Jon Berndt: Imagined Billboards

POSTED ON: January 19, 2021 IN Keely Shinners, On Artists, Word View

by Keely Shinners

This essay examines three posters from Jon Berndt’s Imagined Billboards series (2005-2010), a body of work which has yet to be critiqued, due largely to Berndt having positioned himself outside the structures of the South African art industry. So too because the works were only exhibited after his death, in a seminar room named in his honour in the Arts Block at the University of Cape Town.    

Seeing as there is little published material regarding Jon Berndt’s life and career, some biographical detail is warranted to understand what drove him to create the Imagined Billboard series [1]. Particularly potent for me is how the Billboards, which were proposed towards the end of his life, synthesise Berndt’s interests in art, activism, study and design.

Berndt was born in Ladybrand, (then Orange) Free State, in 1950. Coming from a working-class background — his father worked installing telephone poles — Berndt had no art background before enrolling at the University of KwaZulu Natal in the 1970s. Nevertheless, he exhibited a profound interest and investment in Arte Povera, a movement which rejected elitist art practices in favour of raw materials, conceptual installations, and performances. Berndt’s work during this time is characterised by radical-for-their-time experiments, such as thought-performances, public interruptions, inquiries into time and language, proposals for a corporeal semantics, and land art. It was also around this time that Berndt began to develop a political consciousness which, as the story goes, was sparked by an unnamed university janitor who lent him a series of Marxist texts.

In 1975, he moved to Cape Town, where he had been accepted to do a master’s degree in Fine Art at Michaelis. His thesis, Can art make propositions about the world? Marx and Wittgenstein and the art as language debate, questioned the intersections between art, language and political ideology. Too radical for the university at the time, Berndt’s research was rejected, and he was forced to leave, thus instigating a lifelong distrust of the academy and the commercial art world into which it fed.

From there, Berndt turned his attention to resistance politics, as well as training himself in film, animation, photography and printmaking. Berndt is perhaps best known as one of the founders of the Silkscreen Workshop at Community Arts Project (CAP). Influenced by the battle cry made by the Medu Art Ensemble at the 1982 Art and Resistance Festival in Botswana — that art can and should be used as a weapon for change — the Silkscreen Workshop’s members saw poster production as a means of social transformation. Both in terms of content — dissenting against the Apartheid state’s violent censorship tactics — and production — enabling grassroots activists, many of them working class and barred from access to formal arts education, to design and print the posters themselves. Berndt recounts: “We believed that people would learn by doing and that it would give them the skills to make their own media. They would be ‘producers’ who controlled the means of production / means of communication. The techniques that we tried to instil were not limited to mere technical practices such as drawing and printing but included processes of participatory democracy.” [2]

Poster to advertise an exhibition of photographs produced by Mavis Mtandeki and Primrose Talakumeni, two trainees who had been mandated by the United Women’s Congress (UWCO) to do the CAP Media Project one year media course. Poster designed and printed by Jon Berndt, 1990. Courtesy ASAI.
Poster designed and printed by Xolile Mtakatya while he was a trainee at the CAP Media Project, 1991. Courtesy SAHA.

Berndt and his comrades were particularly adamant that their posters be distinguished from ‘works of art’, because they did not want to dilute posters as means of mass communication and mobilisation into commodifiable objects. As such, the Silkscreen Workshop changed its name to the CAP Media Project, which later transformed into an independent organisation, Media Works.

Disillusioned by the neoliberal co-optation of arts and culture spaces in post-1994 South Africa, Berndt stepped back from community-mobilisation efforts and started designing print materials instead for universities as well as left-leaning NGOs like International Labour Research and Information Group (ILRIG) and the South African Committee for Higher Education (SACHED).

Around 2005, Berndt was encouraged to return to the academy, where he pursued a PhD through the Archives and Public Culture Research Initiative (APCRI) at the University of Cape Town (UCT). It was during this time that Berndt began work on the Imagined Billboards series, a project which combines the propositional quality of his Arte Provera days, the ethics of public engagement fostered in the poster-making workshops, a knack for design and an overall rootedness in Marxist scholarship. Unfortunately, neither the Billboards nor the dissertation were realised before Berndt’s passing in 2010.

Perhaps because the works were made by an artist who rejected the art world as it stood — indeed, for a long time, rejected ‘artist’ as a title entirely — and because they did not reach the publics they were meant to, the Imagined Billboards have, thus far, received little to no critical attention. So, what do we make of this body of work now?

