Which is kind of ironic – basically, it was a subsidy of the government for publishing something that was really critical of its policy.
Anton Kannemeyer : (laughs) Yeah, exactly. And we kept on doing that – every year we had bursaries, every year we published more Bitterkomix. We did get our money back on each issue, but we started noticing that we were just making it to the break-even, I mean, there was never such a thing as extra money or so.
Xavier Guilbert : How did you manage to sell it, considering there wasn’t much of a comics culture in South Africa ?
Anton Kannemeyer : This is probably how I got into galleries. Because from the beginning, we knew that a black-and-white comic wasn’t going to sell. So we started printing large silkscreens with lots of colors, and we just looked for opportunities to exhibit these. And people would go « wow, I’ve never anything like it in South Africa. » So we got lots of opportunities, and with all those exhibitions we would then put the comics out. Also, what happened was, as we became known, a lot of the new bands in South Africa would come to us and ask us to make posters for them. So we did a lot of posters for theaters and rock bands and whatever. Eventually what we ended up doing, was we would maybe have a small exhibition, we would have a rock band, and then we would launch the comic. It became more like a cultural event sort of thing. And lots of young people would come – at one stage, I remember we decided on a cover charge of (waves hands) and then each person would get a comic. And we said to the band « you’ve got to play for free », and we said to the venue « give us the venue for free », so that we could just cover our costs for the magazine. And we obviously made lots of friends, you know. That’s basically how we did it.
Xavier Guilbert : What was your print run at the time ?
Anton Kannemeyer : We started with a thousand of each of the Bitterkomix, and I think from issue #4 onwards it was 1,500. Then, we did a comic with the name Gif, which means « poison », which had only six issues and also a print run of 1,500. That was the first color covers as well. And we did two sets of Best of Bitterkomix, and for those – number one, I think we did 4,000 and we sold out years ago, really. And the number two was 2,500 and that’s not quite sold out. The thing is, because we distributed ourselves and we published ourselves, we also went to all the cultural festivals in South Africa. So we did a hell of a lot of travelling, going to places, but with that came a kind of notoriety. I think about five years after starting, we were having very heavy parties, and also we started drawing for a sex magazine in South Africa. The reason was that we could publish in color for the first time, and Georges wanted us to – we were friends with the editor, and he was like « yeah, just do what you want ! », so we could really go wild. And there were a lot of parties, it was kind of a wild time. And I think that created a kind of energy.
Another thing I wanted to say was that, when I started postgrad, the art school that I was in approached me and asked me if I wanted to do some teaching. So I started teaching silkscreen and illustration, and I also spotted some students who I thought were good at comics. And then they started publishing in Bitterkomix as well. So in the end, we were like a group of maybe ten, twelve people – not everybody necessarily always drawing comics, but a really close group doing fine arts, doing music, doing comics and so on.
Xavier Guilbert : Who were you selling Bitterkomix to ?
Anton Kannemeyer : I think this is something that, a lot of people – at the time, there was nothing like it. There was nothing that was so explicit and so vulgar in language. And a lot of people picked it up – English-speaking whites, Afrikaans-speaking whites, saying : « Jesus ! we didn’t know Afrikaaners were like this, we thought they were all conservatives. » And really, there were a lot of English-speaking people who thought that Afrikaaners were all really conservatives. So yes, it was mostly white people who read it. But the thing is, it wasn’t us preaching to the converted, it was really a thing of people discovering it and not being able to believe that there was something like that out there. I think it did grow in parallel with the music scene, because the music scene also had that kind of evolution. And theater – theater in South Africa also had a very aggressive stance against Apartheid and was really investigating issues surrounding Apartheid.
Xavier Guilbert : With Apartheid having been over for a long time, have you seen a shift in readership ? Obviously, things didn’t change overnight, but it’s been at least 15 years – did you see black artists coming up, and if so, would they be interested in participating in Bitterkomix ?
Anton Kannemeyer : Firstly, the one thing with Bitterkomix is that the main personal thing that we attacked was the white male. You know, that was our main focus : partiarchy and the white male. So that’s maybe not so important for black people. They maybe do find it interesting, and there are a lot of black people reading it now. In the beginning, when things started changing and black people started really going to university and that sort of things, art wasn’t the first thing that they would do. It was really the last thing that they would do. It took a while before – I think there are quite a famous South African artist now who, very early, wrote us letters and said he really appreciated Bitterkomix, he lived in Soweto, and we were quite surprised by that. But slowly it’s been changing.
