Coenaesthetic Impressions (Review of the 2009 Wavescapes Surf Art Exhibition)

[This article was orginally posted on January, 28 2010 to the website of the Centre for Comic, Illustrative and Book Arts (CCIBA) at Stellenbosch University.]

Roadside view of the Wavescape Art Exhibition

The Wavescapes Surfboard Art Exhibition ran for the fourth time in five years as the precursor to the Wavescapes Surf Film Festival from 2nd to 9th December 2009 at Depasco Café in Cape Town. This exhibit has grown each year, now under the patronage of the non-profit marine conservation group Save Our Seas Foundation for the second year, and is becoming a not to be missed event within local surfing and art circles.

The rationale behind the Wavescapes Surfboard Art Exhibition is to display surf art and then auction the artwork to raise funds for two local sea safety charities; the National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) and the Shark Spotters Programme. In each year the amount of money raised by the auction has topped the previous year’s proceeds – no thanks to the cajoling of the auctioneer, stand-up comedian Mark Sampson. In 2009, a sum of R170,000

Setting up the exhibit

was raised as compared to R124,000 in 2008.

On a personal note, I have attended all the Wavescapes Surfboard Art Exhibition to date and have bid on surfboards. Some called me surf art collector but I see myself more as a curator of South African surf heritage – more like an archivist finding enjoyment in the discovery of old manuscripts. The artefacts I was drawn to were those that reflected a call for social change and environmental justice through more a soulful surfing ethos, namely: N.D. Mazin’s “Blue Mamba sponsored by Toxicorp” (2005), N.D. Mazin’s “Blue Mamba in the Wilderness” (2006), N.D. Mazin’s “Azaniamania” and Mak1’s graffiti art board (2008), and a contribution to the overall bid on Con Bertish’s “Ice Board Project” in 2009.

On Surfboards

The uniqueness of the exhibition is that surfboards were the canvas on which the artists worked. This was not surf art in the traditional sense; it was not about framed painted wavescapes or celebrating surf culture from within its own point of reference. Rather, artists are invited to bring their mode of expression to a particular surfboard design.

For the 2009 Wavescapes Surf Art Exhibit the specific canvas was a replica surfboard based on the “Pipeline teardrop gun” ridden by Hawaiian surfing legend Gerry Lopez (aka Mr Pipeline) in the early 1970s. Designed to take on the North Shore of Oahu’s big, powerful and tubular waves, this 7’7″ (length) x 20″ (width) x 3″ (thick) board sported a single-fin keel skeg and enabled Lopez to develop a Zen-like style of surfing that is “still regarded as the model of wave-riding elegance and refinement” (Warshaw 2003, 344).

This board was part of that moment within the history of surfboard design called the shortboard revolution that started in the late 1960s and moved away from the nine foot plus longboards of the earlier generation. However, this board was   specific to a trend in Hawaii where shapers pioneering longer and narrower surfboards ideal for their local surf conditions (Young 1983, 118). This surfboard is also a contextual sign for the making of global surf culture as we know it today. Lopez was part of the seventies “soul surfing” generation which prioritised surfing as expression (as an art) over contests (surfing as a sport) yet he participated in local and international competitions at the time. He was also influential in the commercialising of surfing as of 1970, initially through his Lightning Bolt surfboard label, that sparked the surf manufacturing and retail industries. It was the likes of Lopez that created the environment for a new generation of surfers, including Shaun Tomson as South Africa’s only men’s surfing world champion to date, to push for the professsionalisation of surfing from the late 1970s (see Thompson 2001).

With this historical context in mind, at little more needs to be said about what a surfboard has come to mean in surf culture. A surfboard represents more than simply a functional object for a surfer; it is a mimetic device projecting past surf sessions into the possibilities of the next. It is also an extension of the surfing where “the technology of surfboard design facilities the possibilities of the dance” while riding a wave (Ford and Brown 2006, 27). As late 1960s Springbok and counterculturalist surfer Donald Paarman recounted in his revealing autobiography, hydrodynamics and bio-kinetics mix with ocean consciousness through a new surfboard:

“Anyway, I got a yellow board sent down to me. It looked good but the tail-lift looked a bit suspicious. Jeezers Molly! But I was off like the proverbial rocket at Vic[toria] Bay. The locals had to make way for the new grommet … I was catching all the best waves and truly tuned into the ocean once again” (Paarman 2008, 172).

