The Limitations Of White Empathy | Face To Face With Anton Kannemeyer

by Celine Angbeletchy and Johanne Affricot - Published on 30/09/2019
Anton Kannemeyer in front of his work Exhaustion (2018)

Satire is the use of humour, irony or exaggeration to expose and criticise people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues. Satire is art. Satire is a superpower. Satire is a survival strategy. Satire is thinking outside the box, constantly. Satire is a weapon—and a really powerful one.

October 2018. Yep, 2018. It’s a mild grey morning in London. Children visiting the Contemporary African Art Fair 1-54 with their schools shout and chase each other among Ibrahim El-Salahi’s installation Meditation Trees, breaking the silent murmuring of Somerset House’s courtyard. We’re about to meet Anton Kannemeyer, the South African comic artist, also known as Joe Dog, whose works fascinate and unsettle people to such an extent that he is considered a controversial artist.

Kannemeyer’s art is everything but pindaric. Truthfully entrenched in the reality of his South African upbringing, his vision is clear, and at times brutally honest. In a machiavellian attempt to change the society that he has intrinsically despised since he was a kid, Kannemeyer uses the most powerful tools at his disposal, art and satire, to convey a message that upsets and divides people. A message that not everyone understands and accepts.

Born in Cape Town in 1967, he grew up with a violent alcoholic father. He was a university professor and literary critic whom his mother separated from in 1970. It was a tough experience for Kannemeyer. At 18 years old he had only seen his mother twice since he was 3. It is exactly then that he decides to leave South Africa to move to Germany and join the mother figure he had missed during childhood and adolescence. He soon had to face a disappointing reality due to both his much hated white South African identity in anti-apartheid Europe, and the newly found roots he struggled to empathise with. Nonetheless, it’s in Germany that he discovers who Nelson Mandela is for the first time.

Anton Kannemeyer, From the book the limitations of white empathy (2018)
Anton Kannemeyer, From the book the limitations of white empathy (2018)

In 1987 Kennemeyer returns to South Africa and begings his studies in illustration and graphic design at Stellenbosch University. Alongside Conrad Botes he founds Bitterkomix in 1992, a socio-politics magazine which in those turbulent years gains both Kannemeyer and Conrad quite a lot of antiphaty due to their unequivocal attack against Afrikaner culture, which they later extended to South African society as a whole.

From being an anti-apartheid activist Kannemeyer transformed into a privilege monster, as he draws himself in his book the limitations of white empathy (2018): it’s quite difficult indeed to handle certain topics and to get through to people, especially if it is the message of a white South African who uses the black body to denounce the hypocrisy of South African society.

But, do ends always justify the means? Is it ok to use the black body—in its worst racial stereotypes—and white privilege to both comden and give exposure to systematic oppression and racism, and at the same time perpetuate it and benefit from it? These among many other questions flock our minds as we wait for him. White privilege, censorship, dealing with criticism, black people reappropriating the race discourse through arts and becoming protagonists rather than passive viewers, TinTin’s racist stereotypes, the prospects of his art now that the art world is changing and so on. There’s so much we want to discuss with him, but as we flick through the pages of his comic book, the limitations of white empathy, we immediately know this is where we want to start our conversation.

Celine Angbeletchy: Most people are shocked when they find out you had no idea who Nelson Mandela was until you were 18, even though you were born and grew up in South Africa. You vividly talk about your experience in The Limitations of White Empathy. Can you take us through the ideas behind book?

Anton Kannemeyer: Well, with this comic I try to explain how censorship worked in South Africa, the fact that if you grew up there, you didn’t understand what was going on in the rest of the world. Nowadays you go online, you get on a plane and it’s very easy to go to another country. This was before the Internet, there was no way for you to know anything like that if your parents didn’t tell you. The school certainly wouldn’t and newspapers wouldn’t even allow to mention Mandela’s name. This is how it was. I saw him for the first time on a poster in Germany when I was 18, I basically had to go out of South Africa to become politically aware.

griot mag - anton- kannemeyer interview intervista johanne affricot celine angbeletchy 1-54- tje limitations of white empathy nelson mandela
Anton Kannemeyer, From the book the limitations of white empathy (2018)

When I went to university, I refused to join the army (because in South Africa all white men had to do military service.) So I went to Germany where my mother lived, but I found it so restrictive and horrible, I just couldn’t fit in at all. The moment I was back in South Africa I felt I had a function there, there was some contribution I could make. So I joined all these student organisations and started fighting against apartheid, because that made sense to me. That’s where I started off.