Another thing I remember – I’ve been in education for a long time. I was at one point, in 2001, I was working at the university, where they were about 75 % of black students and far less white students, and the thing is, from that kind of perspective, there’s been a lot of influence. At that university, I did a lot of comics workshops, I worked with the French Institute, we had people over like Thomas Ott, and he did a comic about South Africa. All those workshops and influences eventually rubbed off on students, so there are actually, I would say 50-50 blacks in the industry.
But I think that most of the stuff that is appearing in South Africa is crap, and the reason for that is that – I mean, it’s great that young kids are into comics, but there’s a real support for genre comics, and people are doing action heroes and stuff I’m not just interested in. So there’s not like a political or even a literary kind of representative in the comic world. It’s really the few people who have been in Bitterkomix, like Joe Daly, who was featured in three of the Bitterkomix issues, and is a friend of mine ; Karleen de Villiers, who was a student of mine and did her book under my supervision… I’m interested in seeing what will happen, because I’m sure there will be some – there are some black artists who are doing political cartooning, but that’s really editorial cartooning for magazines and such, not really comics. But I haven’t seen things that really grabbed me and that I thought – this is amazing.
Xavier Guilbert : Getting back to the early years of Bitterkomix, you said people had advised you to keep a low profile. How difficult was it to get it printed ?
Anton Kannemeyer : You know, the thing is, we published probably just at the right time. Because in 1992, I think the first comics was received very favorably in the press, but we knew they were all people who were left-minded. But it didn’t really have an impact, like create a boom or something – not then. Our second Bitterkomix was, as far as I’m concerned, not a very good issue. And then number three was very experimental, and then we did Gif. And Gif, the « poison » comic, the sex comic, that was like a bomb. There was such a reaction against it, but it came out in 1994, which was the year in which we had the transition, and it was published in the same month of the first general election. A few months later, it was banned anyway, and it was banned, we feel, by people in the old government.
Xavier Guilbert : Actually banned ?
Anton Kannemeyer : It was banned, it was taken off the shelves. They didn’t make a court case against us, it was just « this just cannot be sold anymore ». I also exhibited large pages from this comic, in color – and it caused a riot. It was amazing. So many people came, people were upset, they were writing in the press, I got letters of people threatening me…
Xavier Guilbert : Were you exhibiting under the Joe Dog, or the Kannemeyer name ?
Anton Kannemeyer : Hum, I think at the time, it was as Joe Dog. But people knew who I was, you know. (laugh) Because, I think South Africa is just a small place. And I was in a university town, so I wasn’t in a big city, and it was at the university gallery that I was exhibiting this work. And you know, people wrote to the dean of the university, they wrote to the vice-chancellor of the university, saying – you must dismiss this person. Luckily, as all the laws had changed very rapidly – you know, change really happens slowly for the normal person on the street, but laws change really quickly. In fact, my head of department eventually threatened the university and said that if they continued – because they tried to, they tried to take me out – if they continued, he was ready to take them to court. And then they backed off, and hoped this thing would eventually blow off.
I did a second exhibition in another city, in Durban, called « Sex and Sensibility », and I made a silkscreen that was just outrageous. And this guy walks in and spraypaints the whole work. It was in all the Sunday newspapers, all over the country, and then I received another big load of mail saying : « you’re evil, you should be ashamed for your family », and things like that. Lots of mail to the university as well, and I think the university really hated me then – but, you know. (laugh)
To get back to your question, the guys who printed us would take the comic saying – « yeah yeah, great, no problem », and we wouldn’t hear from them for a while, and then one day a phone call saying : « come and fetch your plates, because we’re not touching this, because it’s pornographic, and we’ve got women working here, and… » So eventually, we were rejected five times by printers and by the people who did the repro, because that’s how it was done at the time. And finally we found a printer, who was a young guy and who was like : « great ! yeah, I’ll print it ! » and we were okay.
Xavier Guilbert : While today you’re better known as a gallery artist, right from the start you were doing exhibitions as well as publishing comic books, is that right ?
Anton Kannemeyer : At one point, I remember telling Conrad I was going to stop doing exhibitions. It was so much work. And when we started with exhibitions they didn’t really lead to sales. It was just putting up the exhibitions, and then taking down the exhibitions, and having to deal with the frames, and reframing things on and on. And then, eventually, what did happen was – our color work started selling. The screenprints and the prints we made started selling, and it picked up momentum. We then started getting invitations to exhibit overseas.
