If you’re into fly fishing, especially in Southern Africa, the name Conrad Botes probably brings to mind a mad man catching tarpon off the beach in Gabon, wrasslin’ big dusky kob out of the Breede river, float tubing in the surf for silver kob in the Cape or hammering smallmouth bass all over the show. That’s because, through years of fish klapping, he has made a name for himself in fly fishing circles.

However, outside of those circles, the name means something completely different. Conrad is one of SA’s best known artists, both for his solo work (new exhibition coming up in December at 131A Gallery in Cape Town) and through his longtime collaboration with creative partner Anton Kannemeyer on the cult comic series, Bitterkomix. In the interest of transparency, I should probably make it clear here that Soutie Press (The Mission’s parent company), also publishes Bitterkomix for Conrad and Anton.

Anyway, the long and the short of it, is that with Conrad as one of the founders of the magazine, right from the start he has chipped in not only with fishing stories and photos from near and far, but also with his skills as an artist. He either art directed, featured in or illustrated the covers of issues 1, 2, 5, 7, 10, 12, 14, 27 and most recently, our 5-year anniversary edition, issue 30.

Each of those covers is very different – some photographic, some illustrations – but of all of them issue 30 is by far the most “Conrad” of them all (issue 2 gets an honourable mention). With blue-flame belching hippos, crocs, nuclear warheads, gambling scorpions, a lost pink vibrator, a cow getting sucked into a twister and a river filled with shit, the cover (aptly named River of Shit after The Fugs song) has a lot going on, so it made sense to chat to Conrad about how it came about.

Conrad Botes at work in his studio
Conrad Botes at work in his studio

Where did the idea for this cover come from?

It was actually a purposefully thought-out cover that went with the main story by Jazz Kuschke inside the magazine. The idea was to create this doom and gloom landscape with all these things happening that allude to the ‘No Time To Die’ feature about near-death experiences while fly fishing. There are references to specific elements in the story for example Ryan Wienand’s hippo encounters, the Baia Mexico story with Andreas Linz, a scorpion and a psychedelic trip and a few stories about almost drowning and boats being death traps. The main thing was to make it interesting, full of little narrative things you can look at it again and again and discover new things.

Not many of our digital-only readers will know this, but on the spine of our print edition the tag line is “The Finest Shithole Species in the Best Shithole Destinations” which was both a nod to how Donald Trump referred to Africa and our own view that no matter where you go in the world, there are shitholes. What constitutes a shithole is in the eye of the beholder. Some shitholes are worth fishing in and others are not. Is there an element of that at play in this cover in terms of the magazine itself?

For sure, it’s a reference to what things might be looking like in twenty years time. There’s something about this – River of Shit – with pollution, a nuclear holocaust, a little pink vibrator – which in an obviously exaggerated way is reminiscent of places The Mission has been to over the last five years, like walking on mounds of plastic on the beaches of Gabon, Djibouti or Sudan or float tubing for kob off-shore and a used condom floats past. That literally happened to me last week. And a few months back a dead dog or small antelope floated past me while fishing a local Cape Town estuary.

Tell me about the coffin that the figure is cruising on with his outboard motor.
Basically, the coffin indicates that a boat can be a death trap, so the guy has his open coffin with an outboard on it and it’s a specific reference to the Arno Matthee story in the the No Time To Die feature. I also took a little branch from the Big Bad Bitterkomix Handbook cover that Anton Kannemeyer and I published in 2006. On the cover there’s this little character sailing away in his coffin-boat. That worked so I decided to use that as one part of the visual reference.

The character in the coffin on the Big Bad Bitterkomix Handbook cover is a reference to Tintin, but once he has become a toppie (older guy). He is no longer called Kuifie (the Afrikaans name for Tintin), he’s called Vleiskuifie, because ‘Vleiskuif’ in Afrikaans means ‘bald head’. The BBBH cover plays off the ideal with the not-so-ideal, the Heimlich (familiar/homely)and the unheimlich (uncanny/strange). At the top he is with his missus and he is potting animals through a window, not unlike people shooting buffalo from trains in the early days of the Wild West in the USA. In the bottom, he is floating down the river of shit in a coffin. There’s a drowned hand, a bottle of poison and Nigerian trying to sell him a fucked up plastic doll. Cause and effect, action and consequence. That’s what happens when you fuck with nature.

“It’s what the Orange river and our beaches and estuaries will look like for future generations if we do not pull our fingers out.”

The other direct reference was to that Charles Burns cover of Sugar Skull which also features a Dystopian future where a guy floats down a river on a mattress and there’s pollution and debris, fallen buildings and shit.

I then filled up the image with specific references to the story and also references that I took from the Bitterkomix cover, like the floating bottle, the drowning hand, the crow with the Ace of Spades card on a log. It’s a ridiculously arb reference – what would a crow on a log mean? And of course, once I did the burning tree, the two of us discussed the top right hand empty space and you came up with the idea of the tornado and the cow. The cover is full of little things like that, peppered with different elements.

You have either illustrated or art directed a bunch of covers over the last five years. There was issue 1 with the Skeleton carp at the Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town, the Moon Man / Captain Jack tattooed torso cover from issue 2, the left hand of Lefty Kreh in issue 5, the Oliver White Werewolf cover from issue 10, the live grunter shot on a trash heap for issue 12 and the largemouth / dragon over the night sky of the Orange river in issue 14. Of all of those, the issue 12 grunter on the trash heap connects more for me with this issue 30 cover than any of the others.

Absolutely, because it implies this is trash country. This is what I see will happen. It’s what the Orange river and our beaches and estuaries will look like for future generations if we do not pull our fingers out.

Which is your favorite?
It’s difficult to say. This was a lekker cover to do and I really enjoyed making it, but I think conceptionally the grunter cover for issue 12 was the strongest.

That was also technically challenging to pull off. From catching the fish early in the morning on the Breede, to JD Filmalter helping me carry it to the car in his boat sling, I remember that morning well. JD said he was going to meet me at Shark Rock. The plan was to meet around 7am and as soon as I got a grunter he would put it in his sling and give me a lift in his boat to the car park. Before 7I had the first grunter in a plastic bucket and as I was fighting the second one which was the biggest one that ended up on the cover, JD came scooting around the corner in his boat. As I landed it, he chucked it in the sling in his boat and off we went.

I was homeward bound half an hour later with the fish in an aerated tank in the boot. By the time we got to the dump with Oliver Kruger the photographer, that fish was fit as a fiddle. It was actually very sad to then kill it, because I felt that that grunter deserved to go back, but to drive back three and half hours to Breede was a bit too much, plus I keep grunter from time to time so it was not wasted.

It was probably the most valuable individual grunter to ever leave that system in terms of the impact it made, because that cover got a huge reaction. Issue 12 became our unicorn. We do not have any in stock, because I think it and the accompanying story about plastic pollution was so impactful, that everyone went for it.

I don’t necessarily rate an illustrated cover over a photographic cover, not at all. I think our first cover was good too, that had a lot of merit as well. With the cover for issue 30, I had to learn new things. I grew up pre-Photoshop so I had to teach myself how to do things. This cover was the first time where I colored the entire cover in Photoshop. I’d never done it before so I had to learn how to do it by Googling it. I asked my brother Brandt (a well-known South African illustrator) to help me but he was too busy with work and in-laws visiting. I just thought, the only solution is to figure it out and go for it myself. And I managed and learnt a lot so it was great.

A limited edition run (14 total) of fine art prints of the Issue 30 cover, signed by Conrad, are now available for sale.  

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