Osei Bonsu in Conversation with Cameron Platter

Incited by the tempestuous political histories that engender the repressive conditions of the country’s social reality, South African artists often conspire toward activism. For Cameron Platter, who lives in the urbanized province of KwaZulu-Natal near the former battlefield of Rorkes Drift, mining the country’s past has vitalized his historical imagination. Platter’s “expanded collage” reflects the explanatory narrative of the country’s industrial economy and it’s capitalistic dimensions of desire and consumption, and therefore a deviant contemporaneity: large-scale linocuts, mural paintings, and public installations co-opt the linguistic forms and pictorial metaphors of poster-strewn urban sidewalks. Deriving from the noble visions of John Muafangejo’s politically charged linocuts, Platter’s satirical drawings make textual references to familiar street advertisements bearing straplines and slogans promising services from reincarnation to sexual longevity. These universally resonant signs indexing the unity of cross-cultural depravity open a transcendental void and thus exist as chronicles of apparently self-destructive times in which mass consumption serves to palliate a darker reality.

Osei Bonsu: You are exhibiting your large-scale documentary drawings at the fifty-fifth la Biennale di Venezia for the South Africa Pavilion’s Imaginary Fact: South African Art and the Archive. Are these drawings part of the series that will be presented there?

Cameron Platter: These drawings are part of a larger series of a hundred that I’ll hopefully get to do. Here at the gallery, we have twelve, thirteen and fourteen from the extended series of a hundred drawings. Not these specific works, but some of the series will be shown in Venice.

OB: Imaginary Fact: South African Art and the Archive will aim to understand why and how history has continued to impact our world. South African artists will turn to the archive and chronicles of history. How do you feel about this? 

CP: I can understand the issue of the archive, but for me it’s a little strange because I am not really thinking of that consciously. What I want to do with this larger-scale series of a hundred is make documentary pictures that hopefully will be finished in about ten years or so, each being some sort of chronicle of the times. The work shown in Venice will reference, in particular, John Muafangejo, a Namibian artist known primarily for his linocuts. He is a big presence in what I’m doing. His works were documentary narratives in their nature; you can get a sense of his time through his work. In that way, by appropriating his works, I want to create some sort of picture of what I’m living through or the times.

OB: Muafangejo, whose life was cut short by his death in 1987, created linocuts in an open and autobiographical style. To some degree these were about documentation and documenting a contemporary moment.

CP: Yes, that is what it is completely. I don’t think my drawings are dissimilar to the school of documentary photography coming out of South Africa now, like Subotzky, Tillim, Hugo, for example. Obviously, they are completely different, but I don’t look at them as being that divergent.

OB: You have mentioned that you think of these pencil-on- paper works as “Nomadic Murals,” as Le Corbusier came to consider his tapestries. Corbusier was sporadically designing these cartoons after the war. For him, tapestries were a product of what man had become. What significance do murals have for you personally?

CP: I think the works I do in general are drawn from the immediate, like signs or advertisements. Something you can read, rather than engage with in other ways. In that way they take things from outdoors, which are a part of every- day life. Oddly enough, I hadn’t done any mural painting before and this series of works led me to become involved in that. The murals I make are not completely different from other works, but they blend into their environments a lot more.

OB: With public commissions you mean for the work to ulti- mately blend into communal space. Are the experiences of showing on walls, in streets, and inside in galleries related?

CP: Obviously, it’s completely different. I see drawings as performance works, since I am performing in the studio as I am making them. The murals bring the work to a far larger audience, so I was instantly attracted to that dimension of it. I recently did something in downtown Johannesburg (I ART JOBURG, 2013) which involved taking three classified ads from a newspaper and blowing them up three stories high; you literally missed them as artworks, which made them successful.

OB: These messages were already being communicated to the immediate public—advertising penis enlargements and the sex industry. There is a commonplaceness about this, which ultimately related to the street culture of South Africa. Should local artists be engaged by what’s going on in the streets?

CP: I think so, but again it comes down to documenting what is going on around me. I’m always thinking about my art practice as an expanded collage, but there are central themes. After 1994, when South Africa experienced a wave of migration particularly from other African countries, the vernacular on the streets developed on many levels. The penis enlargement and sex ads on the street are now ubiquitous. It may be encouraging someone to get a bigger dick, but that in itself is loaded with so many other things.

OB: The idea that your practice is adaptable may be linked with its expansive and multidisciplinary approach. You recently began presenting film (for example, The Power of Thoughts, 2012). To my eye, they are visually corresponsive, but one imagines the process of making them to be different to your drawings?

CP: I see these works on paper as studies for the videos that I make. I don’t think they are at all dissimilar; to me they are an explanatory narrative to what’s happening in the drawings. My videos are not shown very often but I’ve consistently made them. They are video, new media, and yet they seem to be the most handmade things that I make. Everything I do has a handmade or homemade quality to it. I think of my studio as my kitchen table: I make films from my lounge, drawings from a separate studio, sculptures in another studio, and ceramics in a commercial kiln. When it comes to seeing my practice as “expanded collage” it can sound prosaic, but that’s what it is.

OB: How do you begin creating?

CP: There is no formula for making the work. It might be a shape or design that leads the process. With collage, I am scavenging as I go along, so there are no specific sources that I draw from. I wish I was an abstract painter, but I can’t bring myself to do that—in a sense these things are, perhaps, naïve appreciations on some shapes and how things related to each other.

OB: I think that play is somewhat rooted in collage. Collage that relies more so on ideas than on material.

CP: I would describe anything I make as collage. I am trying to chase that high of a young kid in art class, engaged in something for a couple of hours. I’m searching for that kind of engagement, one level. But things get in the way, society gets in the way; it’s really important for me to try and document what I do—like a diary.