Johanne Affricot: You exhibited at 1-54 many times, a fair that celebrates contemporary art by artists from Africa and the African diasporas. How does it feel to be here?

I must tell you in all honesty, I didn’t give it much thought. I’ve been exhibiting for a long time now and I’ve been in many group shows, solo shows and whatever. My comics have taken me all over the world, so if you ask me specifically about this art fair, I think it’s a bit unnecessary. I think it should just be part of everything, you know, without this thing of labelling African art. It’s art, why should that be separate?

Johanne: Because it was the only way to showcase and celebrate it. African artists didn’t have spaces like 1-54 to show their art here in Europe, that’s why they created this fair. But now things are evolving. I asked this question because your gallerist mentioned the different reactions you got from people in NY compared to London, as black Americans were not so impressed by the naive use of stereotypes.

I did an exhibition in 2011 with Jack Shainman, at the time I used a lot of those golliwog faces and I had huge paintings, in fact much bigger than I had at this year’s 1-54. That night Die Antwoord came to the opening with lots of cameras following them, it was really crowded. When it quieted down, everyone started coming forward shaking my hand and saying “thank you so much for talking about race, because in America white people are too scared to talk about it.” I was really overwhelmed by that. I thought, ‘This is amazing, this is what I’m trying to achieve with my work, I’m not attacking black people, that’s not the idea.’

A Black Woman (2011), Anton Kannemeyer
Anton Kannemeyer, A Black Woman (2011)

One of the reasons I used the golliwog face is because it is one of the most immediate ways to say: I’m talking about race. The moment you start using a whole person it becomes confusing. I remember once I was a visiting artist at the University of North Carolina and there was a black professor there who interviewed me and asked me: “Why don’t you just use a normal black face, why do you use this face?” And I said to her that the problem is that the message becomes confusing, because then somebody might think that the person that I’m depicting isn’t really black, but hispanic or something else. When you use satire, you make use of hyperbole, you sometimes make use of stereotypes, but the problem with it is that what you are criticising is also something that you perpetuate and that is the irony. So, I’m very aware of it. I know this is a problem and I really try to find different solutions, but I had to compromise in order to convey the meaning. That’s why I’m exhibiting that piece of work with the black couple walking away from that house. They’re drawn realistically, while the two white people are drawn comically in a simplified style. I try to show that one can reverse the whole process. I never want to make the golliwog like something that it’s easy for me to use in order to do whatever—it might look like it, but it isn’t.

My face hurts from smiling too much (2018), Anton Kannemeyer
Anton Kannemeyer, My face hurts from smiling too much (2018)

You know, the struggle I had with the one with the boy holding the bicycle! I think I repainted the boy’s face maybe six times and it just didn’t work. I’m very scared of becoming patronising or condescending towards black people. Actually, the most difficult work for me is the one In God We Trust because is very controversial. In the other paintings you have the contrast of white and black, but in this one you only have the two white hands, which are God’s, and it brings a complete different aspect to the work. This is something that I criticise, I criticise the involvement of religion, especially white religion, that was brought into Africa as a kind of artificial construct. It’s not something that originated there, it was brought in by Catholics firstly and now black people believe in this basically white God.

In God we trust (2018), Anton Kannemeyer
Anton Kannemeyer, In God we trust (2018)

Celine: Why the car?

