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Us artists are a cannibalistic lot.  The myth of the lone creator rules, but the truth is we are constantly nibbling away at each other’s work, taking up bits and pieces that suit our needs. We even have a word for this polite thieving between artists – it’s called “referencing.”  Referencing is complimentary: I like your idea, your brushstroke, your colouration so much that I am unable to stop myself trying to emulate it. Our peers may be hard to resist, but there is also the weight of tradition. Hundreds of years of brilliant painters to look at, all better than you. No wonder young Marcel Duchamp drew a moustache and goatee on the Mona Lisa.

In our little South African artworld, the equivalent gesture of punk outrage must surely be Wayne Barker‘s Pierneef paintings. Back in the late 1980s, Barker, fueled by alcohol and seething with righteous anger at the apartheid system, set about defiling Pierneef.  He took the hallowed landscapes and inserted into them all manner of subversive imagery. Fuck you, Apartheid overlords with your nostalgic ideas of the land! Fuck you, artists who cosy up to the Nats!

Barker’s work attacked the comfortable notion that landscape painting exists outside of politics and history. (The good theorists of the left, who had long deplored the absence of any reference to the Relations of Production in Pierneef’s work, were happy.)

Like so many before and since, here was a young artist taking aim at the establishment. But the thing about the artworld is its ability to incorporate the new pretender as well as the old Master. One may have thought 27.04.94 signaled the start of a clean out of the old white icons, an ushering in of the new. And yet, after a brief pause, the market in Pierneefs continued to rise. He is bought, studied, preserved and debated. And quite a few of us painters can’t stay away.

J H Pierneef’s Station Panels are cornerstones of South African landscape painting. They were placed in the old Johannesburg Station as adverts to travel the country.

But did these alluring places ever really exist? And how have they changed?

Taking up the invitation to travel 80 years later, Carl Becker set off to find out.

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