States of emergence growing up in apartheid South-Africa, by Warren Siebrits
Aspects of Kendell Geers’ art production whilst living in South Africa 1988 - 1998
At a conference held at the Ikapa Sessions in Cape Town Kendell introduced himself to the audience of academics, journalists and fellow artists by stating:
“I make art about the community I was born into in South Africa, white, paranoid suburban people. I make art about their fears, their paranoia, their desires as well as their inability to see beyond their electric fence.”
Who were the white suburban middle-class that informed our reality whilst growing up in the 70s and 80s in South Africa ? What was it like being a white, suburban and Afrikaans speaking kid born in the late 60s in apartheid South Africa? Why was the apartheid system there? What was its purpose and what were its side-affects on black as well as white citizens of South Africa? I will discuss the differences between English and Afrikaans members of South African society both politically and socially. This should help dispel the myth that the white community during the apartheid years stood united. It is also important to highlight the difference in attitude between parents and the youth growing up during our generation in South Africa and how these differences shaped and evolved artistic and creative expression during this period, particularly during the 80s.
Before discussing apartheid and the segregation of white and black in South Africa, I feel it is pertinent to point out that a great rift that existed and in some instances, continues to exist, between English and Afrikaans members of the white community in South Africa. Historically the Afrikaners (also referred to as Boers, translated as farmer) emigrated to the southern tip of Africa from Holland and France, and spoke Afrikaans, a local derivative of Dutch, while the British emigrated to South Africa from Britain.
The discovery of diamonds in 1867 and gold in 1886 led to two ferocious and bitter wars that were fought between the local Boer forces and the Imperial British armies. These wars became known as the first and second Anglo Boer Wars. The first war was fought between 1880-1881 and the second between 1899-1902. The Boers were defeated by the British on both occasions.
Although fought over political divisions, the wars were driven by economic imperatives. The second Anglo Boer War, in particular, was and still is, a source of great bitterness for the Afrikaans community in South Africa. For the first time in military history the world witnessed the horrors of concentration camps and guerrilla warfare. Boer women and children were rounded up and placed in these camps where they suffered under very difficult conditions, many perishing in captivity. This fuelled the resentment felt by the Afrikaners for their English adversaries.
The scorched earth policy employed by British commanders led to the destruction of Afrikaner farms and homes, and drove them from their land and destroyed their crops and livestock. It won Britain the war and the control of the gold and diamond fields but left bitterness, hatred and resentment – which is still felt today.
The English-speaking segments of the population have traditionally held more liberal views, whilst the Afrikaans-speakers held more conservative and Calvinist views. Of course, this is a broad generalisation and there were many exceptions to this rule. Afrikaners were mainly rural and the English more urban, but this changed when the Depression of 1930 forced many destitute Afrikaans farmers to move to the urban centres in search of work.
These very differences are central to and inform many of the social and political realities that define the white South Africa of the twentieth century. The black African population groups were victims of the friction between English and Afrikaans speaking whites in South Africa. The friction was also the impetus for the creation of the apartheid system with its institutionalised racial and cultural discrimination which lasted 46 years in South Africa. Apartheid has left an indelible stain on every South African who experienced this unfortunate period of local history, black and white, English and Afrikaans.
Kendell’s role as an artist working in South Africa between 1988 and 1998 was to use his art to examine the nature of this indelible stain - this mark of history, which still haunts the national psyche to this day.
Kendell’s chosen mode of expression during this period was the found object which had been marginally altered or rectified. This process would dynamically challenge the viewer’s reading of mundane everyday objects, thereby uncovering its true meaning in the context of the socio-political landscape of the day. Bricks, Bibles, government letters and documents, tyres, candles, cultural weapons, political identity cards and broken bottles were some of the items selected by Kendell to convey his thoughts about life growing up in apartheid South Africa. His best works from this period represent powerful distillations that define aspects of the bizarre reality of life in apartheid South Africa. I have selected 14 works for discussion in this essay. Before discussing the works however I would first like to discuss how Kendell and I met and give some insight into the history that shaped and disfigured an already malformed society which both Kendell and I were born into in the late 60's.
Kendell and I met at an experimental music performance by mutual friend Konrad Welz at The University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in 1988. Konrad’s band was called Vache Noire (Black Cow). The title of the performance was Lathe which was held at the Box Theatre on 18 and 19 September 1987. The poster advertising the performance depicted a group of army scientists in rank and file entering a radio-active zone. Dressed to protect themselves from contamination, the image alludes powerfully to the desensitisation to the social and political environment prevalent in the South African white community. Wits in Johannesburg and UCT in Cape Town attracted English-speaking and liberal-minded students, many of whom protested against apartheid, the role of the military, racial discrimination and social injustice.
At the time Kendell was a student at Wits – and I was busy with my two years of compulsory military service. I was on leave and had just arrived back in Johannesburg by train. Only a short distance from the station, I had walked to Wits still dressed in my brown military uniform and combat boots. The South African Defence Force supported the ideology of the apartheid government, enforced and upheld the policies of the State and was mostly Afrikaans in make-up and orientation. The moment you donned the uniform you were identified accordingly by those around you.
Although I was anything but the perfect product of the apartheid state, I was certainly packaged like one, so I received many odd looks and a couple of strange comments during the performance. Afterwards I was introduced by Konrad to Kendell. I still recall the hostility of Kendell’s body language and icy stare as he looked at me with suspicion and hatred. Wearing the colours of the apartheid State on that day, in that context, was a stupid and dangerous thing to have done and I feel fortunate in retrospect that I came to no harm.
Two days later we met again, this time under friendlier circumstances. We spent an entire afternoon listening to industrial and experimental music projects, a common interest. Recordings of this nature were viewed as subversive by the apartheid authorities and were therefore extremely difficult to obtain in South Africa. We would swop and share information in an attempt to spread the virus - we liked anything from Throbbing Gristle to Einsturzende Neubauten, Coil, Non, SWANS, Skinny Puppy and Front 242. Both Kendell and Konrad played in underground bands at the time and this common ground helped Kendell and I make the first steps towards a long and enduring friendship.