It’s something to live up to, which is a contrast. First, you have this car which is a German brand, and then of course—this is where it becomes difficult—in SA I was very critical of the communist party, because they work with the ANC, the ruling party there. Even though the leader of this communist party is a socialist and whatnot, he drives in this really expensive Mercedes Benz and for me that’s not right! How can you drive this two-million-rand car when you say you’re a socialist and a communist? As a South African, I walk around London and I see all these cars parked near where I’m staying but, you know, I would never drive a car like that in South Africa, because I feel it’s just shameful. Nonetheless, you have people driving those cars in South Africa and they are very proud about it.

Celine: So, does your white privilege in South Africa make you feel guilty—also thinking about the painting you mentioned with the boy saying “We have guilt three times a week… and on Friday’s we have shame?”

Yes, this is also why I drew that little picture White Guilt, Black Humour behind the book the limitations of white empathy. I feel that it’s something you can’t get away from, you wake up in the morning and it’s there. And you know white privilege is a very interesting term to me, because I try to think, to understand and I know that I fall in that category: I’m privileged, I’m white. But then I think, what exactly does it mean? Because if I think back to my childhood, I grew up in a house where my father was a fascist, he was just the worst. He was married to four different women and we were beaten up all the time. My father didn’t used to buy expensive cars, but I remember getting into his car and hating every minute of it. To get away from him was a complete liberation for me. He died a few years ago without a penny on his back, in fact when I went to university he said he wouldn’t pay for anything, so I had to get student loans and pay back when I started working. I worked really hard in my life and I made a bit of money through my art and my work, but now my white privilege would probably be my education, the fact that I’ve gotten an education that enabled me to make money.

Guilt and shame (2017), Anton Kannemeyer
Anton Kannemeyer, Guilt and shame (2017)

Johanne: But it was your education that enabled you to be vocal, because being a black South African you couldn’t be as vocal as you were. This is also a privilege, even if you had a tough childhood.

What I’m trying to bring across is that I’m constantly thinking about these issues and I try to work them back into my work, such as in Guilt and Shame, and also in the one called Exhaustion, with the psychiatrist. When I was making it, I thought about the current debate that is happening, but everyone is so exhausted by it! So, in that piece you can see the landscapes in the background and currently there’s this other debate about the land in South Africa: who should it belong to? I’m not a politician. I see myself as pedestrian, somebody who walks. Do I see anything? Can I make art of it? Is it something that I find interesting or so? So, a lot of what I do is asking questions really and it’s very complicated.

Johanne: Because of the fact that you’re portraying this stuff, exposing these questions, people might think that you have the solution as well. 

You know Chekhov, the Russian writer, he said: “the duty of the artist is not to bring the answer, but to formulate the question” and I really agree with that. You must make people think, but then they come in shouting: “How can you? What’s the answer?”

Guilt and Shame, Exhaustion are later works that I think deal more with these issues, but there’s this kind of Internet police that is running around saying you’re not allowed to do this or that. I feel that it’s a kind of fascism that has taken hold of people now. So I’m worried about that, because for me what’s important is that people make art, that they’re allowed to make art and that we have a democratic discussion about it. This idea that you’re not allowed to make something and we don’t even want to talk about it because “it is so completely wrong”—that I find problematic. I’m so against censorship, I’ve been censored in many respects, one of my book has been censored by the state in South Africa, it was shortly after the new government took over and I think it was the old structures in the state that actually stopped it. Since then the community has been censoring me, the printers, the bookshops: they don’t want to sell my books.

Exhaustion (2018), Anton Kannemeyer
Anton Kannemeyer, Exhaustion (2018)

Celine: Is it white people that criticise you or black people that don’t understand or like the way you portray them?

Both, but mostly white and this is what I find so infuriating. These liberal whites feel that they have to act on behalf of black people: “We have to step in, because we have to save them…” It really pisses me off. Why don’t they ask a black person how they feel, instead of acting on behalf of somebody to try and make things nice. One element that I think is central to my work is the patronising and condescending behaviour from white people towards black people. I find it the centre of current racism, I find that to be the most offensive of things. In South Africa there’s also this general assumption that English speaking whites are much more sophisticated and that the Afrikaners are a bit backwards. I can’t tell you how many times in my life I’ve heard English speaking whites saying: “These stupid Afrikaners… or something” and it’s so offensive.