First, let’s look at some of the images by themselves:

The composition is simple enough: off-white background, text in black, ubiquitous typeface, inanimate object in the foreground. Visually, this piece is akin to an advertisement. But advertising what? The ‘product’ puzzles. What is it? A hammer, a mallet, perhaps. The object is certainly not for sale; it is hardly desirable. If it is an artefact, what is it meant to anthropologise? If it is a symbol, its symbolism is elusive, whereas something like a hammer and sickle would be obvious. It is an object up for debate, an object of consideration.

The text gives us some context: “Tools help the workman to do his work, machines require the workman to mind them rather than to use them. The former helps the workman to make things; the latter help his master to make money[3].” The quote is attributed to Eric Gill, an artist and typographer who, in his day, feared that the age of the artisan, the amateur — in its original sense, someone who does what they do because they love it — would be replaced by a wholly mechanised world.

The quote, for me, is posed more as a proposition than an incitement. There is a clear Marxist undertone: the tool is somewhat idolised; the workman assumes the role of protagonist; the quote brings up issues of labour, exploitation, industrialisation, and the control of the means of production. But unlike the struggle posters, there is no clear aim to unionise, radicalise or mobilise the workforce. It is an invitation into further inquiry. What do you make of this? What does this mean to you? What, today, are the tools versus the machines? Who is the master?

After a great deal of digging, I come to find out that the object in question is a woodworking tool, a device used to measure and mark a piece for cutting. Literally, a gauge. As such, the viewer is urged to gauge their own relationship to these topics, pursue their own curiosities — and fears — about machines, bodies and capital. Rather than receive a socialist education from the top down, the viewer participates. In this way, it does work in opposition to the advertisement from which it draws its visual cues. It does not ‘brand,’ as in, link an object, in this case a product, with ideas. The poster frames; the viewer contextualises.

The following image, though aesthetically similar, present a new set of inquiries:

This piece refers to a daguerreotype made by E. Thiesson, a French ethnographer, and transcribes Thiesson’s original caption: “Native woman from Sofala, Monomotapa, aged 30 years. Although still young this woman’s hair is almost entirely white.” Why Berndt included this — indeed sized it to be the primary text — is because he wanted to foreground what we know about this woman’s subjectivity. Or rather, what we don’t know. Her name and personal details are omitted. ‘Native woman’ not only obfuscates individuality but serves to dehumanise. ‘Monomotapa,’ as a Portuguese transliteration of the Shona Mwene we Mutapa, also serves to obscure the truth of her ancestry, her heritage and the land which is her birth right. And then there is this detail about her white hair, clearly depicted in the picture, but which the photographer felt deserved reiteration, turning her image into an oddity, a spectacle for white enjoyment and/or a justification for a racialised taxonomy.

I had a look at the daguerreotype to which this piece refers, and I understand why Berndt didn’t dare replicate it [4]. The subject is sitting uncomfortably: her chest exposed, her fists clenched. She is photographed from the side against a plain background, “the standard visual technique for photographing non-Western peoples and anticipated the so-called ‘mug shot’ in police photography[5].” She is turning away from the camera, gaze on the ground, what Saidiyah Hartman would call “fugitive gestures of refusal[6].” It is likely, given her body language and the history of ethnographic photography, that the sitter did not pose for the camera — rather, she was posed — so to reproduce the event of her objectification would be to offend her memory.

Instead, Berndt flips the gaze around. The subject is not the photograph — nor the photographed — but the means used to produce it: the camera. As such, the camera is situated not as a holy object, but a tool — in this case, an oppressive one. Turning the lens on the viewer raises such questions as: In a highly photographed world, what histories remain present? How are our ways of documenting still shaped by this colonial legacy? How do our ways of seeing continue to other, to objectify, to obscure?

Who has access to visibility, the camera, the archive? In other words, who is looking, and who is being looked at? If this is the “earliest surviving photograph of a Black African”, which pictures did not survive? What picture, now, might serve to fill the gaps in that archive? How might photographs heal rather than wound? How might they open possibilities for being instead of categorising?

Like the gauge, the poster does not intend to instil an ideology. It does not immediately reorient the viewer’s political compass. There is some pedagogical work going on here, but the emphasis is more on sparking conversation and reflection than getting a message across. In this way, the poster subverts the conditions in which the daguerreotype was taken. The daguerreotype was coercive; the poster invites. The daguerreotype classifies, the poster questions. The daguerreotype fabricates a narrative, and a narrow one at that; the poster is open to interpretation. 