It is here that Alain Corbin’s notion of “coenaesthetic impressions” comes to mind; what he calls sensibilities “which created a sense of existence on the basis of a collection of bodily sensations” (Corbin 1994, 1). Paarman’s remembrance of his embodied experience of wave-riding on a surfboard, and other surfers will concur here, conjures up a coenaesthetics where the surfboard triggers not only a memory of a surf session but the emotions associated with it. A surfboard is more than simply a symbol that defines surfing culture as a global sport and leisure activity; it is a personal archival repository of surf narratives that give personal and social meaning to the surfer.

Unlike an object of art, a surfboard is not meant to be displayed but used as a new stage for evolving performances each time the waves call. There is thus a bit of a culture shock here for the surfie as artistic and surfing systems of appreciation collide: I have had several comments on whether I take the art surfboards in my collection out into the waves – my answer is: well, I do ride the Mak1 single-fin board (that draws on a 1970s Donald Takayama “egg” design). My motivation in using that board from a yesteryear in the surf offers me a way to re-imagine the past as I study and write the history of South African surfing.

The Poetics of Surf Art

The 2009 Wavescapes Surf Art Exhibition was a space where Corbin’s coenaesthetic impressions were evident. The display of the art surfboards shifted representations from within surf culture toward artistic expressions that used references to the world beyond the ocean yet the form of the surfboard, and its implied use, was never lost. The surfboards as functional objects become art created a sense of wonderment at the uniqueness of this Cape Town exhibit. My gaze flipped from that of the surfer’s eye to that of the galley visitor’s. As the former, I observed the rounded tail (the end of the board) or the lack of rocker (the bottom curvature) and translated an inert design into an imagined moment of flow between board and body on a wave. As a visitor to the exhibition, I experienced a sense of resonance, what Stephen Greenblatt has noted in relation to art museum exhibits as, “the power of the displayed object to reach out beyond its formal boundaries to a larger world, to evoke in the viewer the complex, dynamic cultural forces from which it has emerged and for which it may be taken by the viewer to stand” (1991, 42). In so doing, the 2009 Wavescapes Surf Art Exhibition’s evoked a poetics that placed surf culture in dialogue with art, and visa versa.

In the exhibition line-up were artists new or returning to the Wavescapes Surf Art Exhibition, some among them surfers. Artists from the Centre for Comic, Illustrative and Book Arts are Andy Mason (aka N.D. Mazin), Sue Opperman and Andre and Nathan Trantraal who exhibited alongside other well-known South African artists, namely: Anton Kannemeyer (aka Joe Dog), Brett Murray, Conrad Botes (aka Konradski), Gabby Raaff, Justin Fiske, Kim Longhurst, Richard Hart, Ross Turpin, and Scott Robinson (aka Dirty Sanchez). These thirteen artists (with some artists collaborating) were provided with a Lopez “Pipeline teardrop gun” surfboard and the final ten art objects set out four key themes that provided commentary on contemporary South Africa and local surfing culture, namely: postcolonial condition as it applies to South Africa; the place of femininities in surf culture; the imaginal as fantastic, conceptual or nostalgic; and apocalyptic warnings of the ending of the world and oceans as we know it. I will touch on each theme in turn.

Shaping identities in the postcolonial state

Three satirical artworks at the Wavescapes Surf Art Exhibition took on the political directly by opening up questions of power, identity and the Other in postcolonial southern Africa. What is important here is that the surfing media has usually shied away from the political by focusing on a decontextualised and romanticised surfing lifestyle or sport yet these artworks foregrounded surfing’s location with political contexts. This surf art was reminiscent of moments when surfboards have carried a political message. For example, when the Australian professional surfer Cheyne Horan displayed a “Free Mandela” sticker on his surfboard during the July 1989 Gunston 500 event in Durban and again in 1990 at the same event, with the apartheid government in retreat after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, his surfboard carried the political slogan: “If the people lead, the leaders will follow” (Zigzag 1990, 6). More recently, American and multiple world men’s surfing champion, Kelly Slater had “protest boards” designed for him to carry an anti-war message against the United States of America’s involvement in the Iraqi War (Slater 2008).