Johanne: Is what you’re saying linked to the piece Very Very Good that goes: “I’m not just saying it because you’re black….”?

You see, there I’ve drawn myself because I’ve been a lecturer for so long and I feel implicated in all the shit because I live in South Africa. But I do feel that with my work I could make a difference, so I drew myself. That piece works very well but I didn’t realise it when I first made it, the key is that you can’t see what’s on that canvas, therefore as a viewer you cannot not judge whether I’m lying or telling the truth. That piece just goes forward and backward, you never know what is actually going on and it doesn’t help that you start getting angry, you need to figure it out for yourself.

The hypocrisy of it obviously lies in the white person, that’s the bottom line, that’s how I would see it. I know the pieces are challenging, but I feel—and this is what satire does—they are a bit of a mirror. A lot of people say: “I looked at your work, I laughed and then I realised how racist it was and I just want to tell you that what you have done is unacceptable”. If you laugh, you’re immediately complicit to this thing, therefore you need to ask yourself: why would I laugh? Why would I feel uncomfortable about this? It doesn’t help saying: “there’s something wrong with this artist, let’s go kill him!” I mean, there could be potentially something wrong with the artist, but I think in most cases, it’s not the case.

Very, very good (2016), Anton Kannemeyer
Anton Kannemeyer, Very, very good (2016)

Celine: And what about the work Greetings from South Africa?

I make that work in 1993 and that was even before the first South African elections. I was trying to portray the perception of white people of that situation, the fact that they were thinking ‘Oh my God, this is what’s gonna happen!’ I really tried to make fun of white people’s fear, also the one “N is for Nightmare” is trying to make them more anxious! I thought that what could be funny now is him running away, shouting “But I’m woke! I’m woke!” But people might not find it funny, you know!

Greetings from South Africa (2014), Anton Kannemeyer
Anton Kannemeyer, Greetings from South Africa (2014)

Johanne, Celine: n is for nightmare and e is for eating people are from The Alphabet of Democracy, right?

Yes, they are. You see, this is the problem with an art fair like this. I’ve made a whole series of “Text Pieces”—as I call them—and what I try to illustrate is the absurdity of living in South Africa and the weird things that you come across. It’s all real, all those dates and information, I’m not trying to invent anything. But reading this from an European point of view, it’s outrageous! Though it was an actual article, in fact there’s a whole horrible, bizarre story of cannibalism behind it. You can’t just look at that one piece, you need to look at the whole series. I made a book of “The Alphabet of Democracy” and I’m still adding new pieces to it. I want to make a new book, but at this stage publishers in South Africa say they can’t publish it because everybody is too sensitive. Talking about my work with you was good, because it also clarifies certain things that I’m unsure about, because a lot of the time I’m not sure and with satire sometimes you make something and it doesn’t work! And I wonder: ‘Why are they raving about that one? I thought this was the stronger one.’

n is for nightmare (2023), from the series Alphabet of Democracy, Anton Kannemeyer
Anton Kannemeyer, n is for nightmare (2013), from the series The Alphabet of Democracy

Johanne: You founded Bitter Comix in 1992 and you started this conversation. How has the way your work is perceived changed over this period of time? How is it perceived now that the black community is reappropriating the conversation and the South African art scene is one of the most active. If white people used to speak on behalf of black people now blacks are talking for themselves, they are changing the narrative.  

You know, it’s been 20 years since my first international exhibition and the answer to your question is: there’s no one single “this is how they feel”. It depends, what time it was, where it happened. There has certainly been an evolution. I remember when I started off there was quite a lot of support of my work and I worked and exhibited with all of these black artists, they’re friends of mine, we’re all in the same gallery. But since 2015 there has been a marked change: there has been an intolerance for and towards my work. And I’m a bit affronted by that.

Johanne: Why can’t you handle this intolerance? If your work is truthful, why can’t you convince black people that it is just satire with a specific purpose?