At that time I became a full-time lecturer, but I was dealing with trying to do comics, organizing comics festival, and exhibiting, and teaching, all at the same time. Some times I was working until midnight, and then I’d wake up at two again, and just working. So eventually I resigned at the university because I just couldn’t – I just realized I was doing well enough, and I thought I could always go back to commercial illustration if I needed to. But then it just took off, and there’s been a lot of invitations for exhibitions.
Xavier Guilbert : At the same time, some of the most experimental stuff I’ve seen in the big Bitterkomix anthology translates well to exhibitions. Some series work well, both on paper but also as set pieces. When did you start playing around with the Tintin iconography ?
Anton Kannemeyer : I did a comic – in Bitterkomix #2 there’s a comic with Tintin, and then there’s a drug raid in his house and it’s Thompson and Thomson doing the drug raid. But that hasn’t been republished. So it’s always been there – and also in my sketchbook I’ve always incorporated Tintin into comics. But it was really with that story, in English it’s called « Sonny » and in Afrikaans « Buty », and it’s about this little boy who’s been sexually abused by his father. That story was the first time that I really incorporated Tintin and used it as a way of looking back at my prepubescent years, and sort of created a dark and bleak history. The thing for me is that I realized, when I finished that, that because I was such a fanatical Tintin reader when I was young, it was just natural for me, if I wanted to get back to that frame of mind, to that space and that time, was to use Tintin as a kind of a medium to do it. And it worked really well.
When I did « 1974 », which is a later story, it’s exactly the same thing. That was a dream that I had, a recurring dream of being chased by a group of black people. What is funny is that, when I started the story and I told of it to friends of mine, they said they had very similar dreams. Even my girlfriend, she said she had this dream of a horde of black people chasing her. So that sort of thing really took me back to my childhood.
Xavier Guilbert : You are mostly using iconography coming from Tintin in Congo, which is without a doubt, the most controversial of the series.
Anton Kannemeyer : For me, Tintin in Africa is kind of the Bible. There are so many references that I can go back to. (laughs) It’s like a visual Bible for me. But I do think it’s a problematic book, and I know that if I say that a lot of French people will probably not agree with me. I know there are all sorts of – there’s a lawsuit by this Belgian guy, and … But what I think is that – I don’t think it’s one of the good albums, for me, it’s more directed at a child audience. And that’s where the problem lies for me. Because if it had been directed at an adult audience, it would have worked much better. But because it’s for children, young children see the stereotypes and they – maybe not in France. But in other countries, I think people would think those stereotypes are real. And that, for me, is a problem. I read the book with my own daughter, when she was very young, maybe two, and at some point she asks me : « what is the monkey doing now ? » And I told her : « well, that’s not really a monkey. That’s a black person. » And she was completely confused, she couldn’t understand : « these are the monkeys ! »
What I think is that, that kind of iconography kind of sticks. Even if you’re not a racist, it can become a kind of undercurrent that will maintain that there’s some kind of superiority. I think it’s an excellent book for a teacher to take to school and say to children : « hey, let’s do this book today. Look at the images. What do you see, what do you think ? » And use it as a topic for discussion. But putting it on a shelf in a library and giving it to children to read it on their own, and telling them it’s the same as the other Tintin albums – while it’s not, it’s different.
Xavier Guilbert : Tintin in America is rather similar. It’s a collection of vignettes, not exactly a full narrative. I think what you say about it being a good discussion piece is all the more true because of the special place of Tintin and Hergé as a cultural staltwart. It’s not easy to criticize Hergé, because of his status as a full-fledged artist, very much on a pedestal. What I find interesting in you work is that you use it, and you infuse it with values that are completely absent from the original work. Not just the sexual aspect, but there’s also the character who’s very obviously you, with the question of age. Tintin doesn’t age, but you have a character who’s balding. This takes it to a completely different level. With the racial inversion, with this question of age and with the sex, that definitely takes it away from children, as you were saying.
Anton Kannemeyer : I agree. With an aging character, there are several layers, I suppose. The first thing was I wanted to create an archetype, or a stereotypical kind of colonialist. To try and create a counter figure – what is the ultimate white, as opposed to the ultimate black kind of character. A lot of my work deals with race, so I had those two poles that I had to create. The other thing of course is that I, myself, live in Africa, and obviously all those issues of guilt and what happened before, I’m always aware of it. I’m working with it all the time. At the university, there’s a strong sense of « how do we deal with this ? how do we move forward ? how do we incorporate, how do we not exclude ? how do we change ? » Having grown up in that context, I’m challenging myself all the time. So the other level is me. On a personnal level I have become the Pappa in Afrika, too, because I have children now. And to me, it gives it a depth and resonnance which I haven’t worked out yet. I feel I can still work on it a bit more. I certainly think the idea of doing a parody of Tintin in Africa is also something that’s on my mind. It’s not a direct parody, but there are some aspects in it.
