Anton Kannemeyer Fear of a Black Planet at Michael Stevenson
by Katharine Jacobs
I've been reading a lot of Fanon lately. Not out of choice, of course, but out of academic obligation. Strangely enough though, I've been enjoying it. Fanon's analysis of postcolonial governments has been pertinent to and prophetic of a number of political troubles in our own and neighbouring countries of late. His analysis of the interactions and formation of black and white psyches in a colonial context also makes for fascinating reading. Based on his work as a psychiatrist for French troops in Algeria by day and the guerrilla forces by night, Black Skin, White Masks positions the identity of the black subject as a repository for white aggression.
In books such as Tarzan, Mickey Mouse and many other comic books, white aggression is released through the scapegoating of the black subject; 'The Negro is a phobogenic object, a stimulus to anxiety', one who is 'truly genital', primitive and is unable to control his desire (Fanon 1952:151). Perhaps Anton Kannemeyer has been reading a lot of Fanon lately too.
'Fear of a Black Planet', Kannemeyer's latest offering, certainly deals explicitly with exactly this: the manner in which fear and racism serve and obscure each other. Designed as a kind of large scale comic book, Kannemeyer's bitingly ironic and sometimes cuttingly offensive paintings and lithographs use the literature of colonialism as an analogue to confront the viewer with some all too commonly held fears, which, perhaps, mask outright racist beliefs. Peekaboo, for instance, a large acrylic work, pictures an aging Tintin jumping up in alarm as a black gollywog-esque figure pokes his head out of the jungle shouting an innocuous 'peekaboo!'. Blocked in with flat, bright colours, Kannemeyer's painting references Herge's clean lined Tintin comics, but extracted in this manner, and enlarged, the fear which the white man exhibits comes under scrutiny.
Another brightly rendered comic strip scene entitled Black Gynaecologist pictures a blonde woman lying back, eyes closed with her legs up in stirrups, while a black doctor squints in between her legs as he probes with a pink tube. This is uncomfortable stuff, and not just for the woman with her legs up. No doubt there are still many who would shudder at the thought of visiting a black gynaecologist, many who would plead they are 'not racist, but...'. In Fanon's analysis, just as the Jew was scapegoated as the intellectual and economic threat in Nazi Germany, the black man is made to represent 'biological danger'; 'He is a penis', and a threat to the white man's possession of his wife. The black man as gynaecologist then plucks at this very nerve, and baldly confronts one in a manner that cannot but force one to question how much of these prejudices one has absorbed.
Elsewhere, the black man literally becomes just the penis of Fanon's reckoning, signified by a little forest of penises growing out of the African soil in Fertile Land in the Cursed Paradise series, or as two huge curving snakes writhing around uncontrollably while the Tintins try to restrain them in Black Dicks. Schlock Horror, another in the Cursed Paradise series, overwrites the same lithographic image of Africa with an image of a black figure carrying off a white woman in a nightgown. A comical image, Schlock Horror bears striking resemblance to that thoroughly disempowered fairytale maiden in need of rescue by a dashing young man on a white steed. Who better than a black villain to constitute the crucible of this fantasy?
Fanon, of course, also has something to say about the fear of rape by a black man. To him, the fear of rape involves a fantasy on the part of the woman, a desire to engage with the excessive sexuality with which the black man is associated. Now this is dangerous territory; I'm not so sure how I feel about Fanon's assertion, particularly when he asks 'does this fear of rape not itself cry out for rape?' (1952:156). Given recently published statistics, I would say that in many cases, the fear of rape represents a genuine and reasonable concern for one's safety. But perhaps when this fear centres around rape by a racialised subject, perhaps Fanon and Kannemeyer are right to be critical.
After all, is the scapegoating of the black man as aggressor, and white woman as helpless victim, not a mutually disempowering position? As the statistics state, rape of course, occurs across all demographics; it is not the purely black sin white folk perhaps like to imagine.
It is blackness which is, however associated with sin, as Kannemeyer's dual lithographic prints defining black and white identify. B is for Black provides the following definition: 'adj. Opposite of white, dirty, messy, without light, dark, illegal, dim, smuggled, sombre, disastrous, dismal, obscure, sullen, bad-tempered, angry, horrible, grotesque, malignant, unhappy, depressed'.
It is a simple word association game, of course, easy enough to spot in our vocabulary of phrases. Indeed, the word 'black' brought up strikingly negative associations in Fanon's word association tests with some 500 white patients: 'biology, penis, strong, athletic, potent, boxer�savage, animal, devil' coming out most commonly (1952:166). This is an unpleasant identity to have mirrored back to one, one which Fanon suggests is particularly damaging to the black child, who, in order to engage in colonial culture will identify with the white heroes of comics, and be forced to either renounce or despise his own blackness in the shape of the villain.
Tintin then, is a fitting character to demonstrate this process of transference, particularly in Kannemeyer's Alphabet of Democracy series which refers perhaps to Tintin's own forays into the world of art. Tintin and Alph-art was Herge's last, and unfinished work. It centred around a deception plot in the avant-garde art world, involving a Perspex letter H and, Tintin being covered in liquid polyester and signed by a fake Cesare to become a statue. In it, Kannemeyer's alphabet, N stands for Tintin's 'Nightmare' as four mournful-looking Tintins carry a black figure reclining in comfort. Perhaps this is a nice way to sum up the trajectory of the whole show.
'Fear of a Black Planet' certainly presents something of a nightmare for the contemporary South African Tintin. Trapped in Kannemeyer's artworks, a lame duck covered in paint, and signed by Kannemeyer, the contemporary white subject cannot escape the legacy of his own racist fears. He is stuck in a nightmare of his own making, his fears a self-fulfilling prophecy. Probably, Kannemeyer has been reading too much Fanon, a dangerous thing as Fanon skates on thin ice at times, but it is the danger and confrontational edge which makes this a show to remember.
Indeed, it is perhaps fitting that this show is exhibited alongside Odili Donald Odita's jarring shards of paint, which leave the eyes burning and blurred with their optical tricks (and also tell of a history of racism and exploitation with their implicit reference to the pigment trade). Kannemeyer's show works similarly, etching a vibrating tremor into one's retina, and leaving one's gut squirming as one tries to come to terms with one's own position in the comics.
Reference: Fanon, F. 1952. Black Skin, White Masks. Paris: Editions du Seuil