Let’s look at one last poster:

In this piece, the tools in question are a padlock and key. Berndt was fascinated with locks — there is no archaeological evidence that they existed in sub-Saharan Africa before colonisation, save for some granary locks belonging to the Dogon peoples of present-day Mail — and images of them crop up often in his work [7]. For him, their absence in the material history suggests an absence of private ownership. The text, assumed to be Berndt’s own, reads, “Africa’s encounter with European modernity brought it face to face with private property.”

Now, there are complexities embedded in this proposition that the immediacy of the poster might blanket over. For instance, notions about pre-colonial society in a monolithic “Africa”, which some viewers might equate with pre-class societies, a fallacy even if it’s European modernity you’re out to critique. But I do appreciate the way in which Berndt approaches private ownership as something that needn’t be taken for granted, alluding to social histories — both in the recent and ancient past — organised around more collective ideals. In other words, Berndt’s project in this piece is to rouse in the public memories of the commons. Memories, not future dreams.  Robin D.G. Kelley puts it this way:

Peter Linebaugh has written one of the most important books out there today, which is the Magna Carta Manifesto. It’s all about the struggle for the commons, the return to the commons, globally. One of the things that he points out which E.P. Thompson and others pointed out as well is that you never had to ask permission to chop down wood in the forest or to cultivate something or to graze your cattle or your sheep. It was just part of the collective. But then struggle ensued through enclosure and through expropriation, to make sure people did not have access to things. The things that we had once accepted as common, as common courtesy, common practice, are taken away. If you also take away the memory of that, then people aren’t willing to fight for it. But if you return the memory, people will fight [8].

Again, unlike the struggle posters made at CAP, this poster is not immediately revolutionary. It will not incite an uprising; it will not liberate the commons from private or state-controlled hands. But it might jog a memory, or at least a dream, and in that way, contribute to a culture of resistance. The words of Thami Mnyele — a member of the Medu Art Ensemble and friend of Berndt’s feel poignant here: “The role of an artist is to learn; the role of an artist is to teach others; the role of an artist is to ceaselessly search for the ways and means of achieving freedom. Art cannot overthrow a government, but it can inspire change [9].”

This brings me to an integral aspect of the Imagined Billboards series, which is that they were meant for and belonged to the commons. Not gallery-goers, not tourists going to museums, not university students, but the everyday people who make up the South African urban public. Let’s look at the posters again, this time, in situ:

I suppose one could argue that these sites are random, that the posters are interchangeable and could suit any billboard space in the city. I have chosen to read these as strategic choices, meant to reach specific publics, whereby the content of the billboard is to be read in context of the place it is situated.

The gauge is placed on the highway driving into Soweto; the camera on the side of the Truworths building visible from Adderley Street in Cape Town (just opposite the taxi rank); and the padlock off the N1 highway leaving Cape Town. The target audience is the masses; viewers would spot these on their daily commute to and from work. Whether or not they would’ve engaged with the billboard daily — thought about it, talked about it, fought about it — is up for debate. But as Nomusa Makhubu argues, public art in South Africa is far from being treated with ambivalence. She writes, “Art appears to have become a conduit for channelling frustrations with elusive reconciliation, the patronising expression of rainbowism and the impossible public dialogue about transforming post-apartheid South Africa. The discourse about art in public spaces, it would seem, becomes a proxy for other issues [10].”

Importantly, Makhubu points out that the “commons” as we understand it in South Africa is far from collective. Legacies of colonialism and Apartheid remain inscribed on the city’s geography; efforts to upend segregationist policies and to redistribute land remain truncated by the new neoliberal order. Public art in South Africa, she writes, has done little to subvert these ‘geopolitical divisions.’

[W]ith few exceptions, existing public art and statues celebrating white victories remained in areas that were historically reserved for white South Africans and public art and statues portraying the liberation struggle in areas that were historically demarcated as black townships. Rather than creating cultural pluralism, the post-1994 resolution for transforming the visual landscape, therefore, operated along apartheid segregation lines to avoid stirring up racial tension. It placated different racial groups, rather than transforming historically sequestered publics into publics of equal participation, albeit adversarial [11].

Makhubu’s critique, that public art is inextricable from the politics of space, echoes Zayd Minty’s prescription made almost fifteen years before, that public art in post-Apartheid South Africa should necessarily “critically engage with issues of geography, memory and transformation [12] .” In other words, public art must not only reach the public; it must concern itself with legacies of colonialism and Apartheid which remain inscribed on public space.