In a police state, kept in check by state intervention and censorship, the essence of an interest in abject and anti-social musical expression was to establish an arena for social and political transgression away from state-controlled reality in South Africa. Nothing that was interesting, experimental or subversive was ever permitted to influence mass consciousness during this time. The cultural boycott put in place by the international community in the wake of the Soweto uprisings in June 1976 indirectly assisted the apartheid state in limiting our collective imaginations. The cultural boycott allowed our strict censorship authorities more time to scrutinise less material, which meant that very little escaped their attention. Although most things were banned or confiscated from shops, a couple of wonderful things still slipped through the cracks. A courageous and defiant record shop owner called John Ackermann was of great help to us in sourcing these obscure records we had only heard about from England, Europe, the US and Canada. He owned the only truly independent record shop in Johannesburg during the 70s and 80s. Street Records was directly across the road from Wits and anyone interested in music and freedom of expression during those years remembers them with great fondness. Street Records must be one of the only music retailers to close their doors due, not to lack of sales, but to continued police harrassment. Shipments would often disappear or spend long periods of time detained at customs – creating cashflow problems for the business. Undercover police officers in civilian clothes would often arrive unannounced and confiscate anything they deemed subversive, offensive or simply undesirable for public consumption. The top 20 charts were characterised by mediocrity, due partly to the cultural boycott and censorship. David Cassidy, Fleetwood Mac, Dire Straits and Billy Joel were the kind of thing promoted by the state and therefore the record companies. With a dull and uninteresting set of entertainment options available, counter culture in the form of subversive underground music became the perfect way in which to start creating an alternative reality and counteract the mediocrity of suburban white South Africa.
White suburbs were not homogeneous and differed largely in character due to language and class differences, wealthier whites sharing distinctly English or Afrikaans speaking suburbs. I grew up in the affluent northern suburbs of Johannesburg which were predominantly English speaking and were therefore more liberal. I spent the first 17 years of my life cocooned in this way, blissfully unaware that other social models existed. So segregated was the suburb I grew up in, that I only mixed with Afrikaans people and spoke their language in conversation for the first time when I was 18-years-old – when I arrived for my military service. Kendell on the other hand, grew up in a poor white Afrikaans family on the east side of Johannesburg, known as the East Rand. Although born in Germiston, Kendell spent his formative years in Boksburg.
This town and this period was immortalised in the photographs of South African photographer David Goldblatt (b.1930) in his book titled In Boksburg (1981). In this predominantly blue-collar, whites only neighbourhood, most families were poor and from the wrong side of the tracks. Boksburg was a tough town with a violent reputation. The poverty of working class life, the sense of xenophobia and alienation were common to both English and Afrikaans speaking families living in close proximity to one another. Kendell’s father was a devout Christian. Kendell told me once that the only book he ever read as a young boy was the Bible. Apparently it was the only book in the house. The Bible may have brought white South Africa together on Sundays, but the ministers of English and Afrikaans churches interpreted God’s word to very different ends.
Churches were also segregated by language. The more conservative Afrikaans churches not only discouraged attendance by English speakers but also refused black people admission. Black people were deemed unworthy and inferior by the church elders. The government’s policy of Christian National Education also segregated English and Afrikaans learners. This policy of nationalist superiority advantaged the Afrikaans children and in time became a great source of friction between English and Afrikaans pupils at schools. This friction was most evident in the poorer parts of town. Violence and fighting was most prevalent between teenagers still at school and young men in their 20s.
These were some of the contradictions which faced the white suburban male in South Africa, growing up during the apartheid years. Political and cultural differences kept English and Afrikaans speakers apart but they where forced to interact when they were conscripted into the military. Although English speakers were traditionally victimised and humiliated by the dominant Afrikaans segment of the military, things began to change in the early 80s. English and Afrikaans dissidents, who had to sacrifice two years of their lives and more fighting an unjust and unnecessary war, were brought together in their hatred of a common foe. They started to put aside their ideological and political differences in their common aim to defy their parents, elders, politicians and church leaders.
The fuel for this rebellious attitude was an alternative music culture that began to thrive in the late 70s and early 80s. Shifty Records, founded by filmmaker Lloyd Ross, was at the epicentre of this underground music scene and had a big influence on the course Afrikaans alternative music would take over the next decade. Although Shifty Records struggled initially they were fortunate to receive funding from abroad which kept them afloat. One of the label’s great discoveries was James Phillips (1959-1994) who recorded under various names, including The Cherry Faced Lurchers and his alter ego Bernoldus Niemand. His first LP titled Wie Is Bernoldus Niemand? (Who Is Bernoldus Niemand?) released in 1984, traced the roots of poor white suburban South Africa. Although he chose a typical Afrikaans name as a pseudonym for his recordings, Phillips was English speaking, and the son of a Presbyterian church minister.
The Niemand of his surname is translated literally as nobody in Afrikaans, and he sang songs tinged with contradiction and irony about white trash, girls, broken hearts, smoking zol (cannabis) and the dreaded army. His most subversive and well-known song was titled Hou My Vas Korporaal (Hold Me Tight Corporal) and was immediately banned by the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC). It was thought to have a generally pessimistic view of the army and was therefore unfit for radio. Shifty Records were informed via official channels that the record had been defaced with a sharp object so no rebellious DJs could play it in years to come.
This was the fate of music deemed undesirable by the state. When the record was banned by the SABC the biggest national retailer CNA (Central News Agency) refused to carry copies on their shelves. In a heroic act of defiance Phillips took a pile of records from the Shifty offices and walked into the nearest branch of the CNA. Unannounced and without permission he placed copies of his banned records on the shelves. He told nobody. The staff at Shifty only realised what he had done a few days later when they received a confused telephone call from a clerk wondering how stock had arrived on their shelves that they had never ordered or that didn’t appear on their inventories. Another musician and part owner in Shifty Records was Warrick Sony who recorded under the name The Kalahari Surfers. His use of recordings of South African Nationalist speeches in his music, particularly those of President P.W. Botha, attracted the attention of the censor who declared them undesirable and unfit for public consumption. Sony was forced to smuggle the master tapes to England, where the records were pressed and the covers made. When they were reimported into South Africa the records and sleeves were sent in separate parcels so not to attract attention at customs. Anything found to be odd or suspicious would automatically be confiscated and destroyed. This was the climate of censorship and state interference endured by artists, musicians and writers during the 70s and 80s in South Africa. Sony released four LPs during the 80s – Own Affairs (1984), In The Heart Of The Beast (1985), Sleep Armed (1986) and Bigger Than Jesus (1989). More conceptual and avant garde in style and language, these records sold very poorly in South Africa at the time, but certain records, particularly Sleep Armed, sold thousands of copies abroad. Although they only sold a few copies, these recordings would influence an entire generation of young white South Africans disillusioned with the affairs of the state in South Africa.
