S.Africa’s subversive comic book series, 'Bitterkomix'
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Anton Kannemeyer and Conrad Botes, cult personalities of South Africa’s underground comic book scene, created comic book series “Bitterkomix” – a savage indictment of the apartheid era, entrenched conservatism and the country’s racist past.
Their work is outrageously provocative, often of a vivid sexual nature and takes a deep and deeply uncomfortable dig at the entrenched racist phobias of their white countrymen.
Anton Kannemeyer and Conrad Botes are considered hyenas of South Africa’s comic book scene, who took the battle, through their art, to the rotten core of the apartheid regime.
Their work was the object of scandal when the first Bitterkomix album appeared in 1992, two years before the country’s first free elections.
Two years and three albums later, they released “Gif” – “poison” in Afrikaans – condemned for its pornographic nature.
Kannemeyer’s job as a university lecturer was threatened, the book was censored – but the press cried foul.
The books took pride of place at art festivals and exhibitions of their work attracted the country’s intelligentsia.
“Everybody came to see the sensational side of the work, to see these ‘atrocities’. People accused us of having AIDS,” recalls Joe Dog, Kannermeyer’s nom-de-plume. It is no wonder, he added, in a society where the only comics in circulation were aimed at children.
These two detractors of conformist Afrikaan bourgeois society have been recalcitrant to accept the prevailing dogma: they have avoided military service at all costs, including taking up ten long years of study; they have participated in protest anti-apartheid and anti-military movements, have denounced all authority, whether it come from the state or the church … and have become angry with their families and many of their friends.
It amuses them when people accuse them of being puerile and vulgar, and they really don’t mind if their more sensitive readers take umbrage from their work.
Their inspiration is the avant-garde comic scene of the 1970s, in particular the French comic collectives Bazooka and Métal Hurlant and also novelist Thomas Bernhard’s portrayal of life as a child in the Nazi-run Austria of the 1930s.
“We knew very well that our work was shocking.” says Conrad Botes.
“But our cartoons always carried a double meaning. The pornographic images are not gratuitously erotic. They served to challenge taboos and to make people think, to provoke discussion.
“Certain stereotypes are highlighted – for example the inferiority complexes of white men who resent the supposed physical and sexual superiority of black men.
“So we offended men mostly, but we wanted to bring non subjects out into the open, to challenge the ambivalence of post-apartheid society.”
Anton Kannemeyer and Conrad Botes are considered two of South Africa’s cult artists and have gained notoriety for their work outside of the country.
Kannermeyer was invited to the 2008 symposium “Picturing Politics” organised by the Parsons School of Design in New York.
These two former classmates understand each others’ work intimately – they share an intellectual closeness that underpins the often surprising nature of their work.
Anton Kannemeyer (born in 1967):
Sometimes sculptor and painter, Anton Kannemeyer's, aka Joe Dog's, main line is comic strips. He draws stories from autobiographical roots and parodies the imagery of Tintin in the Congo (renamed Pappa in Afrika).
Extracts from "Rats and Dogs" by Conrad Botes:
Conrad Botes (born in 1969):
Botes too is a multi-disciplinary artist with a clear focus on comics. His latest album, "Rats and Dogs", published by Cornelius (January 2009), is an allegory of post-apartheid society from a biblical point of view, using the rivalry between the brothers Cain and Abel, and also Esau and Jacob, to parody the birthright laws of apartheid South Africa.
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