Is Berndt’s a public art that does this? I have tried to show how the Billboards warrant participation from the viewer, and in so doing, might be read as empowering. But perhaps they presume too much that the issues they raise — labour, representation, collectivity — aren’t already on people’s minds. Maybe it doesn’t manifest in the academic language Berndt or I would use, but history shows that one doesn’t need a master’s degree to understand networks of power and capital.

Furthermore, the billboards do not seem to engage with spatial memory in any obvious way, the way Gavin Younge and Wilma Cruise’s Slave Memorial on Church Square is quite obvious, or Donovan Ward’s Gugulethu Seven Memorial is quite obvious. But if we think about the billboard itself as the site of intervention, I think Berndt’s project directs our attention to the ways in which power, in post-Apartheid South Africa, often wears a corporate face. Seeing one of Berndt’s propositions in the place of an advertisement for cars or credit cards or Coca-Cola reminds us that what we think of as public space is actually super privatised. ‘Public’ space is really ‘publicity’ space. And publicity is the opposite of memory. Publicity, as John Berger put it, is “situated in a future continually deferred, excludes the present and so eliminates all becoming [13].”

The statue is a monument to a person or an event. The billboard, mundane as it may seem, is a monument to capitalism. As Berger says, “without publicity capitalism could not survive [14].” Capitalism, as it functions in South Africa, remains largely influenced by Apartheid-era systems which continue to benefit multinationals and a small, largely white, elite while half of the country’s majority-Black population continue to live in poverty [15].

In his book, From Weapon to Ornament: The CAP Media Project Posters (1982 to 1994), Berndt places two photographs of the May Day Rally stages side by side, one from 1989 and the other from 1995. In the former, the backdrop banner, made by the CAP Media Project, declares proudly: Forward to Democracy and Socialism; Advance Worker Control. The latter shows the banners replaced by advertisements for the likes of Community Bank and a Joint Management Body [16].  The Imagined Billboards work this angle in reverse, replacing advertisements with art. Specifically, an art which values workers, education, inquiry and collectivity. Ultimately, the Imagined Billboards serve — at least symbolically — to rip a small slice of the sphere of influence out of the hands of the wealthy and to return it to the commons.

That is, if they had been successful. The Imagined Billboards were just that, imagined, never made and never made public. As of now, the posters exist as a collection of A2 prints on industrial plastic, displayed in Seminar Room A17 in the Arts Block at UCT used by the APCRI — which was renamed the “Jon Berndt Thought Space” in his honour. Judging against Berndt’ own ethos — that art should be used as a means of mass communication — one could argue that these works are failures.

Unless — and this is where I get to the rather controversial part of my essay — we decide to interpret the imaginary as a valid arena for enacting social change.

After all, Berndt made these knowing very well that they might not go up, in no small part because the cost to produce posters of that scale and to hire billboard space was far beyond his means. (That kind of money would have gone further if funneled directly to the working class, anyway.) That’s why the series is called Imagined Billboards. They operate in a world re-imagined. A world where public space is actually available for public use. A world where art is no longer a commodity. Instead, art trumps the commodity. It’s this imagination of a new world which, Robin D. G. Kelley points out, is the basis for praxis: “Any revolution must begin with thought, with how we imagine a New World, with how we reconstruct our social and individual relationships, with unleashing our desire and unfolding a new future on the basis of love and creativity rather than rationality (which is like rationalization, the same word they use for improving capitalist production and limiting people’s needs) [17].”

Berndt understood that alternatives to our present condition must be envisioned. Art — harking back to Medu’s doctrine — can help us to make that leap.

This is where Berndt, consciously or not, starts to rehearse the ideas he inherited from the Arte Provera days. Art doesn’t have to be material. Art doesn’t have to be consumable, nor gestural, nor even visible, to have meaning. Art need only be a proposition, like this one Berndt posed back in the 1970s:

Contemporary artists do this too. Upon my first encounter with the Imagined Billboards, I was reminded of the work of Mitchell Gilbert Messina, who approaches “making as both a consideration of hypothesis and theories of production (thought experiments) as well as hands-on pragmatic production [18],” for example his series of paintings which are themselves pitches for new art projects, [19] or his collaborative theorising “What a residency be?” [20] Similar is Paulo Nazareth’s series of imaginary machines which formed part of his exhibition Phambi Kwendlovu. Playful, imaginative and unapologetically unfinished, these artists make up a branch of art practitioners who see what Berndt saw: art as proposition, not product. Although both Messina and Nazareth exhibited in commercial galleries, work like theirs sees the value of art beyond its money-making capacity, a quality which is becoming increasingly absent in an increasingly capitalist industry.

