Pop Goes the Revolution

10 October 2013 – 1 April 2014
Curated by Kirsty Cockerill



Pop art – as a chapter in art history – tangoed around from the mid-1950s to the early 1970s. It arrived at the cocktail party when Richard Hamilton’s collage ‘Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?’ graced the walls of London’s Whitechapel Gallery in 1956. The boom of consumerism and its visibility through the mass media in post-war Britain and the United States tickled artists to produce work that mirrored society’s bling aspirations, whilst juggling an irreverent ‘fuck you’ to the loftiness of Abstract Expressionism. But, as every gangster knows, all good things must eventually be burnt down for the insurance money. Pop art reflected the society of its time, far more than commenting on it. When Pop was witnessed leaving the disco in the early 1970s, it was with its self-conscious head hung low, accessorised with a hangover, a platinum wig and a can of baked beans.

The language of Pop did not keel over and sink to the bottom of the global art ocean once its chapter had been read. It continued to communicate and is still widely used in contemporary art practice. The nature of the language is such that it is malleable to context and content, and hence is capable of conveying varied conceptual agendas and investigations. This is largely due to its use of succinct, everyday symbols which allow it to deconstruct agendas and situations in the same visual code by which they are sold and bought. It’s the language of consumerism, propaganda and, often, contemporary satire. The vocabulary of Pop is used globally in every mass media and small-town poster campaign. Whether you’re selling a fizzy drink, a political party or social ideology, a perfume or a newspaper, Pop is the ammo in your belt. (This does not make every artist, political leader or art director with a grasp of the language a Pop artist.)

Viewing Pop as a ‘common’ or ‘obvious’ visual language has never succeeded in rendering it impotent, nor in flattening the layers of content communicated; after all, nobody buys a fizzy drink – they buy a lust for life. It’s not uncommon for artworks that utilise Pop’s language to be dismissed as didactic one-liners. But this negates the materiality of these artworks, which is the equivalent of a curator exhibiting the labels and never bothering to install the works. It’s in their decisions around materiality and form that artists slam, dunk, twist and sink the content. The Pop language becomes a lifeline that keeps things buoyant, light. It’s this struggle, this bodily grime, that compels the reading and the communication of meaning. It’s through this binding tension that successful satire assassinates its mark.

What makes human beings laugh? Not just gaiety or irony. That laughter banishes seriousness is a misconception often made by the humourless – and by that far greater multitude, the hard of laughing, the humorously impaired or under-gifted. The War against Cliché: Essays and Reviews 1971-2000. 

– Martin Amis, 2001

Written and visual clichés are infallible symptoms of used thinking, Amis would say. Well, if clichés are taboo, satire will present and re-present them, and then proceed to poke them repeatedly with pointy braai tongs. So here’s to whimsy and tyranny sharing a Black Label whilst discussing their gogo’s potato salad recipe.

In 1976 television found its way into South African homes, relatively late in the day given that South Africa was one of the most affluent countries in Africa. Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd, leader of the white minority government, likened television to the atomic bomb and poisonous gas, saying: “They are modern things, but that does not mean they are desirable. The government has to watch for any dangers to the people, both spiritual and physical.” (One can imagine the current South African government saying the same of Twitter.) 1976 also stood witness to the Soweto uprising, in which an estimated 20 000 students protested against the National Party government’s introduction of Afrikaans as the only medium of instruction in schools. Many sacrificed their lives, reinforcing yet again that only certain people’s spiritual and physical safety was of concern to Verwoerd’s government. Elsewhere, Pop art was peddling its way into permanent public acceptance. The Ludwig Museum in Cologne, Germany, was founded in 1976 with a gift of the most extensive collection of American Pop art outside the US.

Pop art debuted on the South African stage much later than it did overseas. That’s not to say the language of Pop did not exist in South Africa before television entered the domestic space. Far from it: propaganda and resistance posters used it, as did the jelly moulds of the Voortrekker Monument and other Nationalist ‘pride’ paraphernalia that abounded in 1960s kitchens and can be purchased today from junk shops for exorbitant prices. The visual languages of propaganda, of the ‘buy me’ billboard and of Pop are one and the same.

The biggest brand to infiltrate South Africa’s consciousness since then has been the ‘Rainbow Nation’, a term coined by Archbishop Desmond Tutu to describe post-apartheid South Africa after its first democratic election in 1994. The phrase was taken up by President Nelson Mandela, who stated in his first month of office: “Each of us is as intimately attached to the soil of this beautiful country as are the famous jacaranda trees of Pretoria and the mimosa trees of the bushveld – a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.” The term summed up the country’s hopes for peace, unification, equality and economic freedom. It was a marketing tool used to sell a brand of social stability both locally and internationally.

It was not artists but political movers and shakers who from the get-go speculated on the fallibility of ‘rainbowism’. Winnie Madikizela-Mandela smartly pointed out that there are no black and white colours in the rainbow. And Jeremy Cronin’s cautionary analysis now sounds as obvious to the ear as the bellowing of a vuvuzela:

Identity formation as well as the myth of the ‘rainbow nation’ and its performative intention have served to discursively create a national identity that has been top-down in its constitution and implementation. As a result, true reconciliation has been foregone in place of a simplified and somewhat candy-coated myth of peace that has served to reconcile those on the inside whilst pitting them against those on the outside. Allowing ourselves to sink into a smug rainbowism will prove to be a terrible betrayal of the possibilities for real transformation, real reconciliation, and real national unity that are still at play in our contemporary South African reality.

