Signs, Signifiers and Symbols

Artist Cameron Platter tells it like it is

Cameron Platter’s work has been exhibited at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (where he is represented in the permanent collection), Paris’s Centre Georges Pompidou, Berlin’s Haus der Kultur, as well as at numerous venues from Senegal to El Salvador.  His pictures and objects speak about contemporary morality in a way that can be heard globally but maintains a distinctly South African dialect. He took a few minutes to speak to HAND/EYE editor Keith Recker about fiction, fantasy, satire, subculture, sex, beauty, advertising, food, war, reading, religion, politics, crime, lust and greed. And his work. 

HAND/EYE:  How did you get started as an artist?

Cameron PlatterAs a teenager I spent some time in the studio of Cecil Skotnes (a famous SA modernist, noted for his prints and carved paintings) learning how to make woodcuts. But even as a small kid I was in love with the idea of being an artist: Making extraordinary things, having time to meditate, consider things, a daily practice or ritual.

I then went to art school, because I liked to draw, and thought I wasn’t bad at it. Art school taught me a lot of things, as well as absolutely nothing at the same time.  After art school I washed dishes, until I realized one morning at 3am (while mopping a floor) that even making art had to be a better life than this.

I now can’t imagine doing anything else, and doubt I ever will. It is the only thing I can do half well.

HE:  When did text take such a central role in the work?

CP: I like to read. A lot. Everything from tabloids to The New Yorker, self help guides, noir crime fiction, biographies, menus, classifieds, penis enlargement advertisements, etc. I often have five or six books going at once. Not to read would be unthinkable.

I want to communicate with people, to get my ideas across clearly. And the best way I’ve found is to construct signs, signifiers, and symbols that people can read.  So I use text in the same way that a signwriter might use words. They, and I, have a message that they want to get across effectively and with economy.

Text, also has different roles across my production- with my films or videos, I write and rewrite and rewrite plots, storyboards, shotlists, before I even get near to animating, or bringing them to life. With my large drawing works, I write them out many times before I begin to sketch them.

Text runs somewhere through of all my work.

HE:  I love your wry humor. Where does that come from? 

CPIt is my take on contemporary life -- full of empty promises and erotic fantasy. I always ask myself (and my viewers) to have a sense of humor, often in the face of difficulty.

Humor interests me as survival skill, a coping mechanism. To me, it’s impossible to be able to make it through life without laughing at oneself, and what happens around us. Otherwise you’re fucked. Which explains maybe why Richard Pryor is as much an inspiration for me as the linocuts of Namibian woodcut artist John Muafangejo.

HE:  Is drawing or ceramic your true love? 

CP: I don’t have a true love (at least with art) and I love all my vices equally, but in different ways.  I work in the (strictly speaking, which I don’t like) traditional mediums of drawing and sculpture (carved wood and ceramic), as well as video and installation. 

Just in case that sounds neat and formal, let me add that I’m a post- studio studio artist, and run my different operations from my kitchen table, a shed in my grandmother’s garden, a backyard in the ghetto of Umlazi, my computer, my car, and my cellphone.

I approach each medium separately; and each has its own problems, anxieties, highlights to consider; but they all respond to broad, constant thematic concerns of my work. Ceramics, though, are special to me, as I came to them late, and have developed a special addiction to them.

H/E: How does your work reflect and react to what's happening around you in South Africa?

CPReality in South Africa can be a lot stranger than any fiction, more bizarre than any Hollywood film, more far fetched than any bad sci-fi novel. I am constantly amazed, appalled, thrilled, horrified, and scared of what happens around me.

Because I consider myself a conduit, documenting and satirizing contemporary life, I’m glad that I have a platform to put my ideas, concerns, and thoughts across; and that they are, on some level, taken seriously. I’m given license, to expose my problems, issues, meditations, and the inner workings of my mind, in full public view. Which you could call dirty laundry.

HE: So for you creating is both personal and political?

CP: I’m always trying to find the balance of personal and political. I try to get across my own moral interpretation of the world through my works.

Everything, to me, is political -- from driving a car, to brushing your teeth, to falling asleep. We can add eating, sex, working, and reading. If all that is political, consciously doing something like making art is really political.

And everything is also a source, to be mined, chewed, recycled, and fed into my work. Everything from an ad on rubbish bin, to a segment on CNN, to international criminal Radovan Krejcir is fair game.

On a broader scale, it does concern me that South Africa’s incredibly important and rich political history is being forgotten in the rampant, excessive, dumbed- down, all consuming drive to be global. 

We’re suffocated by fast food, fast money, and fast people; and are losing all memory of ourselves, our identity, our culture.

For more information on Cameron Platter’s work, visit



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