Turning to the artwork at the exhibit, Brett Murray’s “Umshini Wam” surfboard foisted a vision of Idi Amin co-opting Jacob Zuma’s anthem, “Umshini Wam”. In questioning how power works in the postcolonial (and here, read: post-apartheid) state, Murray offers a vision of the potential for an African military despot to emerge out of the rhetoric of populist politics and the implied violence of the song. As such, “Umshini Wam” is less a reference to how popular culture can be mobilised politically than a specific discourse of African pessimism in that looks to a possible future time in the South Africa’s history as a postcolony.

In many ways, Murray’s piece is a preface to Joe Dog’s. Here a Tintinesque representation sees a black postcolonial subject carrying the balding head of the white settler on a silver platter in what may have been a postscript to J.M. Coetzee’s novel Waiting for the Barbarians. In twenty-first century South Africa, social privilege and political power has changed from earlier apartheid configurations but Joe Dog’s parody of the Empire’s caricature of the Noble Savage serving up the settler questions to whom is the platter being offered. Is it the new black bourgeoisie in their quest for empowerment or global neoliberal monetary policy that maintains Africa in a state of economic and political dependency?

On the other hand, the Trantraal Bros paint a different picture of the new South Africa: they look at how identity has and is still changing in post-apartheid society. For them, it is less about Othering and creating distance between citizens but rather seeking out what new South African identities has been assimilated from a mash-up of historical and contemporary notions of the self. In particular, what historical roots and cultural heritage has been drawn on to construct a Coloured or a white South African identity. On the one side of the orange, white and blue painted surfboard reminiscent of the Dutch settler flag is depicted a Coloured man holding the old South African flag, while the other side of the surfboard depicts a white man with a British flag. The latter’s transnationalism providing the potential for migration back to a nation of origin while the former’s specificity locates him in a past locked to the south of the African continent. In mappings these racialised identities, the Trantraal Bros seem to ask: How have the flags of our forefathers shaped South Africans today?

Searching for femininities

There was also strong emphasis on femininities among the surf art. The focus on women, although not new to this exhibit, takes on further significance when read alongside the poster for the 2009 Wavescapes Surf Art Exhibition. According to Wavescape (2009), “The eye woman arrives in the artwork of the festival for the first time. The girl in the not so itsy bitsy polka dot bikini denotes the new wave of the new era of surfing for everyone and anybody.” Despite the inclusivity of surf culture hinted at in the poster, the reality is that surfing is still a masculine domain with women and girls slowly becoming more and more visible as surfers. However, in the exhibit none of the artists depicted a woman surfing a wave; notwithstanding the advances made by a post-Blue Crush generation of women and girl surfers who incorporate an independent femininity with a sense of athleticism in the waves (see Heywood 2008).

Rather, some artists took other interpretative paths to explore notions of gender and feminine identity. Kim Longhurst’s “With every beat of my heart” was a personal exploration of womanhood stripped of its flesh to reveal a physiology of the self. While the image of the dissected women was set upon the phallic shape of the surfboard’s patriarchy, it resisted that same masculine gaze by not offering a woman as a sexualised object packaged by the dictates of surf fashion. Rather, in this post mortem, Longhurst provoked the need to look with a clinical eye at the social constructions of gender and celebrate a deep, embodied femininity in which womanhood and motherhood are seen as public and relational expressions of identity that are not hidden away in domesticity.