– Jeremy Cronin, 1999

Between 1976 and 2013 southern Africa has experienced oppression, terrorism, freedom-fighting, liberation, revolution and counter-revolution – how’z about a round of political motion sickness on the house! Bling and bullets – this is the stadium, this is the atmosphere, this is the game, and there are no rules. Pop Goes the Revolution is a playlist of works that speak to, and from, this time.

In South Africa Pop has firmly taken root in three distinct streams of art production. The Pop aesthetic clearly recognisable in the works of Brett Murray and Anton Kannemeyer, among others, uses clean, flat, saccharine colours, a perfect comic-book finish, candy-coating critically engaged social and political commentary. Unsuccessfully dismissed as white boy whining, it has become an admired and influential resource for a younger generation of self-taught artists. The latter have rejected the removed, distant perfection of the comic-book finish in favour of an intimacy with medium, reflecting a different understanding of social struggle, commentary and Pop form. Sweaty colours and gestural mark-making declare that the writing on the wall will be read, as seen in the works of Ayanda Mabulu and Khaya Sineyile. Also in favour is a sharply idiosyncratic Pop conceptualism: Candice Breitz, Stuart Bird, Gerald Machona and Michael MacGarry are but a few whose works utilise Pop readymades in the form of postcards, TV soapies, monetary currencies, domestic mirrors and AK-47s , reflecting a self-conscious iconoclasm, layered and ambiguous but never ambivalent to social circumstance.

Pop Goes the Revolution harnesses artworks from The New Church collection that, for the most part, embrace a Pop language; sometimes it’s a Pop aesthetic, more often a Pop conceptualism … For seasoning, there is a sprinkling of works integral to a Pop curatorial strategy which have no inherent Pop reference to speak of. One stands apart from the rest like Ghandi taking the back seat in a bar brawl. A black and white photograph by George Hallett, titled First Encounters, captures spontaneous gestures of deep delight. Bounding across uneven brickwork, a man, perhaps a father, and a woman, perhaps his daughter, are reuniting. It’s a work included to pay homage to the small, crisp, domestic moments that spark, maintain and conclude revolutions. The weighted social and political context milling around this homecoming is silent. So, not every artist included in the exhibition is a Pop artist; in fact, very few are. The works selected do more than reflect our social landscape – they question it. Likewise the curatorial strategy is neither timid nor ordentlik. The intention is not to make gutter laughter and flights of tears academic or sterile in the retelling, whether in the positioning of artworks or in the compiling of text.

The public’s first encounter with Pop Goes the Revolution stands in stark contrast to the intimacy of Hallett’s photograph. Viewable to passing traffic, a large painted cinderblock structure steals the visual virginity of The New Church’s Victorian architecture. Cameron Platter’s mural references construction signs installed next to civil roadworks in KwaZulu-Natal. Signs that used to read ‘Men at Work’ now read, as does Platter’s mural, ‘Please Don’t Kill Us’. The flipside of the sculpture can only be viewed by visitors leaving the gallery: ‘Please Please Kill Us’, it says.

You’ve heard it before: ‘One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’, an aphorism coined by Gerald Seymour in his 1975 book Harry’s Game. Here’s another: One man’s propaganda is another man’s satire – and as the article below illustrates, one man’s marketing campaign for Coca-Cola is another’s sinister plot to support the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in Zimbabwe. If anyone thinks they have just cause to dispute the relevant, and current binding collision, between popular culture, marketing, brands, mass media, social commentary and politics, they need look no further for evidence of their mistake.

Writing for the Mail & Guardian on 17 May 2013, Jason Moyo’s ‘How Coke is getting up Zim government’s nose’ reported with a flickering of tongue-in-cheek derision on an article published in The Herald, Zimbabwe’s state-controlled daily:

‘Questions have been raised over Coca-Cola in Zimbabwe’s Crazy for Good campaign that was launched last week featuring open-palm symbols on its flagship, red Coca-Cola cans,’ The Herald revealed. The paper dug deeper into this mischief. ‘What raised eyebrows,’ it wrote, was ‘the fact that palms are on the red cans only and not on flavours that bear other colours like the blue Sprite or yellow Fanta cans.’ It removed all doubt, The Herald suggested, before tying it all together like an eagle-eyed detective in the final scene of a whodunit: ‘Red is MDC’s preferred colour.’ … Zanu-PF’s deputy director of information Psychology Maziwisa said his party is taking this seriously and that the MDC is denying an obvious connection. Coca-Cola must explain why it chose only the red cans, he said. ‘We want our sovereignty and independence as a country to be respected. We want commercial entities to operate with us purely on commercial and business terms and not to delve into politics,’ Maziwisa said.

– Jason Moyo, 2013

South Africa is not Zimbabwe, though I’m not sure Paris Hilton would know the difference. As she enthusiastically told journalists in Johannesburg: ‘I love Africa in general – South Africa and West Africa, they are both great countries!’ Does her ignorance matter? I doubt it, since Pop went the revolution.