Ironically, the alternative Afrikaans music movement which is huge today and represented by bands like Fokofpolieskar (Fuck Off Police Car) are indebted not only to early Afrikaans exponents but to English speakers like Lloyd Ross and James Phillips. Both English and Afrikaans youth from this generation who feared that they would turn out like their parents, used music and counter culture as a way to challenge and subvert the status quo of white middle-class South Africa.
In the same year that Sony released Bigger Than Jesus and five years after the release of Wie Is Bernoldus Niemand? Phillips would be the main act on a countrywide tour known as the Voëlvry Tour (Free As A Bird Tour).
This alternative Afrikaans rock tour is referred to as South Africa’s mini Woodstock. The tour became an important symbol of the power of popular culture and its open defiance of the attitudes and policies of the apartheid state. The white suburban middle-class began to rebel and at this crucial time in South Africa’s history the white apartheid government lost its most important power base - the white middle-class suburban youth. Popular culture and music in particular had become a powerful weapon to challenge the status quo. Popular and counter culture made a huge impact on political and creative thinking at the time. What had driven these once passive members of the middle-class, both English and Afrikaans, to rebel against everything the system had taught them to believe?
State of denial
In the wake of the economic repercussions of the Depression of 1930 black and white labourers worked side-by-side in the mines and industry. Due to their shared economic standing they also lived in the same residential areas which led to intermingling and marriage. This gave rise to a growing number of poor whites – something which prompted the Nationalist Party (NP) to declare a social crisis in 1938. Dr D.F. Malan, NP leader at the time, was move to say:
“The battle with weapons is over. That was the Voortrekkers. But one more violent, more deadly than theirs, is being decided now. The battlefield has shifted. Your Blood River is not here. Your Blood River lies in the town ... The Afrikaner of the new Great Trek meets the non-white at his Blood River …defenceless in the open plains of economic competition.”
The desire to create economic and social advancement for whites at the cost of black South Africans was the foundation of apartheid. It was at this time that the term Die Swart Gevaar (The Black Danger) was first coined and used in political debate by members of the NP. A decade later in 1948 the NP appealed to its electorate for the first time using the slogan apartheid, which meant separateness. This political solution to economic and social difficulties of the white working class of the day put them in power in 1948.
The system of racial discrimination, which was in place for 46 years, irrevocably shaped and distorted the reality and consciousness of all South Africans. The first major act to be passed was the Mixed Marriages Act of 1949 which proscribed criminal penalties for those wanting to marry across the colour bar. Further laws were passed to aid the cheap production of gold which was the cornerstone of South Africa’s powerful economy during this period. Influx control limited the number of non-whites allowed into the cities. Separate amenities were created to further alienate the race groups. The country was in a state of denial about the true realities confronting white South Africa. Ironically, the Prime Minister B.J. Vorster had his own distorted interpretation of this reality when he announced in 1969 in Parliament:
“The policy of separate development is not intended, and must not be seen, as a denial of anyone’s human dignity. It is aimed at protecting the whites.”
Although the 50s and 60s was a great period of prosperity for the white community the cracks were starting to show. The only protection white middle-class suburbia needed was from themselves and their policies. The culmination of decades of discriminatory policy and practice came to a head in June 1976. The outbreak of largest race riots ever seen in South Africa marked a clear turning point in the country’s history. Although the use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction was the initial flashpoint commentators agree that the poor socio-economic conditions in the townships and deep-seated resentment at being regarded as second class citizens were the true reasons for this insurrection. Although these riots were the catalyst for the subsequent political changes, the price in human life was high. According to figures released by the South African Police Services (SAPS), more than 16 000 rounds were fired in Soweto alone, killing 172 blacks and injuring 1 439 others. Prof J.J.F. Taljaard, the head State Pathologist declared 229 post mortems were performed between 18 June and 18 August on the Johannesburg West Rand. Of these, about two thirds of the people had died of gunshot wounds. In the Johannesburg area 68 were found to have been shot from behind.
These painful reminders of the past would re-emerge in 1993 when Kendell found the official mortuary register from the 1976 Soweto riots discarded on a rubbish dump in Newtown, Johannesburg. UNTITLED (1976) utilised one of the most sinister found objects ever to be exhibited in South Africa. It was written in the same hand by an office clerk whose job it was to keep the register up to date. All the entries were in alphabetical order with some marked with a red ‘R’ in the margin. This indicated someone who died as a direct result of rioting. On closer scrutiny Kendell was shocked to find Hector Pietersen’s name clearly recorded in blue ink.
Hector Pietersen was the first victim of the Soweto uprisings on 16 June 1976. As it turned out the majority of the hundreds of entries were riot victims, mainly from Soweto and surrounding areas. Pietersen was the first demonstrator to be shot dead. Only 12 years old and with blood pouring from a bullet wound to the head, the image of his limp body being carried through the streets of Soweto, was seen on television screens and printed in newspapers around the world. Now 30 years later this image still remains an iconic anti-apartheid symbol.
Seventeen years later and less than one year before South Africa’s first democratic elections, it was decided by the apartheid government to destroy as many incriminating documents and official records as possible. Many were destroyed but a number remained intact, including this particular mortuary register. The discovery of this document and its subsequent exhibition at The Everard Read Contemporary in Rosebank posed many uncomfortable questions for the South African public at large. Why had the document been discarded in such a careless and callous manner? Why was Hector Pietersen’s body brought to a mortuary in Newtown, a great distance from where he died in Soweto? On further investigation it turned out that a remote mortuary in a whites-only, non-residential part of Johannesburg had been selected to house many of the dead from the Soweto uprisings. As relatives of the deceased would only think of looking at local mortuaries in Soweto, no bodies could be located and identified immediately. Even worse, the Pass Law System prohibited black people access to these areas. By placing the bodies in a remote mortuary the number of reported dead would be reduced. The thinking was to reduce the levels of anger, hostility and resentment in the townships towards officials in the aftermath of the unrest.
The state, in the run-up to the elections in April 1994, tried in vain to retrieve this incriminating document by sending a strongly worded official letter to the gallery owner Trent Read. The letter, written on a Department of National Education letterhead and dated 3 February 1994, read:
Dear Mr. Read
It has come to my attention that an official inquest register has been obtained by Everard Read Contemporary and that the register is being offered for sale. The exact details are not known to me, but according to my information the register was picked up at a dump site at the Johannesburg Magistrates offices. I wish to point out that in the case of such a register actually having been obtained, it would remain an official record and state property which may not be alienated and should not have been allowed to be alienated. I would appreciate your kind assistance to clarify this matter.