On the other hand, both Ross Turpin and Konradski offered the exhibition mythic aquatic femininities in the guise of mermaids. As tropes of desire and oceanic sensuality, these mermaids represent the promise and perils of the waves and ocean depths. Turpin’s more amphibious looking mermaid breaks through the surface of the seascape of the surfboard; the electric eels encircling her evoking an animistic (eco)femininity that seem to point to the prospects of ocean’s waves as a site for renewable energy. In contrast, Kondradski’s mermaid carries another set of meanings. She is either a guide to how humanity can explore to the tranquillity of the ocean beneath the waves and foster a conserving ethos toward marine life. Or she is serenely watching the drowned stares of those paying a visit to Davey Jones. Or Kondradski’s mermaid is trapped within the aquarium of the surfboard’s shape as an exotic curiosity at an art exhibition. In all these interpretations of the mermaids, femininity remains ambivalent – it is at the same time autonomous, powerful, misunderstood and exploited; much in the same way humanity may relate to the sea.

Surfing and the imaginal

Notions of the sea as sublime continue in three further artworks. Sue Opperman’s wavescape of fantastic sea creatures in an unfamiliar red ocean recalls old maps from the Voyages of Discovery with dire warnings of “Here Be Dragons” set near the edges. Opperman imaginatively captures the magic and the mystery of the ocean; aspects of the ocean’s waves that continues to enchant surfers and others to leave the beach and enter the surf. This withdrawal from the land is not simply escapism, though that may be part of the appeal of surfing as a lifestyle activity. Rather, the waves open the imagination just as Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings enchanted readers with tales of Middle Earth and allowed us to feel interconnected to Nature. Ask any surfer whether they have mind-surfed an empty wave breaking at their favourite surfspot or looked at a surf photograph of an unfamiliar line-up and not imagined surfing that wave. Then, the other side of the imaginal is the wondering of what the surf is like when away from the beach, or attempting to picture the scene in anticipation on route to a surf. Opperman taps into all these sensibilities in her surf art and strongly hints that surfers are magical realists when out of the water.

Gabby Raaff and Justin Fiske’s collaboration takes the imagination in a different direction. The action of skipping a stone becomes ever widening concentric circles of wavelets. The surfboard as canvas represents both the conceptual surface for land and water for their piece as the kinetic energy of human motion is transferred to a stone and then absorbed into the ocean. There is something reminiscent of the playfulness of surfing in skipping stones. Also each stone, as each wave, is unique yet each follows natural laws of dispersal that have been coded as mathematical equations. For surfing, the modelling of waves from the interpreted data of ocean weather buoys allow for Internet based surf forecasts to predict when the next swell is to arrive – a piece of knowledge that drives how surfers determine work time, leisure and holidays. Nevertheless, the nature of when these oceanographic events occur is dependent on storm activity that is as a random as walking along a beach and deciding to pick a stone from among the multitude of pebbles on the stand and then with projecting that stone through a trajectory to skip in diminishing distance across an inshore water. The conceptual surf art of Raff and Fiske thus show that the patterning of oceanographic chaos is at the heart of what make surfing possible.


Richard Hart’s artwork shifts us in another direction, from the present to the past. It is a depiction of himself as a Lopezesque figure dreaming of the Indonesian tropical surf perfection of Grajagan (or G-land). This attempt for reconstruct the past by linking Lopez as the 1970s soul surfer icon who eschewed the crowds for the tranquillity of the Indonesian archipelago – and one that may conjure up the surfboard’s own past – seems to offer a retreat into a romanticised surfing heritage of those few avid surf adventurers who were willing to walk off the beaten track to find new surfspots. Yet, it was the same discovery of this island surf playground that launched a boom in surf tourism to Indonesia as of the 1980s (and especially to Bali and the Mentawai Islands off Sumatra). This annual migration of surfers from all nations, including South Africa, has sparked a frenzy of land and boat pay-to-surf holidays that market hollow, warm and perfect waves breaking over coral reefs. The exploration of G-land by Lopez in those early years, unknowingly, planted the seeds for today’s surf neo-colonialism where the islanders remain a pre-modern curiosity for the Westernised, global surf traveller and the waves a commodity for exploitation (for more on this theme see Barilotti 2002). So, even in Hart’s idealised artwork lie the murmurs of critique via nostalgia; the desire to return to a more naïve and experimental period within surf culture when the Indonesian waves were more rumoured than photographed.


