In 2005 I came across a painting by Madi Phala while rummaging through the South African National Gallery’s collection. Dated 1982, the painting was collected from the earliest Thupelo workshops, then still held around Gauteng. Phala was one of the first artists to take part in these workshops, which since 1982 have been organised by the Triangle Arts Trust Network.
Years later Phala moved from Johannesburg to Cape Town, joining the Greatmore Art Studios as a mature artist. Phala, who was murdered earlier this year, spent his last years working and facilitating some of the Thupelo workshops now held around the Western Cape. Facilitated by Mario Pissara, this tribute exhibition collected recent work made between 2002 and 2007. Scores of messages paid tribute to Phala’s life and work, evidence of his life and contribution to the visual arts. I was most taken by John Peffer’s contribution, an extract from his upcoming book for which Phala “was the crux”. The contribution took me back to the painting at SANG. Titled Bomme Ba Rona (Our Mothers), it shows three semi-abstract upper bodies of feisty looking women, their breast rendered as weapons. Perhaps, this is one of Phala’s work which, according to Peffer, was influenced by Mongane Wally Serote’s poem ‘The Three Mothers’.The exhibition included 31 works, most of them small collages and lager paintings from the Herd Boy series, previously shown on an exhibition in the same gallery. Phala spent his last months working on the smaller collages, which revisited and pushed further ideas from his earlier work. In these urban landscapes, Phala is both observer and participant. This is intensified by the way he treats space: although marked by stark opposites, the interior and exterior, the dark and the light work harmoniously. The strongest works foreground images of black women, a clear return to a theme highlighted by Peffer – he points to a 1979 Staffrider illustration of ‘Black Woman, Black Woman’, a poem by Bonisile Joshua Motaung.Music also features strongly. In one work, a musician is present and performs in front of a mirror showing a contorted reflection; in others works Phala only depicts instruments. Phala’s work references popular culture and uses the township landscape as a space of complex existence and endless possibilities. It encompasses past and present while giving enough room for a future to be re-imagined, even in the artist’s absence.