Xavier Guilbert : It’s not as much parody as satire.
Anton Kannemeyer : Satire, right. But I do think parody is an aspect of satire.
Xavier Guilbert : I was thinking of a piece like the « Black Dicks » painting that was exhibited in Angoulême. There’s a kind of a ludicrous aspect to it, all the while being a comical incarnation of the deepest fears and insecurities of the white male. This is where you’re close to parody, I feel, but there’s also a political aspect to it.
Anton Kannemeyer : Sure. I think in Southern Africa, it’s perceived as such. With Pappa in Afrika, my last book, there’s been kind of a reaction from a new African intellectual class, and they find it problematic. There have been discussions, because there are people who support me and other who say that it borders on racism. The one big argument that’s been made is, a black academic said recently that me using black images is kind of sickening. And as now I’m also criticizing the new black governement, the work becomes more complicated. Now, I’m not just criticizing the white male, I’m also criticizing the abuse of power. But people came to my defense, saying that in the old days, when I was criticizing the old government, I was a good boy and doing the right thing. But now that I’m criticizing the new government, I’m a racist because I’m not allowed to say anything against black people. I think that’s absolutely nonsense. What I think that real satire does is that you always criticize power. You look at power critically, and try and take it apart. It’s not a simple, straightforward thing. I’m always aware that I have to take in consideration and read my own work on various levels to see – am I not, maybe, doing something that could be interpreted as being racist ? I’m very cautious when I work not to all in those pitfalls. But, you know, maybe sometimes…
Xavier Guilbert : Did you get any feedback from Moulinsart ?
Anton Kannemeyer : No. But years ago, I made a postcard, and I got a letter from them asking that I discontinue this card. And it was a postcard saying « Greetings from South Africa », with black guys throwing spears and Tintin running away. I wrote to them, telling them : « look, it’s a parody, I feel it is satirical. » I also spoke to a copyright lawyer who told me : « if you can prove it is selling well because it is a good satire, and not because Tintin’s in the picture, then you win. » Then I said : « but it is impossible to prove that ! » « Exactly. » (laughs) So I wrote back and told them I would discontinue this card, and took everything off. I didn’t continue selling it, but now with my more recent work, I’m very aware of this problem. There’s one image that I – there’s a French edition we’re working on at the moment, and there are a couple of images that I sort of removed and reworked. To make it more, to take it a little bit away from Tintin in Congo. I feel it references that, but it needs to change more to become my own work. But back to Moulinsart – I haven’t heard from them, the publisher that I’m working with contacted Casterman, and Casterman was interested in doing the book but then they sent in two lawyers, and they went « Jesus, no… »
Xavier Guilbert : Well, they would be in a strange place if they were to publish that.
Anton Kannemeyer : Everybody’s pretty unsure. I was at the Art Brussels fair in 2009, and I had large drawings, those comics drawings. The ones that are closer to parody : Tintin having sex with black women and the like. They were at the Art Fair, a lot of people saw them and talked about it. I wasn’t there personnally, but some spoke to my gallerian and told him : « well, if there are any problems, legal problems, just contact us. » It was kind of weird, there was a lot of support from the audience who came. But there was no feedback from the lawyers. I don’t know, I think that once it gets published in French there may be some sort of reaction.
Xavier Guilbert : The most recent work I’ve seen of you was published in the Monde Diplomatique last year. The special comic book issue, of which you did the cover and a short story. The cover was very interesting in the way a lot of things were suggested. The opposition between the Pappa character sitting inside, reading – an intellectual activity ; and the black person outside, working in the garden. And there’s also the toys lying around, the ball as a symbol of the Soccer World Cup, the broken dolls, the army, the oil tankers… basically, all the tokens of power at the feet of the white man. Is this picture still relevant today ? You were mentioning criticizing the new government, which is more mixed as far as I know…
Anton Kannemeyer : It’s absolutely relevant. My shift of focus – I did probably two bodies of work. One I call the Alphabet of Democracy, which is all in all about 85 works dealing with South African politics specifically. And then I made the other body work, which is more like the Pappa in Afrika kind of work, which has a lot to do with my interest in Africa. I’ve been traveling to several African countries, I was in Angola, in Mozambique, Namibia of course, I was in Congo last year with Appollo. When I was at school, basically we learned European history. We learned South African history from a very wide perspective, and then we learned European history. It was only subsequently that I started reading about African history. Especially about twentieth century African history. And it’s facinating, because I knew hardly anything about it. So it’s not just South Africa, it’s broader for me. I feel what happened in other countries in Africa keeps repeating itself. Something happens in the Congo – the Congo’s actually a very good example of the same kind of thing happening everywhere.
