Writing Art History Since 2002

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Johannesburg Art Gallery | Johannesburg

Johannes Phokela’s most recent exhibition, Translation, comprises a selection of works produced between 1993 and 2006, and honours Durant Sihlali, Phokela’s deceased mentor and teacher.Phokela’s paintings are intellectual meditations on painting as medium and discursive practice. His oils enter into a multi-layered, deliberate dialogue with historical European artistic production and, in particular, the work of seventeenth century Dutch and Flemish painters. The painting of scenes from everyday life (genre painting) and preoccupation with the transience of earthly life (encapsulated by the Vanitas theme) are both central to the Northern European tradition. Phokela’s re-working of the Old Masters and his ironic appropriation and re-representation of historical works, critiques the socio-political subtexts of the European visual traditions he engages and his relation to them. In an interview with Bruce Haines he commented: “Dutch genre painting … portrayed a certain European lifestyle that coincided with a period in history that saw the arrival of Europeans in South Africa. It was the only visual reference available – utopian in many ways, with the harsh realities of war and famine left out. The subsequent cultural collusion is significant and becomes an essential source for my ideas.” Phokela frequently references the symbolism of the Vanitas paintings, the most ubiquitous of which is the skull. Phokela undercuts this grim reminder of mortality by mounting a red plastic clown’s nose over the nasal cavity. The juxtaposition of skull and clown’s nose re-appears in a number of works and is often associated with a young boy holding a rifle, inferring contemporary representations of African child-soldiers circulated by the media. For instance, in the theatrical Pantomime Mortal Vice (2000), the detail and format of which recalls allegorical seventeenth century European frontispiece illustrations, it appears as a memento mori. A dagger holds the red nose in place, and appearing below it is an armed cherub-like child. The inspiration for Phokela’s red nose is the charity organization Comic Relief. He recalls buying a nose from the charity in the 1980s – it didn’t fit. “At first I thought I must have bought the wrong size, but in the end I realised that they were not really made for my type of nose”. The imagery of the skull, clown’s nose and child with arms is a satirical comment on colonialism and its continued after-effects. In works such as Tender, Love and Care (2006) Phokela has meticulously observed the Northern European tradition’s attention to the sensuousness of the painted surface, the theatricality of its composition and the dramatic quality of its lighting (intensely dark backgrounds and illuminated protagonists). While the beautifully worked surfaces of Phokela’s paintings are what initially entice, his work is hardly benign and the obvious references to Dutch and Flemish Masters are rarely literal. An exception is the conceptually under-developed and one-dimensional take on Rubens’ Head of Medusa and contemporary culture, a work titled Head of Trustafarian (1999). In a series of deliberately unfinished portraits Phokela allows his paint to drip, unsettling the carefully contained surfaces and borders of the paintings he evokes. In Tender, Love and Care, an exaggeratedly dramatic encounter between a young Rubenesque woman, and an exoticised, turbaned black man, Phokela employs his characteristic white painted frame to demarcate an area of the picture, forcing the viewer into an engagement that extends beyond the pleasure of the painting.The body of work that Phokela has produced thus far is substantive and conceptually strong but the continued impact of his work will depend on whether he can extend his already established oeuvre.

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