Marie Olivier Director: State Archive Services (acting)
The sphere of legislative and constitutional power of the once feared and reviled apartheid juggernaut had come to a halt. UNTITLED (1976) was purchased in May 1994 by MuseumAfrika in Newtown and is now held less than a kilometre from the Newtown Mortuary – whose staff had originally discarded the item in the first place. The sinister pathology of the apartheid era ended with the dawning of the New South Africa. However, the violence, injustice and horror suppressed and condensed in a document of this nature can never be diminished by the passage of time.
June 1976 is also the date that television was first introduced to South Africa. Initially the SABC had only one channel which broadcast for four hours a day from 6pm onwards. Even television was segregated by language, with one day devoted to programmes in Afrikaans and one for English. These were the only two official languages during the apartheid years. In public places like airports and train stations announcements were always made first in Afrikaans and then in English. Due to the cultural boycott many programmes were locally produced or needed to be dubbed into Afrikaans at huge expense.
One of the first adverts I remember was for the car manufacturer Chevrolet. The adverts slogan summed up white South Africans priorities at the time – Braaivleis, Sunny Skies and Chevrolet – translated as barbeque, the weather and an big American car. It is also interesting to note that only white actors and models appeared in South African television advertising for fear of alienating their white clientele during the apartheid years. Incidentally, 1988 was the first year black faces were seen in a television advert for a chocolate bar called Tempo. White kids from more conservative communities refused to eat these chocolate bars initially in protest at the shock of seeing black and white people portrayed happily integrated sharing a bar of chocolate. This was not how we were programmed to think in white South Africa, especially during our school years. Television in South Africa was not purely an entertainment device but a tool for indoctrination and state programming. Every broadcast would end with a prayer in either English or Afrikaans. This was followed by the singing of the National Anthem in Afrikaans. Written by C.J. Langenhoven and called Die Stem (The Voice), the lyrics were reproduced every night superimposed over a shot of the old SA flag in orange, white and blue, filmed in slow motion for added drama and mood. Plunged into darkness every evening after the singing of the anthem, white South Africa was encouraged to sleep heavily sedated, after another long day of state-controlled voice and vision. This childhood memory became the basis for a work produced by Kendell titled Anthem which depicted a series of anarchy flags flying backwards with a distorted and slowed down version of The Sex Pistols ‘Anarchy In The UK’ playing in the background. This was first exhibited by Kendell in Berlin in 1998.
On 12 September 1977, barely a year after the Soweto uprisings, the renowned activist Steve Biko (1947-1977) was killed in police custody. This incident again sparked violent protests across the country leaving more than 600 people dead. Further international sanctions were imposed as the world realised the desperate plight of black South Africa. However, nothing was ever televised in South Africa. Education and media were so tightly controlled that the average white South African did not know who Steve Biko was or that he had even died in police custody.
Although sporadic, creative murmurs echoing voices of dissent and discontent began to emerge from the white middle-class community during the 70s. One such artist and writer was Wopko Jensma (b. 1939). Jensma was a gifted artist, poet and typographer who published three exceptional books of poetry during the 70s. The titles themselves give a strong clue to their content. Sing For My Execution (1973), Where White Is The Colour & Black Is The Number (1975) and I Must Show You My Clippings (1977) were not only written by Jensma but interlaced with his brilliant graphic art. The second of the three books was banned almost immediately due to its title which was deemed undesirable and offensive by the state.
Although from a conservative Afrikaans background, much of Jensma’s inspiration came from black African culture. Jensma married across the colour bar to a Swazi woman - the ultimate act of social defiance during this time. In the process, it is rumoured, he had himself reclassified from white to black. This was unthinkable at the time, given that he was a member of a race, class and status-obsessed Afrikaner nation. Suffering from advanced schizophrenia, Jensma was last seen in the mid-90s. Although believed to be dead, no body has ever been found. Officially he remains mysteriously alive and well with no death certificate to prove otherwise.
Another pivotal local creative influence was friend and fellow student Neil Goedhals (1957-1990). Goedhals was also a big fan of Jensma’s work, particularly his poetry. Goedhals divided his time between art and music. He was the founder member of two obscure but influential bands during the 80s. The first band was called The Prisoners Gogo Band Live! This project released one LP titled At The Butchery With Special Guests On Fire in 1982. After the demise of the Prisoners Gogo Band Live! Goedhals went on to form another pivotal band called Koos. Kendell through his close friendship with Neil joined the band during the late 80s. Goedhals, along with the other members of Koos, were influenced by Jensma’s poetry, which was often sung over loud distortion and feedback. What ‘John’ represents as a name in English, ‘Koos’ represents in Afrikaans and was also the name of Kendell’s father. Koos was therefore selected as a name to parody aspects of mainstream white Afrikaans suburban culture. The music produced by the band was everything this suburban stereotype was not. The music was non-conformist, deviant in nature, subversive, paranoid, irrational and marked by a distrust of social norms and conditions prevalent in South Africa during the 80s.
Goedhals, like Jensma, combined both image and text in his art to great effect. Goedhals was fascinated by the blurring of boundaries between high and low art. He made work about the banality, boredom and failure of the white middle-class in South Africa. Lazy Angs Kitsch Kak (kak is Afrikaans for shit), Angst (1987), Suburban (1987) and Committed To Mediocrity (1990) allude to some of his interests and conceptual motivations. Like Jensma, Goedhals was a depressive and sadly committed suicide in August 1990. Kendell was deeply influenced by both artists particularly with their use of text and image which was uncommon at the time in South Africa. One work that particularly influenced Kendell in his use of text and image was a foldout silkscreen poster by Wopko Jensma titled Swart Gevaar (Black Danger) published in Izwi 9 (April 1973). Kendell saw this work for the first time in 1985 whilst visiting Anthony Patton (Alan Paton’s grandson), a fellow student from Wits. What made such an impact on Kendell at the time and why did this work have such an impact on him?
Most art produced in South Africa during the 50s, 60s and 70s was decorative in nature, lacking an aesthetic or critical edge. If anything, these works informed and reinforced the political and social status quo and were nothing more than pictorial solutions for urban states of denial. South African art history during this time was littered with unremarkable landscape and wildlife paintings popular with the conservative and parochial art-buying public. Jensma’s image of a ghoulish monster painted in black and red juxtaposed with the text Swart Gevaar created a sense of discomfort and posed a question that defied political programming in white South Africa. Who was the Swart Gevaar? What did it look like and did it really exist? Was it just a political tool and slogan invented to frighten an already paranoid white electorate? Was there really any reason to be afraid? By depicting a ghoulish black and red form in a childlike way this ideological danger had been powerfully subverted and put into question. The issue of the political threat of the silent black majority was so great in the minds of white South Africans that it prompted B.J. Vorster to make the following comment during a political speech in Nigel on 5 November 1974:
“There will be black majority rule in the Transkei which is on the point of becoming independent; there will be black majority rule for the Zulus in KwaZulu. There will be black majority rule for all blacks in Bophuthatswana, in Lebowa, Venda, Ciskei, in Kwa Kwa and in Gazankulu, but in white South Africa it will be the whites that rule South Africa an there will be no black majority rule. If the world expects black majority rule in South Africa I say that day will never come.”