Make paintings, Fund Projects, Mitchell Messina, 2019. Courtesy blank projects.
Courageous machine to fight every day against the unfair, Paulo Nazareth, 2019. Courtesy Stevenson.

When I say “increasingly capitalist,” I’m thinking about the rise of the art fair, now more prevalent and powerful than ever before. I’m thinking about the undue influence blue-chip galleries have in determining which artists make it into museum collections, and therefore, which artists become staples of art history and national memory. I’m thinking about how some of the most prolific collections of South African art belong not to national museums but corporate sponsors like Standard Bank, Nando’s, Spier, and the Waterfront. I’m thinking about how advertisers borrow visual cues from contemporary artists in order to repackage their brands as ‘creative.’

Berndt’s imagined world — of which the billboards were but a small part — rails against this trajectory. In this world, art doesn’t sell. It does not indoctrinate. Art inspires curiosity and inquiry. It normalises education and resistance. It is a world which was not realised in Berndt’s lifetime, but which contemporary cultural workers are still dreaming up, still fighting for. If we can respond to their propositions — that is, if we take them seriously — we stand to restore momentum to potential and the power latent in ideals. In other words, we stand a chance against an increasingly capitalist world by continually imagining otherwise.

Keely Shinners is a writer based in Cape Town. Their essays have appeared in journals such as James Baldwin Review and Safundi, as well as the publications ArtThrobMaskFlauntFull Stop, and Autre. Keely’s first novel, How To Build a Home for the End of the World, is forthcoming from Perennial Press.


[1] Unless otherwise noted, all biographical information was gathered from an interview with Jill Joubert, Berndt’s partner, in Observatory, Cape Town, on 26 June 2020.

[2] Jonathan Berndt. From Weapon to Ornament: The CAP Media Project Posters (1982 to 1994). (Cape Town: Arts and Media Access Centre, 2007), 18.

[3] The only document I could find which mirrors Eric Gill’s quote comes from a paper of his presented for the Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, 17 June 1938. The quote in this paper is actually, ‘[I]f it be true that tools are things which help you to make things, then machines are only tools in the sense that they help you to make money,’ Eric Gill, “Work and Culture”, Journal of the Royal Society of Arts. (London: Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, 1938), 751.

[4] E. Theisoon, Native Woman of Sofala. (Rochester: George Eastman House, 1845). .

[5] Mary Warner Marien. Photography: A Cultural History. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2002), 39.

[6] Saidiya Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval. (London: Serpent’s Tail, 2019), 19.

[7] One example is Berndt’s poster Quality Public Services – The key to sustainable development (1987),created for Public Services International South Africa. .

[8] Holtzman, Benjamin. “An Interview with Robin D.G. Kelley,” Journal of Aesthetics and Protest, 9 (2008): .

[9] I believe this quote comes from a speech Mnyele delivered at the 1982 Art and Resistance Festival in Botswana. I found it through an interview with an interview by the Goethe-Institut with Molemo Moiloa at the conference ‘Beyond Collecting: New Ethics for Museums in Transition’ in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, March 2020. Molemo Moiloa, “Art cannot overthrow a government, but…” Goethe Institut, 2020. .

[10] Nomusa Makhubu, ‘‘Art-Rage and the Politics of Reconciliation,” in Babel Unbound: Rage, reason and rethinking public life, ed. Lesley Cowling and Carolyn Hamilton. (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2020), 215.

[11] Makhubu, Babel Unbound, 220.

[12] Zayd Minty, “Post-apartheid Public Art in Cape Town: Symbolic Reparations and Public Space,” in Urban Studies: Urban Culture and Development, Starting with South Africa. (New York: Sage Publications, 2006), 421.

[13] John Berger, Ways of Seeing. (London: Penguin Books, 1972), 153.

[14] Berger, Ways of Seeing, 154.

[15] David Frances and Edward Webster. “Poverty and inequality in South Africa: Critical Reflections,” Development Southern Africa 36, no. 9 (2019):

[16] Berndt, From Weapon to Ornament, 31.

[17] Robin D.G. Kelley. Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination. (Boston: Beacon Press, 2002), 193.

[18] Nkgopoleng Moloi. “Sure Thing! // A set of production technologies with Mitchell Gilbert Messina.” Bubblegum Club, 2019. .

[19] Keely Shinners, “How To (Re)create Mitchell Gilbert Messina’s “Sure Thing!”’ArtThrob, 2019. .

[20]  Mitchell Messina. “What a residency be?” Prohelvetia, 2020. .