Conrad Botes was born in 1969 in the Western Cape. Part of his childhood was spent living in a Department of Water Affairs prefab house on the edge of the Theewaterskloof Dam. His father was a teacher at the local school. Listening to Botes tell stories of the characters that peopled his childhood world one can see how he has been able to develop his eye for targeting the soft underbelly of Afrikanerdom and by extension South African culture.
Together with Anton Kannemeyer, Conrad Botes is a founder of Bitterkomix, a rude almost abusive, cutting publication which the two started as students to jolt the establishment and enliven the lives of their gleeful peers. The Bitterkomix publications have grown to be something of a national institution. Botes proudly relates how one of their comics was the first publication to be banned in a democratic South Africa.
Botes elaborates: "With the comics, we're dealing very specifically with a South African audience who know what we're referring to. Originally we wrote them in Afrikaans, so many of the references are to things in Afrikaans culture. The paintings I make are much more personal. I can explain them if I have to - but I'd much rather not. It is difficult to explain something that you are meant to feel. People can formulate their own ideas about the work, the viewer's reaction is more important than my own explanation."
With his monoprints, silkscreens, lithographs and other work on paper, Conrad Botes indisputably proves his status as torchbearer of the Post-Pop movement in South Africa. With his icons of atavistic males and females, including the 'tortured soul' and the femme fatale, the artist mocks conventional notions of individualism and 'humanism', ranging from romantic love to self-flagellation. Botes has been portrayed in critical literature as the 'posthuman' artist par excellence (Ashraf Jamal, 2004).
Botes uses Post-Pop's preference for 'sugary infantilism' to reflect on contemporary society. In such a society, religion is irreverent, violence is desirable, sadism institutionalised, and the individual triumphant in their existential crisis. Botes' work achieves an interesting fusion of the pastoral with contemporary realities and aesthetics: flowers are often wounds in his works and birds are harbingers of doom. Detached hands refer to creativity.
He has been a frequent participant in group exhibitions as well as important solo exhibitions since he won the Absa L’Atelier Award. His first solo exhibition took place at Michael Stevenson Contemporary in Cape Town in May 2007 where a large-scale installation of carved and painted sculptures was exhibited entitled Satan’s Choir at the Gates of Heaven. Apart from this installation, other works in a variety of media were seen on this exhibition such as a comic strip plus fifty-eight reverse-glass painted panels and a painting on canvas.
In 2008 Botes’ work was included in an important group exhibition namely the Third Guangzhou Triennial in China and in 2009 he was selected as the festival artist for the 2009 Aardklop Arts Festival in Potchefstroom. In the same year Botes launched his Cain and Abel comic strip, which was later reworked into a series of reverse-glass painted panels. In these works, Botes reflects on the origins of violence.
Botes also presented a successful solo exhibition at Fred in London in March/April 2010. His work was also selected for the 17th Biennale of Sydney, which will take place in 2010. The work that he produced for Bitterkomix had been included in an exhibition at MU Eindhoven, TheNetherlands entitled… for those who live in it: Pop culture, politics, and strong voices. This exhibition opened in May 2010.
Conrad Botes' painting and sculptural practice has its roots in comic book drawing, which he has been exploring for over a decade. Together with Anton Kannemeyer, he is co-founder and publisher of Bitterkomix, an iconoclastic comics magazine founded in 1992. The narrative content of his work is usually related to race, gender and violence and their disturbing relationship to power and hierarchy. This biting satire, frequently directed at South African society, politics and religion, is channelled into his painting.
Conrad’s work often oscillates between different formal practices. Conrad is equally at ease sculpting or painting. He can be equally drawn into the complicated narrative of the comic sequential narrative or the austereness of portraiture. Yet when it comes to the content of his work, Conrad is fundamentally drawn towards allegory and its ability to seduce the viewer into a narrative. Conrad is fascinated by the subversive quality an image can possess, where the formal aspects and the physical beauty of a work can draw the viewer in and seduces, and simultaneously being confronted by disturbing content and subject matter. This is why Conrad often choses biblical themes as vehicles for political allegories: they have a familiarity that one can relate to, yet they hold the possibility to mimic reality and challenge beliefs and ideologies. Growing up during Apartheid South Africa, these themes also hold the potential for exploring the intricacies of guilt and complicity and their relationship to violence. Conrad is constantly drawn to the subject of violence and its disturbing relationship between race and gender.