In 1977, three years later, the conservative opposition to the right of the NP published an amusing election poster in Afrikaans used during an election campaign in the suburb of Westdene, Johannesburg. Aimed at the NP candidate and then Minister of Foreign Affairs Pik Botha, the poster highlighted the fear of a potential black future in South Africa at the time. The text in Afrikaans printed white on black read: Met Pik Botha is u toekoms pikswart. Translated, this poster reads With Pik Botha your future is pitch black.
Pik in Afrikaans means pitch, in this instance pitch black. The collective fear of a black danger and being consumed by a future that was pitch black became the overriding ideological and political concern of white middle-class South Africa during the late 70s.
In popular South African culture the notion of the Swart Gevaar was challenged and subverted once again. Bernoldus Niemand was the main attraction of the Voëlvry Tour which started at the Wits Student Union in April 1989. The name chosen for his band was Die Swart Gevaar and highlighted the farcical nature of a white suburban band masquerading as The Black Danger.
This perversion of language and meaning, the combination of text and image or the subversive use of text alone, prominent in both the English and Afrikaans communities of white suburban South Africa became pivotal in the evolution of Kendell’s artistic expression during his early years as an artist. His art was no longer bound to pictorial traditions using the language of visual metaphor. This process of art-making was initiated when Kendell concealed a letter written by a teacher which was addressed to his father. Kendell was a ten-year-old at the time. Written on a Leondale Primary School letterhead and dated 1978.09.14 the letter states:
I refer to your letter dated 1978.09.13 and wish to express my sincere thanks for your attitude. As you well know, we as teachers seldom have the sort of backing we require from parents, and it was so pleasant to receive a letter from one who still believes that a good “cane” on the bottom serves the purpose of a thousand or more lines. I thank you once again for your sensible attitude and assure you of my best attention as far as Kendall (sic) is concerned.
Yours W van Wehe
Having already received a good cane from the school master and fearing that he would receive another if he gave the letter to his father, he hid the letter. Sixteen years after the letter was written he exhibited it in public for the first time at The Everard Read Contemporary Gallery, Johannesburg.
The only intervention from the artist was the title added on the reverse of the letter in blue ball point pen Title Withheld (Strive and Achieve) along with the artist’s signature. In a weird twist of fate the very same school master, now retired, visited the exhibition.
I was working at the gallery at the time and clearly remember this man’s aggression. Embarrassed that the general public were privy to the letter, he declared Kendell was a very naughty boy and deserved his punishment. After unsuccessfully trying to buy the letter back, he stormed out of the gallery. What was he hoping to achieve? Would the removal of the letter from this public forum erase painful traces of the past and therefore help ease his conscience? Ironically, as the title indicates, Kendell’s school motto was Strive and Achieve. This work gives an indication of the power teachers had over their pupils during the apartheid years. Like their masters the politicians, these male teachers ruled their domain through a language of pain and cruelty. White male children clashed with authority and corporal punishment was the order of the day. These skirmishes served as a taste of what was to come when they were conscripted into the military.
State of emergency 1985 — 1990
“You must be very careful not to allow South Africa to be exploded.”
P.W. Botha as State President, interviewed for London weekend television by Brian Walden, Financial Mail, 31 May 1985.
By the mid-80s a state of denial had evolved into a state of emergency as three levels of government were proposed and brought into law as an attempt by the NP’s attempt at power sharing. A white controlling upper level (House Of Assembly), a coloured level (House Of Representatives) and an Indian level (House Of Delegates) were formed. The black population, the majority of South Africans were excluded from this process. This led to a serious escalation in the violence which began on 3 September 1984 when the townships on the Vaal erupted.
Kendell finished his schooling at the end of 1984. At the beginning of 1985, to avoid conscription, he enrolled at Wits for a Fine Arts Degree. National Service, although seen by the Afrikaner as a passage to manhood, was viewed with a sense of loathing and trepidation by the English-speaking teenagers. Most Afrikaans teenagers saw it as their duty to serve Volk en Vaderland (People and Fatherland) and were committed to the cause of Afrikaaner Nationalism and apartheid. Every 15-year-old boy was required by law to fill in documents which were sent to every school by the military. It was almost impossible to escape the call-up. The only way one could avoid conscription was if you applied for deferment to study further after school. The army was a powerful tool for spreading propaganda and indoctrination. The logic was that if you wanted to teach a group to fight you needed to provide them with an enemy. The African National Congress (ANC) and The South West African Peoples Organisation (Swapo) were considered primary enemies of the state along with communists and their sympathisers. The army was feared by English speaking conscripts who were bullied and abused by the more patriotically aligned Afrikaans conscripts. Refusal to serve was a serious offence punishable by six years’ imprisonment. The only other way out was to feign mental illness or a heart condition which would get you discharged. But this only occurred under exceptional circumstances. Until 1994 all white male South Africans were called up for National Service in the year they turned 18. In the 70s, 80s and early 90s, hundreds of thousands of young men served in the military, where they experienced intense physical training and a stint on the border, where they participated in the war in northern Namibia and Angola.
Many young men, just out of school or university, were not patriotic and did not want to give two years of their lives to the military, especially when the apartheid government was condemned internationally for fighting an unjust war. Unfortunately, this experience, even for those who did not go into combat, had a lasting and negative impact. A poster published by the End Conscription Campaign sums up the growing anger felt by those having to serve against their will. The poster depicts a young conscript sitting dejected with his head between his legs on a low wall with his beret lying next to him. During basic training the conscript was required to spend hours ironing his uniform and polishing his boots to look his best for church parade. This poster shows the soldier’s highly polished boots. To avoid creasing his uniform, he is seen sitting on his Bible – this was regarded as a standard piece of military equipment, issued to soldiers along with a rifle and underwear.