OB: Perhaps this idea, an “expanded collage,” is also the act of relating art to broader world issues, as your work often does. In this sense, the artist is implicated as a kind of evolutionary activist, would you agree?

CP: I feel I have both no responsibility and at the same time all responsibility. Of course, drawing immediately references printmaking, which is a political medium and always has been. I have strangely become an activist artist without even knowing it—but it’s about having things to react to. I’m not trying to establish a moral stance in my work, I just want to take it in and put it back out again.

OB: If the works aim to be chronicles of our time, they can be seen as representing the cultural moment, concerned about our instantaneous exposure to information.

CP: I want people to be able to digest things instantly, but they should also be able to access them on different levels....

OB: Video has made possible the proliferation of information and we seem to have a fixation with filming, particularly the “real life” experience. How do you view video as a platform?

CP: I make videos as explanatory works and I think of them as collages. The videos have changed; in the past they had a much more narrative quality—for example, I made a linocut-style pornographic film. If you relate that to the recent videos, such as Power of Thoughts, they are quite different.

OB: The work isn’t exclusive to an art context in the same way pop art was not. It is constantly lifting ideas from other media and looking to sometimes-sordid elements of mass-culture.

CP: People see bright colours, shapes, and design and they go “pop.” When I think of pop art I think of a specific American movement that is ultimately outdated; to make pop art today may be seen as shallow or not farsighted enough. But, I am constantly “lifting.” These pictures are just lifts from everywhere else, extremely cannibal in nature.

OB: Could you expand on the idea of the cannibal aspect in your work?

CP: I use the term metaphorically, as in a cannibal of society: a society consuming and eating itself. Especially in South Africa, this movement seems to be fluid; society is obsessed by consumption and excess.

OB: I agree. Deborah Root identified culture as cannibalistic, existing well beyond the physical body. But the works also may be linked to the power of images for visual consumption. Perhaps it is a question of consumer power.

CP: I haven’t really explored that concept, but you are right. And it is very loaded. Are we examining power ourselves? What are the means by which we gain power? Are we exploiting power? When it comes to the viewer I should hope my work, in being quite explicit, would be instantly empowering.

OB: To what extent is the work related to your South African heritage?

CP: I am of the opinion that work should reflect a time and place, and a situation. Through circumstance I am South African. That is the lens through which I view the work. Although these works are shown around the world, I would like them to be rooted in a South African context.

OB: Ultimately, the work is about ideas that transcend South Africa—I think there is an insufficient understanding of African art in the Western world; there is a tendency to marginalize the efforts of African art, which can deter the work from being seen in an international context.

CP: But conversely, if I was to work somewhere else in the world I would want to be part of a broader conversation about the themes I am looking at in South Africa; in that way it would always be rooted. I haven’t actually worked anywhere else. I’d say I would probably be engaged with the same issues but on a broader, more global scale. 

Here we have “Add Hope,” which is the strapline of Kentucky Fried Chicken’s charity. They encourage the consumer to add two rand to their meal deal, money that goes to their charity. This is corrupt on so many levels, but having said that, I am in awe of it as a radical statement or a complete, loaded, succinct message of our time. Messages in Add Hope II also include “Our Life is our Life’s Work,” a slogan for a pharmaceutical company, Pfizer, and Dual Magic Probe, which is an anal probe from the California Exotic Sex Company.

OB: An exhibition press release described your work as “reconnoitring” notions and concepts—this can suggest gathering military information; however, it is referring to your observational analysis of mass-culture. Delinquency, also, shares both these formal and informal connotations.

CP: Yes, I agree. I am very much interested in these deviant or subcultural connotations. I think delinquency may be related to activism.

OB: You are living near the original site where Boers and Zulu clashed at the Battle of Blood River in 1838, now Kwa- Zulu-Natal, South Africa. Are you lending from that context specifically?

CP: Where I live there are these big historic sites, I wouldn’t even know where to start, so it happens on a very surface level. I happen, by chance and circumstance, to live near these loaded sites. However, I don’t think that dealing with a given region’s historical events from a contemporary vantage should be seen as taboo. Nor do I believe that dealing with history or the past should be preformulated in advance. Dealing with the past is about exploring, or probing, uncomfortable areas. This is perhaps my aim, to kick up the dust in these marginal, difficult areas.

OB: We have come to understand the legacy of printmaking as a catalyst in the exchange of ideas, a kind of political resistance. Do you think this is the case with your work, The Battle of Rorke’s Drift at Club Dirty Den?

CP: It’s referencing John Muafangejo’s The Battle of Rorke’s Drift. I grew up with his works on the walls of the home I grew up in. I remember these shapes and designs being all around me when I was a child. The art school where he was trained is on the sight of the Battle of Rorke’s Drift (1879) at the Rorke’s Drift ELC Arts Centre. I realize how that was a very key work; it reflects a metaphorical battle that is happening now. I don’t think South Africa has a way to escape the disparity between rich and poor, and this kind of economic pressure will make things to explode.

OB: Then it would seem the chronicles of history and archival documentation would be a necessary interest to South African artists concerned about the state of the country, and about the past specifically. If you are an activist, per- haps your protest is one against forgetting.

CP: Perhaps. I am not very eloquent in tapping into what it is I’m doing—this is one of the most engaging interviews I’ve done. I struggle to see what I am actually working with. I like that distance; I wish I had the luxury and the time to analyse it more.

This interview was originally published by Nka Journal of Contemporary African Art in Fall 2014 © Osei Bonsu, 2014.