Sportsman’s Notes

Peet Pienaar used to work with his body. Now he stands behind a body of work.

Peet Pienaar was largely unknown in South African design circles when he staged a performance at Cape Town’s annual Design Indaba conference in 2004. Delegates arriving at his talk were directed to a glass atrium overlooking a gravel lot that was decorated with a large mosaic of a young black man’s head. Out of nowhere, a sedan appeared, scattered the mosaic, and disappeared as swiftly, leaving the audience staring confusedly at a dust cloud.

Back in the auditorium, his solid, sportsman-like frame tucked into a dark suit, Pienaar introduced himself to the crowd. Art, he said, bored him—design offered far greater possibilities. He gave an example: Every year some 200 children go missing from Cape Town’s townships. Often their parents are too poor to produce street posters with the children’s images, so Pienaar had designed one pro bono for 17-year-old Zvidzai Mutarisi, a teenage runaway. In fact, it was Mutarisi’s disappearance into a distressing urban landscape that had inspired Pienaar to represent him in the mosaic and stage the stunt with the car.

Some in the Indaba audience were moved, others unimpressed. Too ornate, critics said of the poster, which represented Mutarisi’s portrait hidden among swirling baroque ornaments, soccer balls, and the outline of an airplane. But though Pienaar’s detractors believe his tastes are overwought, they keep him in their sights. Saturated with low-tech graphic elements—sports team iconography, dingbat fonts, vector art—Pienaar’s work has the quality of stickiness; he prefers to call it "longevity." "It’s very interesting," he says when we meet at his top-floor Cape Town studio, formerly a nightclub. "My design isn’t always produced as a keepsake—but people don’t throw it away."

Chip Kidd is among those who can’t bear to part with a sample. A guest speaker at the 2005 Indaba, the Knopf designer was invited to compete with Pienaar onstage to create a poster that would end hunger in Africa ("Oh, that such a poster could exist!" Kidd says now). The two men met the night before the face-off. Pienaar handed Kidd a business card carved up by a laser; it looked as fragile as spun sugar and bore the outline of a heraldic crest and the studio name, Daddy Buy Me A Pony. It was "the single most amazing business card I’ve ever seen and now sits in a place of honor in my office," Kidd says.

Born in 1971 to an Afrikaans family and raised in a conservative enclave an hour outside Johannesburg, Pienaar (pronounced "PEEN-ah") started off as a painter before branching into performance art. He is still regarded as a key figure in that area, having pulled off a notorious stunt in 2000, in which he had himself circumcised and later exhibited the foreskin in a Perspex box. A year later he teamed up with writer Stacy Hardy and current business partner Heidi Chisholm to form Daddy Buy Me A Pony. Initially touted as an arts collective but now billed as the creative unit of the 9November Union of companies (www.9november.co.za), the studio recently landed the German tea brand Wellmondo as a client and is also working on designs for a coffee brand by Red Bull. Asking Pienaar to reveal what occasion is marked by November 9, or whether his—or anyone else’s—father complied with the demand for a pony, will not produce the expected anecdotes; both companies’ names, he insists, are "completely arbitrary."

Though Pienaar has traded the exhibitionism of performance art for the designer’s recessive role, he maintains a complicated relationship with the public. Last December, he was asked to design the graphic identity for Cape Town’s inaugural art biennial, due to launch this month. Once again, his soccer fetish came to the fore. "Sport, not art, is our national culture," he says. (It will be the national frenzy come 2010, when South Africa hosts the next World Cup.) Pienaar based his solution on the black-and-yellow palette of the Soweto-based soccer club Kaizer Chiefs and incorporated a one-eyed character with a star-capped front tooth. An art historian who had previously criticized Pienaar’s public circumcision as a mockery of sacred black rituals again charged the designer with racism. In support of this accusation, participants in a self-styled "Coon Revolution" slipped on T-shirts featuring Pienaar’s Afro-bling cyclops, made up their faces like minstrels, and staged a day-long silent protest in the same conference venue where Pienaar presented his 2004 Indaba performance. "I was completely surprised," he recalls. "I actually thought it was cool, and that the event needed something funky."

The controversy, he noted at the time it occurred, arose not from a wish to be provocative but to avoid a solution that stripped away any vestige of African character. In an email sent to me shortly after the incident, he explained, "If we had done a completely minimalist Western design, no one would have said anything because that is what most people want: bad, secondhand versions of the West." Coiled in this statement is a set of laws governing all his work: Be true to your culture. Avoid imitations. Embrace excess. The bric-a-brac surrounding his desk is testimony to this. Included is a map of the Kruger Park wilderness area printed on fabric; a Nigerian movie poster with hyperbolic copy lines and horror scenes; and a poster for an African women’s hair salon illustrating a variety of styles. No space on any of these works is left vacant.

Which is not to say Pienaar’s influences are limited to his turf. He is inspired by Chris Ware’s comics, which Kidd introduced him to. "Their work has qualities in common," Kidd notes. "On first inspection, both are formally beautiful. But when you look at what the content actually is, it’s often quite devastating." And having designed two issues of his own pan-African literary journal, Afro, and guest-edited a local shelter magazine, Pienaar is launching a lifestyle publication, The President, which he describes as a mix of The Face and Vogue. Aimed at affluent black women in their late twenties, The President is being funded by a $350,000 grant from Donald M. Hess, the Swiss winemaker and art collector, who approached Pienaar with the Fantasy Island question "What can I do for you?" after seeing his work exhibited at a show in Bern. The first issue is scheduled for publication in December. Distribution will be limited to South Africa at first, but will jump borders if the magazine is successful.

Summarizing his career shifts, Pienaar says, "I moved from painting into performance because I felt that putting something in a gallery didn’t have any effect. Making performance art was the same. It became self-indulgent. With design, I felt I could reach a wider audience and have real impact, whether good or bad." And so Pienaar is done with dressing up as a member of the national rugby team and posing as a living sculpture, a performance he pulled off at the 1997 Johannesburg Biennale. He’s found that the designer’s pen is mightier than the artist’s torso. "I’m trying to create with just paper and ink something that people will spend time looking at," he says.

Sean O’Toole is an author and journalist based in Johannesburg.

COMMENT