The irony in the selection of this image becomes clear when one realises that the soldier’s Bible is placed directly below his anus. The text Botha Ek’s Gatvol is a crude Afrikaans expression which loosely translated means Botha my asshole is full or I’ve Had Enough. This pun alludes the political and theological indoctrination meted out in the army. The Bible was used by the regime to justify the actions of the military officials and the negative side-effect of army life.
Kendell managed avoid conscription, but I began my training in 1987. The only way I can describe the process is to think of myself being deconstructed and then reassembled in the image of the state. Sleep and food deprivation were employed to lower resistance. However, the absurdity of the system and situation was a source of amusement and courage to the enlightened few. We were ordered around by a group of dim-witted 19-year-old corporals who were just plain daft and inefficient, but they made our lives a misery. The ironies were glaring, especially on the day this poster went up in our quarters: A system is only as good as the people who run it. To us it was only a matter of time before the system came crashing down. Although I still had two years of army training to go, it was reassuring to think things could not continue indefinitely. In my second year of army duty, Kendell was busy completing his final year of studies. It was during this final year assessment that some of his most impressive artworks were made.
Created in his final year at Wits the work Holy Bible: New International Version (Closed), brought home the impact of how apartheid engineers perverted passages from the Bible to advance social and political agendas. Calvinism, the particular form of Christianity that characterised NP dogma, was introduced to southern Africa when the first Dutch settlers arrived at the Cape in 1652. By the time the NP came into power, the conservative, dogmatic form of Christianity had come to dominate – all activities, from sport to assembly began and ended with a prayer. Refusal to comply or the expression of atheist viewpoints was seen as subversive and dangerous. Atheism was viewed in the same light as communism. The crux of the apartheid propaganda machine was its state-funded education programme known as Christian National Education. Its aim was to introduce conformist members to its ranks, members brainwashed into believing that white supremacy was God’s will in southern Africa. This powerful form of social engineering formed the basis for a resistance poster designed by Robert Collins displayed at Wits in 1975 titled The South African Educating Machine. The poster, printed in black on pink paper, depicts initially free-spirited and connected members of society, who are ultimately left diminished, confined and disconnected by the claustrophobic conditions of a police state.
Considering the conditions of the day, Kendell’s work Holy Bible: New International Version (Closed) is a seminal early work which also provides the key to unlocking aspects of his artistic evolution over the next six years. Kendell’s admiration of the work of French artist Marcel Duchamp (1886-1968) must also be taken into account. The nature of anti-art and the readymade were pivotal in Kendell’s decision to become an artist ahead of his first choice of studying medicine.
The act of bolting closed a Bible is reminiscent of Duchamp’s clamped and bolted ball of string, titled A Bruit Secret, created whilst living in New York in 1916. Whereas Duchamp’s bolted and sealed work evokes a sense of mystery and secrecy regarding the object at the centre of the ball of string with its hidden noise, Kendell’s bolted Bible produces nothing but mute silence ... a breath of fresh air in a climate of Bible-bashing claptrap. The Bible and God’s will was used by the military as ongoing justification for the destruction of the state’s enemies.
Obliged to conform, the notion of deformity became a modus operandi for Kendell as he used the found object as a powerful weapon for social and political comment. Whilst the object remained largely unaltered, the shift in context and meaning exposed huge distortions to the object’s reading. This creative approach was ultimately able to capture and distill horrifying aspects of our national psyche during this dark period of South Africa’s history.
Tyre (a.k.a. Counting Out Song) (1988) consists of two Goodyear truck tyres. One lies flat on the ground whilst the other is positioned standing upright, resting on the tyre below. The tyre placed upright has been altered with the text Eeny Meeny Miny Mo. Catch A Nigger By His Toe. If He Hollers Let Him Go.
This version of the old rhyme dates back to the abolition of slavery in the US. New perceptions of racially offensive language have made it unrepeatable in most circles, “but I still hear kids using it”, says Kendell.
“It’s about a process of elimination. Police spies are necklaced. There is a cost for everything, especially in South Africa.”1
The conceptual motivation for this work was again centred in the bizarre social and political context of South Africa at the time - again sourced from the daily newspapers. The quote that informed the making of this work read:
“With our matches and our tyres we will liberate this country” - Winnie Mandela
Conceptually similar is an installation piece titled Cross (1988). This work has been exhibited twice. The first occasion was during Kendell’s final year assessment at Wits in 1988. It was also shown at the Biennale of Sacred Art in Rome in 1993. The work is illustrated in Sue Williamson’s Resistance Art in South Africa on page 69. The work consists of 44 white candles placed in a cross formation. A candle is an evocative symbol of the poor and disenfranchised in South Africa and was the only source of lighting for the majority of black families without basic services like electricity and running water during the apartheid years. The work is contextualised by a text, again a found text taken from a South African newspaper. The fact that many of Kendell’s works were informed or contextualised by newspaper texts is probably due to the fact that he worked as a journalist and art critic to pay the rent.
Most art being produced by South Africa’s leading white artists at the time was decorative and tended towards the mild and meaningless. This phenomenon was dictated by conservative, uninformed and parochial art-buying public. With there being almost no tradition of conceptual or non-visual art at the time - it was therefore almost impossible to find buyers for works of this nature. One of the newspapers Kendell worked for at the time was the Vrye Weekblad, established by renegade editor Max du Preez. (Du Preez and his newspaper was incidentally the main sponsor of Die Voëlvry Tour in 1989, along with Shifty Records.) The newspaper played an important role in uncovering the existence of various death squads. Kendell also played an important role as a controversial art critic. He was one of South Africa’s first art critics to with an understanding of contemporary art practice. After so many years living in isolation under the cultural boycott, his reviews and insights came as a breath of fresh air to those who wanted more from their art.
The article selected by Kendell for Cross (1988) reports an incident where a Soweto toddler was burnt to death in the room he was sleeping in. This was common in a society where black African families were subjected to the Pass Law System which informed the Migrant Labour System. The Pass Law System was instituted to prevent undesirable black people from entering the whites only South Africa. Only those fit and qualified to serve white families or businesses were granted pass books. These books had to be carried at all times and could be requested any time of day or night by a police officer for inspection.