Take off and die

In contrast to the above themes, the last two exhibits speak to endings and evoke the role of surf culture in taking a stand climate change. Dirty Sanchez, partner to Kim Longhurst, who responsible for the artwork on the other side the surfboard, gives us an ailing green-faced Popeye who acts as a soothsayer saying: “If the ocean dies will our tears still be salty?” Popeye is bemoaning humankind’s destruction of ocean life through the idea of progress as a means to an end and the fact that the closest thing to the ocean we will pass on to the next generation is our tears. Humanity is cutting off its own foot in over-exploiting marine resources and polluting the ocean. Dirty Sanchez’s pessimistic is that of an activist using popular culture to call for a marine environmental justice movement and the need for interventions to stave off the impending end of the ocean as result of human acts.

N.D. Mazin’s “Apocalypse WOW” surf art makes a similar call yet here the focus is on climate change awareness and the role of corporations exploiting the limits of surfing. In a parody of surf culture’s current glorification of big wave surfing, Mazin depicts zombified underclasses of Zurban (which looks remarkably like Durban, South Africa’s Surf City) fleeing down the main street as tidal waves ridden by three of surfing new elite adrenalin junkies lurch over inner-city high-rise buildings. This is a vision of the ultimate extreme event to end all surf events: the global surf enterprise Toxicorp’s sponsorship of the biggest wave challenge that creates a media spectacle out of devastating tsunamis and extreme storms as a result of anthropogenic climate change. Herein is the end of surfing driven by corporate greed. Unlike N.D. Mazin’s artworks from previous Wavescapes Surf Art Exhibitions, his countercultural, anti-corporate guerrilla Blue Mamba is banished from “Apocalypse WOW”. We have no redemption and are left with the madness of human-induced destruction reminiscent of the scene in the film Apocalypse Now where a beachhead is taken during the Vietnam War under orders by the American army Colonel Kilgore so that soldiers can surf Charlie’s Point. Read alongside each other, the film points to the heart of darkness within this surf art that brings to mind a 1980’s surf advert that announced the nihilist ethic of T.O.A.D.S (take off and die syndrome on attempting to surf the biggest waves) –the ultimate thrill of a final limit experience while civilisation drowns from a Gaian shrug.

In addition to these two artworks addressing themes of endings, mention must be made of Con Bertish’s “Ice Board Project”. This could be considered as the eleventh exhibit at the 2009 Wavescapes Surf Art Exhibition alongside the surf art. The “Ice Board Project” shifts our gaze to consider how a surfboard can function as a type of performance art to raise awareness among the surfing community of the effects of climate change and increasing global warming that have resulted in the melting of the Arctic and Antarctic ice caps. The “Ice Board Project” started the evening as a solid surfboard of ice and a wooden fin – of the same design as the Lopez board. Through the course of the evening it slowly melted till by the morning of the next day only the wooden fin remained. As a literal ending, the melting process of this ice surfboard was filmed as a simulation of the count-down to the end of the world as we know it, something akin to the futuristic documentary, The Age of Stupid (2009), as a challenge to take seriously the threat of climate change to the lifestyles we live today.

Concluding Thoughts

In re-membering the 2009 Wavescapes Surf Art Exhibition I was struck at how the ten surf art boards and the “Ice Board Project” offer a single reading. The surfboards as a representational space for artist expression provoked an embodied sensibility, something like what surfer and artist Kevin Short once noted, where “Art became a portal back; to imagine the water” (2002, 35). But then, in returning to the waves, the negation of the shore stands out. It is here the surf art in the Wavescapes Surf Art Exhibition came into it own as a discursive form to re-imagine and critique surf culture and its place in the social, political and ecological realities of the twenty-first century. Left with these thoughts and observations from the 2009 Wavescapes Surf Art Exhibition, I eagerly await for what the organisers have in store for 2010.


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