A new visual taal

The next generation of "alternatiewe" Afrikaners is creating a glorious, guilt-free visual language for the South Africa of their tomorrow.

First Published in

Douglas Coupland's novel Generation X instantly provided pop culture with an umbrella term with which to encapsulate the mindset of a certain age group - a term that's been liberally borrowed here. Thus, our very own "Generation A". The "A" in question stands for "Afrikaans", for "top class", for "an alternative view"… And lastly, that "A" represents the "Am I Collective".

The Am I Collective is a crew of five young designers who hail from that pretty, one-time Broederbond stronghold known as Stellenbosch. They may have studied design in the shadow of the Hottentots Holland Mountains and a murky Afrikaner history, but the members of the Am I Collective hold no such allegiance with the past.

It's time to "give the new Afrikaner a chance," they argue. Am I's three founder members Ruan Vermeulen (26), Christo Basson (28) and Ferdi Dick (28) provide proof that the new political dispensation has birthed a fresh South African mindset. It's one in which Afrikaner identity has had to launch a new struggle for definition and relevance, and is coming through with flying colours that are no longer oranje, blanje, blou.

This philosophy is translated into its visual counterpart in the output of the trio's design studio. What we, as audiences, really witness in one of their ornamental layouts, are the aspirations and assertions of the Afrikaner avant garde taken into swirling, curlicued forms that are all hope and glory - an uncrushed, youthful optimism creating its own beautiful tomorrow.

Christo and Ruan describe the shift as a "revolution" in thinking among Afrikaner youth, where conservatism and traditional values have long since been overturned. It's a generation that has come of age in post-Apartheid times, unsaddled by guilt, and proactive about the future. Christo sums it up: "People are done feeling bad." "We Afrikaners are still here," says Ruan, "but we're not what we used to be. Patricia Lewis is so not our culture. That's where bands like Fokofpolisiekar get it right. Their lyrics have got something to say and they're not scared of saying it. Like Chris Chameleon, who has taken Ingrid Jonker's poetry and set it to music. It's not your Steve Hofmeyr pampoen crap!" he asserts.

It's no coincidence that music videos and music itself - in a variety of genres and languages - is a direct influence on their aesthetic sensibility. It's "die klankbaan van die lewe," as Ruan puts it. In fact, much of the collective's work has been in this realm. They have produced CD cover artwork and band identities for several local musos.

Their graphic style is extremely layered, thanks to each adding his bit. A layout will be passed back and forth several times before completion. No-one is precious. "There's no room for that," they say.

Room for individual expression does remain, however, in the form of sideline ventures and creative hobbies. Christo is a fine artist currently enrolled for his Masters. Ruan doubles as a director and editor of music videos. Am I's lo-fi music video for Delta Blue, in which the studio did everything themselves from start to finish, was rated as one of the top three of the year by SABC 2's Pitstop, winning out against other big budget productions. It also resulted in increased album sales for the band.

Besides a reconisable visual style (one that owes a small debt to the current rage for maximalism), what further distinguishes the collective is the fact that they really do uphold the values implied by their confederacy. Together with two employees, Rudi de Wet and Merwe le Roux (who happens to be both a Loerie and Think Ahead award-winner), the collective has formed an interdependent, almost symbiotic working relationship that allows its members to bypass the egocentrism and work-traffic problems that can plague a larger creative agency. "We would like to collaborate with as many different people as possible," they say, "because contact with other styles inspires you to do new things."

Their educational background is also a contributing factor to their singular approach. "At Stellenbosch University, design is almost a conceptual art instead of an applied form of advertising used to sell products. The lecturers really try and push you to think in a much broader way," says Christo.

It was this ethos that first brought the group together. As students they organised exhibitions and cultural events in Stellenbosch nightclub venues. When the working world beckoned, these initiatives - and the team - dissipated, until their shared frustrations brought them together again. "The opportunity to do what we're good at wasn't given to us within the corporate environment," explains Ruan. "We have tried to put the rawness and energy of our earlier exhibitions back into the work we have been doing since we started the collective."

To date, the majority of their clients have been other agencies, such as Lowe Bull and Saatchi & Saatchi, who commission Am I for their design and illustration skills. Thus far, the collective is responsible for standout work such as Cell C's 3.25 viral marketing campaign, and the directional poster for the Vodacom Stormers 2006 rugby season