Writing for the South African daily the Mail & Guardian, artist Khwezi Gule critiques Bitterkomix co-founder Anton Kannemeyer’s new book Pappa in Arika for perpetuating stereotypes of what he, with tongue-twisting élan, calls “the white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy.” Although I haven’t yet seen the book, I’m familiar with Kannemeyer’s work and since my pal Li Se has poked my interest, I want to add a few words to this debate.

Gule’s further point is that the racially and politically provocative art of the Bitterkomix group and others does not receive proper critical scrutiny by what one assumes to be the liberal intelligentsia, because these artists hide their racism behind a fig-leaf of subversiveness. What Gule doesn’t seem to grasp is that Kannemeyer’s being racist is essential to his art — of course he’s racist, that’s what his art is about. He is not merely exposing “white fear”, but a much more complex set of emotions held by many whites, African and otherwise, vis-à-vis their colonialist legacy and life in a multicultural society. He further extends his reach to fathom the situation of non-whites, in casu parts of the black political and coporate establishment which he “coons” in a bold move, tying their abuses to the history of Western imperialism through vicious stereotype.

Gule’s argument is that such art is not constructive — it perpetuates a problematic power structure through a pernicious “African exceptionalism” that implies that there’s something inherently African about the abuses portrayed. Whether true or not, and this itself is far from evident, it is besides the point. Kannemeyer is dealing precisely with the emotions and attitudes that feed such exceptionalism, many of which he clearly finds in himself, and it is his prerogative as an artist to express them. This is not some kind of vicious propaganda against black Africans produced by a hegemonic entity, it is expression of personal truths by an individual who finds himself living in a society deeply mired in such emotions and attitudes. Asking him to be constructive would be an absurd curtailment of a desperately needed, honest, but fledgling, discourse on very real issues.

Gule is clearly not interested in this. He writes instead: “I am the last person to advocate that an artist’s creativity ought to be stifled in favour of political correctness, but that is not to say one ought to celebrate the cynicism of arrogant and intransigent products of racial privilege.” In other words, shut up if you don’t have anything nice to say.

Image by Kannemeyer from Pappa in Afrika. On a related note, read Noah Berlatsky’s examination of the great American cartoonist R. Crumb’s use of blackface and minstrelsy in his work, which hits some of the same notes as Gule, but delivers a much more insightful analysis.