Wayne Barker at the Alliance Française
by Kathryn Smith
On the back of a toilet door in Johannesburg, there's a piece of artfully stencilled graffiti that reads: "$10 Love You Long Time".
On the floor of the Alliance Française gallery, Wayne Barker has lined up empty All Gold tomato sauce bottles (with no labels but you recognise them immediately) to form the sign of the mighty dollar. The two vertical lines are peopled with small cast-metal figurines that one might describe as "cosmopolitan", being of mixed race in various postures and dress. Next to this, Barker has laid out the Euro icon in much the same way, but with coloured liquid partially filling each bottle.
'Erratum', which is also titled 'A Brief History in Time', is chock-full of familiar Barkerisms, from brand names (BMW, Diesel and a rather witty, grimy black piece titled 'Omo', among others), through neon to Afro and Eurocentric objects battling it out against the paint on a canvas surface. But for all of his artistic pilgrimages to the never-never-land of Coca-colonisation, capitalism and value and power struggles in Africa, this show seems a bit past its sell-by date. In other words, he's been walking the same path for a longer time than the proverbial $10 is worth.
Despite borrowed time, there is a sense that Barker's agenda is shifting slightly, from his propensity to shock to something resembling a kind of reconciliation of the issues that have occupied his oeuvre up until now. The "salacious" spirit of Zulu Lulu has been replaced by small references to the representation of the "other" - see "picaninny freeze" on Heart of Darkness. Land and Love is another strong work, and while these two pieces "own" the wall they hang on, they don't really shift the reach of the tried-and-tested Afro-pop formula of Barker is king.
@Africa.com on the facing wall is by far the exhibition's major work - a huge surface covered in open books that form a kind of information landscape, on which neon text, African "artifacts" and other images are placed. A true "painting installation", as Barker describes this way of working, it's a handsome piece.
Smaller works focusing on individual brand names, each of which seems to have been ascribed its own colour, hang as a series on one wall. Again books form a shifting 2D-3D landscape, negotiated by small cast-metal figurines that Barker apparently salvaged from a mini-town-type amusement park. The "politeness" of the frames is at odds with the murky, messy application of the paint, which is probably the most "offensive" aspect of this show.
A TV on a turnstile wrapped in clear plastic - half gift, half consignment - stood just near the entrance. Switching it on (I had to switch everything on myself, including the neon on the paintings), it began to turn, but no image appeared. Knowing what should be on it (apparently a classic Marlon Brando film), it left me feeling short-changed. If anything seemed like a point of departure to other languages for Barker, this was it.
Until March 5
Alliance Française, 17 Lower Park Drive, Parkview
Tel: (011) 646 1169
Fax: (011) 646 4521