Xavier Guilbert : So something that started off being very much about South Africa in itself, becomes something much larger dealing with colonialism. Maybe also the legacy of it…
Anton Kannemeyer : Yes, exactly. This image that you’re talking about, this cover image, it could very much talk about the legacy of Apartheid. It isn’t really, but I read some guy saying that the legacy of Apartheid probably was what King Leopold left behind : which is rape and plunder and take as much as possible and keep it all for yourself.
If you look at it, South Africa doesn’t have oil, contrary to Angola. And South Africa’s been very much involved with Angola. There was the Border Wars, and South Africa was supporting UNITA, which was fighting the MPLA, which was in charge in Angola. Now, they discovered that there’s more oil in Angola than in Nigeria. Which means – America’s there. When I got off the plane, it was just Halliburton, Texaco, all these American companies. And these guys disappear in a special room, they don’t go through customs or anything. We all know what’s happening in Angola. Most of the oil is in the sea. Mostly it’s in the Northern province, which actually isn’t really Angola, it’s just been taken over by Angola. And those oil tankers just go straight to America. They don’t even go to unload in Angola. In Angola, you want petrol for your car, you have to stand in a queue. And you can easily wait up to an hour. Angola doesn’t have oil – they have to pay their oil from America, at a very expensive price. The people there are so poor – I’ve seen children taking a bath in sewage water. A month after I was there, cholera broke out.
So you may think that now, things are different. But it’s exactly the same thing happening. Which is exploitation.
Xavier Guilbert : Yes, like in Liberia with rubber and Firestone. Or Zambia with copper.
Anton Kannemeyer : In some countries like, I think, Bostwana, they are okay, they’re doing well. They discovered diamonds in the country. And the country is actually investing in itself again. I have to say the Congo was quite heartening to see. The Chinese are building roads everywhere. Everybody’s building, but it’s the Chinese getting the infrastructure back. Really, the truth is that Belgium should be doing it. (laugh)
The thing with Pappa in Afrika, one could look at it very superficially. My idea was that it’s only a part of a bigger story. What I find interesting is that I find those very comical images, and make short stories and comments, and juxtapose them with more realistic drawings. Something that gives a deeper perspective, all the time challenging the viewer and not become only one style and one thing.
Xavier Guilbert : So basically, you found the limits of this satire by and of itself, and you feel the need to add a different dimension to it, different perspectives, in order to bring more meaning to it ?
Anton Kannemeyer : The other thing about the book, which is unfortunate and maybe in a longer time will become clearer for me, is that one doesn’t really get a sense of the scale of the work. When you stand in front of a painting, it’s two meters by two meters, it has something. It resonnates, it kind of overpowers you. In the book, it really breaks down to small gags.
Xavier Guilbert : Also, the way you look at a painting is different from the way you look at a panel or a page. Looking at a painting, there’s this idea that there’s a message you have to get. Looking at a panel, it’s part of a larger composition, and you won’t spend as much time trying to understand it. When will that book come out in France, Pappa in Afrika ?
Anton Kannemeyer : They are planning it for next year  in June. I still have to see what the designer did with the book. Because it’s going to be different from the English version. And also there’s a lot of new work that I’ve done that’s going to be added to the book. And with this new exhibition, there are new images that haven’t been added, and maybe we’ll add them and take away some of the old ones. There was this idea to combine Pappa in Afrika with the Democracy, but the longer I think about it, the more I feel it doesn’t work. Because those are two very different things. We’ll see how that book is going to look like. I’m pretty excited about it. I know it’s not comics anymore, it’s become something else.
Xavier Guilbert : It feels to me, judging from this conversation, that it was something else right from the start. It just happened that some comics ended up being part of it.
Anton Kannemeyer : Yeah, yeah. I guess you’re right. It’s based on a comic, that’s the starting point. (laughs)