Each time a black person wanted to move around their white employer would need to give them permission to move around. These pass books were required to be taken to the local police station to be verified on a regular basis. This process of humiliation caused great resentment among those forced to carry pass books. In a pass book protest in Sharpeville on Monday, 21 March 1960, 69 people were killed and 180 wounded by police when they opened fire on the defenceless crowd. According to the evidence of medical practitioners it is clear that the police continued firing after the people began to flee, for while 30 shots had entered the wounded or killed from the front of their bodies, no less than a 155 bullets had entered the bodies of the wounded or killed from the back. This massacre was a seminal event in the history of the apartheid era. It led to the declaration of the first State Of Emergency. As a result the Pan African Congress (PAC) and the African National Congress (ANC) were banned and hundreds of people were detained without trial. Passive resistance was replaced with the armed struggle and international pressure against apartheid intensified. An extension of the Pass Law System was the Migrant Labourer System which kept the families of workers outside South Africa. The homelands bordering South Africa, the Transkei, Ciskei, Kwa-Kwa, Venda and Bophuthatswana, were created for this purpose. As a result, young children are often left unattended as their parents worked long shifts, often at night.
The work was exhibited originally demarcated by a white square chalk line border. This immediately shifted the reading of the work. The chalk border suggested the scene of a crime and could therefore also be read in forensic terms. The work was now as much about the nature of ethics as it was aesthetics. Kendell commented at the time:
“South Africa is a specific social context within which I as an artist feel responsible to my audience. I try to work outside of traditional media, so the spectator doesn’t view my work as if it were art.” 2
Another reason for this approach can be found in the influence of his teachers Karel Nel, Neels Coetzee and Willem Strydom who all studied under Anthony Caro at St Martins College in London. Caro’s big contribution to sculpture was to take the work of art off the base and place it directly on the floor. All Kendell’s early works were placed on the floor in this way, but with a chalk outline. Because the works were also small it forced the viewer down onto one knee to read the text. In this position viewers were almost praying as they stooped to read the text and examine the work in closer detail.
A similar work is titled Brick (1988). This iconic early work has been widely mediated and discussed. Seven versions of this work were originally made. One is lost and four are still in the possession of the artist. The first version is in the collection of the Johannesburg Art Gallery and was purchased in 1990. Created in tandem with Cross (1988), the selection of a mundane everyday objects in the form of a brick gives this work a surreal quality. The found object is again juxtaposed with a found text from a South African newspaper. The text in this instance is not exhibited separately to the object but affixed back and front to its surface. The text reads:
MMABATHO – A family of six suffocated at Takaneng in Bophuthatswana at the weekend. Police said a mother and her five children used a hot brick to warm their bed and it caused their bedding to smoulder and give off smoke. Police spokesman Colonel Dave George said that, due to lack of proper ventilation in the room, the smoke suffocated the entire family. Sapa
This shocking work alludes to the sub-standard living conditions of the majority of black South Africans at the time. Although this incident did not happen on South African soil, Bophuthatswana was one of the homelands. The Homeland Policy, as it was known, was a way to utilise the labour of the men in South African cities whilst the woman and children remained beyond the borders of South Africa. Whilst the majority of black African families lived in abject poverty, Bophuthatswana was also home to Sun City, a gambling resort which provided wealthy South Africans with an opulent retreat, which included porn movies and a bars open on a Sunday. During the cultural boycott Sun City became the venue for numerous international acts to perform. Status Quo, The Village People, Black Sabbath, Olivia Newton John and Rod Stewart were some of the stars to arrive in Bophuthatswana financed by apartheid cash.
The text selected by Kendell also alludes to other concerns. The identity of the black woman and her children as the victims of the tragedy are so irrelevant in terms of status and race that only the police spokesman Colonel Dave George is mentioned by name. The question is posed - in the shadow of such conspicuous opulence and wealth, how can it be possible that people live in such poverty so as to have only a brick as a source of warmth?
Another recurring theme in Kendell’s early works is the denial of access. Nowhere is this more evident than when the materials selected pertain to his personal life. Death Certificate (1988) is a certified copy of his grandfather’s death certificate. The certificate indicates asphyxia – suicide as the cause of death. An immediate parallel is created between the death of the mother and her six children in Mmabatho, the subject of Brick (1988) and the death of Kendell’s grandfather, the subject of Death Certificate (1988). In both instances the victims died as a result of a lack of oxygen - and indirectly their deaths were caused by apartheid policy and practice. However, the conceptual motivation for making Death Certificate (1988) is different. The social stigma attached to suicide in Calvinist society prevented Kendell’s parents from discussing openly the real reason for his grandfather’s early death at age 45.
Only when he turned 18 could Kendell legally request a copy of his grandfather’s death certificate through bureaucratic channels. It was at this point that he could uncover the lies perpetuated by his family for so many years. It is also with some irony that his grandfather took his life in the same year South Africa gained independence from Great Britain, becoming a Republic in 1961. This was viewed by many Nationalists as the crowning glory of the apartheid era. This official document has been rectified with two stamps added by the artist. In doing so Kendell parodies the very nature of a rubber-stamping bureaucracy that brought these documents into being in the first instance.
As I was preparing to finish off my army training, Kendell and 168 others refused publicly to serve in The South African Defence Force. This had never been done before and they were in danger of being arrested for dissent. Days before Kendell’s arrest he was able to flee to New York where he lived for some time working as a studio assistant to Richard Prince.
With little money at his disposal, he made use of the cheapest materials to make art. Postcards were a way of keeping contact with friends and relatives as well as a source of creative output. One of the iconic rectified postcards dating back to this period in 1989/90 features a close up of the Statue Of Liberty with a square section removed censoring the eyes, mouth, ears and nose of the statue. See no evil, speak no evil and hear no evil indeed. Another pivotal work dating from this period was the word Possession spelt out over ten pages of The Wall Street Journal with a black marker pen, created in January 1990.
This work, although simply folded and carried like a newspaper, takes up over three and a half metres when framed and exhibited. Although paper is fragile, this work dominates any environment where exhibited, very much like the conspicuous power and spectacle of western capitalist consumption with New York as its epicentre at the time. Not bad for a man with a marker pen and five cents to his name. Out of extreme conditions are bred extreme responses, an art Kendell has perfected during many years without money living by his wits alone. One month later in February 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from captivity after 27 years and the ANC was unbanned. Kendell was now able to return to his land of birth.
Collapse of state 1990 — 1994
Civil war and anarchy was averted with only months to spare, but South Africa was still rocked by chaos, death and civil unrest. In August and September of 1990, 750 people were killed in a wave of violence against the ANC as part of a strategy of destabilisation. Although the apartheid government and its agents were on their last legs, they still did everything in their power to destabilise the peace process. Arms and ammunition were supplied by the SAPS to opponents of the ANC, particularly the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP). This led to the deaths of thousands of South Africans in rural areas. The urban centres also became a site for mass demonstrations which inevitably turned nasty. Again thousands of South African citizens lost their lives needlessly.