I second guess my work the whole time and try to think about how can I strategise things, but the thing is irony has a destructive power and you reach a point where maybe it has finished and something new needs to be built up in the place of that irony. My work is very ironical, but satire itself always makes fun of something, and I think people, especially in the black community, got tired of it. But I’m the kind of artist that does satire, I do other things as well, but I feel that I’m at my best and do the strongest stuff when I do satire.

B is for Black, W is for White (2008), Anton Kannemeyer
Anton Kannemeyer, B is for Black, W is for White (2008)

Johanne: TinTin was defined racist because of the narrative, the drawings’ style etc. But a lot of people defended it saying that it was part of their childhood, tradition—which is exactly what happens in the Netherlands with Black Pete. Why can’t people realise the blatant racism behind it and move on, rather than holding on to these things?

Here I completely agree with you. Initially Tin Tin and the Congo was not supposed to appear in English, as it was stipulated in Hergé’s will [Georges Prosper Remi]. Then in 2005, that was overturned somehow and it came out in English with a little disclaimer saying, ‘Let’s read this book in the spirit of when it came out in the 1950s…’ and then he was criticised for that book.

I remember reading it to my daughter and at the time I couldn’t explain to her it was full of racial stereotypes because she wouldn’t have understood it. But I read the book and at one point she said: “what are the monkeys doing here?” I just closed the book and said that one day we would look at it again and I’d explain to her what it was. And then it started triggering those ideas, I thought I could use this book as a kind of metaphor to actually address these issues.

Homage to Hergé, Anton Kannemeyer
Anton Kannemeyer, Homage to Hergé

There was a black guy in Belgium who said the book was racist and it should have been taken off the shelves. I must say I don’t believe in censorship, so I wrote my opinion in the comment section on Amazon and I said that the book is racist, there is no two-way about it and that the problem with the book is that it is directed at children, so children will read it and those racial stereotypes will be reinforced. My suggestion is to stick something on it, like for rap lyrics, an age restriction label that obviously defies the whole purpose of the book because if you say children aren’t allowed to buy it, then nobody is going to buy it, as adults will think it’s crap. The NY Library actually took the book off the shelves and said they were not banning the book, but keeping it behind the counter, so if people wanted to read it, they would need to ask for it. I think that is not such a bad idea, but was I criticised on Amazon! People said exactly that same thing: “We grew up with TinTin, it’s harmless, it’s not a big deal.” That book is harmful, it inspired all the works that I started doing, but now I feel that I’m reaching a point where I need to stop. I’ve done enough work on it, it’s kind of over.

Anton Kannemeyer, Moulinsart Lawyers I (2012)

Johanne: So you’re thinking to stop doing this kind of work, has that time come?

Yes, because as I said earlier, I focus on that aspect of patronising, condescending behaviour which I find the centre of racism. I think about two years ago, or maybe a bit before that, that penny has dropped and people are resisting, so why should I continue? Also, my galleries in New York and Cape Town said they can’t exhibit my work anymore and I understand that. I’ve got a book coming out in France, but I don’t know how I’m going to negotiate my way forward, I have to reinvent myself in a way.

Johanne: This is the most difficult thing for an artist, especially if you’ve done this for the past 25 years. 

Yes, but I think that maybe it is something that is needed from my side as well, I have  already been working on other stuff. Here I’m exhibiting a very selected group of works, I’ve been working on different stuff for the past two years.

 Anton Kannemeyer will be showing his works at this year’s 1:54 Contemporary African Fair 2019.

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Celine Angbeletchy
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I’m a very eclectic person with an obsession for music, writing and sociology. I was born and raised in Italy, but London has been my second home for over a decade. Here I make music, DJ, write, dance, sing and bake.

Johanne Affricot
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Visual and performing arts, culture and music, traveling: I could just live on this. Graduated in International Cooperation and Development, I am an indipendent Culture Curator and Producer, and Artistic Director of GRIOTmag and Spazio GRIOT.