Writing Art History Since 2002

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Johannes Phokela I Gallery MOMO I Johannesburg

At first viewing, the work of Johannes Phokela may be seen as beautiful and undemanding. In keeping with the technique of Dutch and Flemish Old Masters, this contemporary artist paints glowing light and broiling shadows in oils on canvas. His subjects are familiar. We have seen those particular figures before, in those precise positions. Being creatures of habit, the viewer experiences some sort of comfortable nostalgia, reassured by the recurrent scene. Upon closer view, however, African figures and faces appear amidst the familiarity of the European settings, peering from apparent slashes in the canvas, half-concealed behind velvet curtains, at feasting tables. Also, peppered in the paintings are odd objects, out of place and out of time: Comic Relief red noses plonked onto unsuspecting faces; guns leaning nonchalantly against chairs; red high-heeled shoes casually dropped onto the floor; bunches of bananas; a lit joint.Within the frame of the original European works these other people and objects, at first, seem disjointed and unconnected to the original scene. They seem not to belong. But slowly, one at a time, they start revealing their relationship to the original work. And it is not a relationship that comes about only through a contemporary reading of meaning, it is a relationship that existed when the original work was made. And herein is the first real element of disturbance. When the African faces and out-of-place objects adopt (or are assigned) meanings, the signs lodged within the original works start changing their possible historical and contemporary readings. It is here where the traditional meanings of colonial symbols start to work against themselves, turning to self-derision, becoming simultaneously malignant cancer and evolutionary mutation. This may be the most complex of the ramifications in Phokela’s work, the manner in which he packages the intentions of Dutch and Flemish artists – what they mean by their semiotics – with his own contemporary interpretations. The outcome is an in-your-face contestation of allegory in art history, a shameless re-branding with contemporary hindsight, a re-assignation of meaning, and unconcealed attribution. It is in this position that Phokela is simultaneously artist and interpreter, practitioner and theorist.It is startling to see just how unforgiving Phokela is in his overt subversion. Visual iconographic displacement, insertion and substitution become violent tools for stabs, gouges and rough welds. A further effect of the artist’s allegorical shifts – placing contemporary Africa into historical Europe – is in condensing time. It is a neat trick that introduces temporal simultaneity into the art historical tradition of fixing time. In the same way that layering produces richness, this simultaneity of tenses is heightened when past and current are condensed onto a two-dimensional, painted plane. It is here where history merges with contemporary anthropology, the action of which compels new readings and meanings.Further disjunctures occur in Phokela’s use of frames and compartments to disrupt the visual plane. These, often white and geometric, serve to isolate elements from each other, creating scenes within an original visual confluence. Derridian definitely, attributively possibly, one may deduce that this device also creates the possibility of multiple meanings. Isolating existing and original scenes creates new breaks and new relationships. Meanings become multiple, thereby questioning the master narrative that often defines modern European arrogance. By introducing visual forms that create subversion, and isolating them or integrating them into his rip-offs, Phokela parodies historical European character. And as we know that these characters have an alarming longevity, Phokela’s work may be viewed as an act of insurgency against today’s remainders of European colonial action, being and thought.A triptych, entitled Regarding Fontana (2005), references the work of Lucio Fontana, an artist of the Arte Povera movement. Fontana, known for slashing and burning his canvases with acid, exemplified for the movement their cornerstone principle of open-endedness. It may be possible then that, through this reference, Phokela underlines his key intention: to question the insidious system of colonial values that perpetuate themselves through symbols, signs and icons.

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