Kendell created two chilling and pertinent works which distill the horror of this period. In one instance he received a stricken phone call from a fellow artist who had barricaded herself in at the back of a shop in Eloff Street, Johannesburg, in an attempt to avoid violent protesters who were rampaging in the streets. This was in the wake of the Shell House massacre where members of the IFP attacked the ANC headquarters in Joubert Park. In a state of panic the ANC security guards ran on to the roof, shooting protesters and innocent bystanders on the pavements below. The crowd turned nasty and began to smash car and shop windows, injuring bystanders. As tensions mounted a number of people were left dead. Many of the protesters were heavily armed carrying home made traditional weapons in the form of spears, clubs and knives. Kendell managed to bypass police barricades and roadblocks and drove into the centre of the conflict and violence to rescue his friend. As Kendell was sped out of town, police and army reinforcements were being called in. The protesters’ traditional weapons were no match for rifles and live ammunition. The demonstrators fled for their lives, dropping their weapons.
After taking his friend to safety, Kendell returned to the city and collected some of the weapons which he bound together with plastic cable ties from the boot of his car. Title Withheld (28 March 1994) was created spontaneously in a short space of time. Instead of the many visual metaphors used by South African artists at the time to describe similar situations, Kendell had found the true essence and embodiment of this political confrontation as the substance of his work. In a bizarre twist of fate traditional weapons were banned by the government shortly after the Shell House massacre. This precipitated an even more surreal theatre of cruelty as protesters were now obliged to start carrying really dangerous weapons in the form of conventional knives, axes and guns.
In a country haunted by its political past what better subject to scrutinise than the nature of South Africa’s political identity? In this period of social turmoil and upheaval Kendell was able to create one of his most chilling works just months before the African National Congress and President Nelson Mandela were elected to power in April 1994. Untitled (ANC, AVF, AWB, CP, DP, IFP, NP, PAC, SACP) is a surreal performance piece which took placed between 19 July 1993 and 7 February 1994. Kendell joined and was issued party membership cards for nine of the most powerful and divergent political parties in South Africa. All nine parties were keen to swell their ranks in the build-up to SoutAfrica’s historic first democratic elections held on 27 April 1994.
The two extremes were represented by Die Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB), a whites-only right wing paramilitary organisation and the Pan African Congress (PAC,) a black nationalist or Africanist party. Between the extremes came the other parties across the entire spectrum – from the Afrikaner Volksfront (AVF), to the Conservative Party (CP), National Party (NP), Democratic Party (DP), Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party (SACP). This work was again inspired and prompted by a found text published in a South African newspaper on 19 July 1993. On the day the article appeared Kendell joined both the ANC and the PAC. As a template for the rest of the work he glued his two receipts from the ANC and PAC, along with the original newspaper article, onto an A4 sheet of paper. All nine cards in their perspex box and the A4 sheet of paper were exhibited side by side in an exhibition cabinet at The Everard Read Contemporary in 1994.
In the run-up to the first democratic elections in April 1994 there was a great deal of political strife and civil unrest which led to the death of thousands of South Africans. The biggest area of friction was between the Xhosa and Zulu tribes, represented by the ANC and the IFP. One cold winter’s morning in July 1993, a minibus taxi on its way from Kwa Zulu Natal to the Transvaal filled with migrant workers, was pulled over by a group of armed men. They asked the driver and occupants to get out of the vehicle and produce their party cards. The majority of passengers produced their IFP cards and were ordered into a group to one side. One quick-thinking IFP member discarded his card and pretended to be an ANC supporter. This white lie saved his life - and the rest of the men were executed in the field alongside the road as a form of political intimidation and reprisal.
This incident became the catalyst for Kendell to question the nature of South African political identity by joining nine prominent parties simultaneously. To do so was a life-threatening endeavour. Along with applying for membership, applicants often had to prove their allegiance – especially with the more radical parties on either side of the spectrum. For example, Kendell had to go to gun practice paramilitary style AWB in the morning, and go chanting slogans like ‘One Settler One Bullet’ with the likes of the PAC in the afternoon. This slogan meant the only good a European colonial settler could hope for in the changing South Africa was a bullet in the head. For once Kendell had to keep his thoughts to himself and tow the party line in nine different directions for fear of being branded a traitor or sell-out. When the work was exhibited publicly for the first time in 1994 he received numerous ominous phone calls and one death threat.
A year after South Africa’s first democratic elections, Kendell created a seemingly obscure work titled Self Portrait (1995). The work consisted of a broken Heineken bottle neck. Imported beer is preferred by status-conscious white South Africans. More expensive than its local counterpart, your choice of beer is a sign of status and wealth to those around you. Once the content has been consumed, the bottle is discarded and the experience quickly forgotten. A discarded bottle lying on a pavement in South Africa can quickly be transformed into a dangerous weapon if the need arises. This is done by smashing the bottom section of the bottle off while still holding the jagged neck in your hand, which when used as a knife can inflict painful cuts. The transformation of the bottle into a crude homemade weapon has only one aim – to disfigure and opponent’s facial features. In the coloured community of District Six in Cape Town I once witnessed a savage attack where one man broke a bottle and thrust the sharp edge into his victim’s face. This incident haunted me for a long time. Why such cruelty and hatred and where was its origin? This riddle was solved when I served with coloured troops in the military in 1987. They explained that although cruel, that this act of brutality was not intended to injure, but to disfigure – the scar served as a permanent reminder of the event and as a form of social humiliation. The broken bottle neck is also used to smoke a dagga pipe (marijuana pipe) or the more lethal concoction known as a white pipe (crushed mandrax tablets mixed with marijuana).
Shards of glass from broken bottles were a cheap and effective way to keep unwanted people away from private property during the 60s and 70s in South Africa. I remember as a child walking along the perimeter wall on the docks in Cape Town which had been laced with shards of lethal broken bottles set into the wet cement on the top of the wall. The shards of glass are an apt way of depicting the pain and suffering inflicted upon ourselves under apartheid.
The selection of these found objects and the process of subtle shifts of context have become the hallmark of Kendell’s artistic expression as he continues to prod and probe the darker and more sinister aspects of the human condition. It is the cause rather than effect that Kendell interrogates in the process of creating his art. His goal is never to moralise or provide solutions. His goal is to subvert meaning. These early works lead us to a paradoxical conclusion. Surely an important condition of remembering is that we should be able to forget ?
Conversely for Kendell, it is the very process of remembering that led to the creation of these works, a creative process that has lent them their unique and subversive quality which is still evident when viewing them today.
© Warren Siebrits, Johannesburg, 31 January 2007