The profane world of Anton Kannemeyer
Describing the iconoclastic oeuvre o >Bitterkomix is a difficult task even for its co-creator Anton Kannemeyer (alias Joe Dog), who last month delivered the year's final Michaelis lunchtime lecture in Cape Town. That task is perhaps best left to the cover of the magazine's seventh issue. It depicts a young white girl sticking out her tongue to a series of icons representing solid Afrikaner values like home, church and family.
Such simple acts of bold yet humorous defiance have characterized the publication since its 1992 launch. With reference to historical antecedents like American SK Wilson, Kannemeyer said satire critically entertained and could include the pathetic and the profane. "It is all part of a sentient armoury, a hotchpotch of symbols and metaphors. The satirist is both revealer and concealer," he added.
Bitterkomix was co-founded with Conrad Botes ('Konradski'), "a really good artist with an exceptional ability to draw and to bring across emotion or mood". Over the past decade, the pair has established a hard-hitting satirical publication. It has consistently tackled the sacred cows of sex, religion and politics with wit, irony and hard criticism leaving behind carcasses of exposed folly and evil. And today it continues to drive a thorn in the side of the conservative establishment in general and the Afrikaner ideology in particular.
In 1994, the pair launched a new pornographic spoof magazine called Gif (Poison) inspired in part by Amsterdam sex shops. Kannemeyer said: "I always saw very obvious sex as a vehicle to bring my comment across. It is extremely provocative but iconoclastic, destroying the image the community regards as sacred." The result was "a kind of Afrikaner Sekskomix" that elicited a very strong reaction back home - mostly negative. It also earned the December issue a banning order - the first under the new democratic dispensation.
Critics are certainly in no short supply. At Durban's Sex & Sensibility conference held earlier this year, Kannemeyer's work was spray-painted by one concerned citizen doing what he could to protect 'decent' folk with good, Christian values. "We get lots of hate mail from white Afrikaners," Kannemeyer said. "Some of it is just astonishing."
He considers reaction to his work extremely important. But he added: "It's also important to understand that praise can be as distracting as criticism - if not more so. In the end, you learn to block some things out and just focus on your work."
In general, vitriol is accepted as par for the course. Any satire runs the risk of being misunderstood when readers do not realize the content is ironically intended, Kannemeyer said. "The satirist unfortunately always immortalizes both their work and that of their subject/s. I don't think it's always a problem but sometimes things run on a very thin edge, which is often the case with the very best work."
But Bitterkomix also has a very strong fan base and its effects are being felt more broadly. In particular, the Bitterkomix style is influencing the next generation of South African graphic designers. Kannemeyer says it is the visual idiom of Bitterkomix - with its roots in resistance - that is having the most impact: "Unfortunately, people often just like the style and not the content."
Kannemeyer is also a senior lecturer at Stellenbosch University - an irony that naturally does not escape him. It is perhaps a sign of the times that he is now employed by the very institution viewed in the past as a bastion of the white South African ideology his satirical comics assertively confront.
In this capacity, he said design students are not computer-obsessed despite the changes technology has brought about. He added: "I work closely with Garth Walker [managing director of I-Jusi]. There are many aspects in our work that overlap - for instance, our obsessions with hand typography. The new generation is very receptive to this kind of thing. I think it has become very clear to young students here that hand skills are very important if you want to excel in this direction."
Kannemeyer leads by example, working obsessively in books and journals, drawing every day in a constant stream of ideas and brainstorming. He says incessant activity is common to all comic creators: "They never stop drawing. If you don't draw all the time, you are just not good enough."
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