History lesson

When the Mail & Guardian arrived at the Standard Bank Gallery in central Johannesburg to interview artist Johannes Phokela about his overwhelming retrospective, the hall was bustling. Several men were bent at work, mounting paintings and labels to the walls and cleaning the glass casings housing Phokela’s sculptures. We stood diffidently, unsure how to begin.

We approached Monna Mokoena, owner of Gallery Momo, to which Phokela is signed, and told him why we had arrived.

Mokoena pointed out a slight man, in blue chino pants and a black T-shirt, hovering alongside a giant painting, easily more than two metres long. After a moment Phokela lit up and came over to greet us cheerily in an accent revealing traces of London. He has lived in England for more than two decades. We took in the artwork while Phokela took care of the hanging.

Moments later the artist took us on a tour of the gallery space. Phokela works mainly in oil, but he also sketches and sculpts. He is erudite, a graduate of London’s Royal College of Art.

He talks about 16th-century history and art in a nonchalant way, as if it’s something everybody is expected to know. Yet he has a way, in his work and in conversation, to distil complex issues into chatter that could happen over tea. Before the interview a colleague warned me that Phokela could be difficult. I had expected a withdrawn, tetchy character, but he turned out be chatty, personable and avuncular. He had no problem explaining the complexities of art history.

Phokela is “a great re-interpreter of iconic images in Western art”, according to publisher and writer Bronwyn Law-Viljoen, who introduces the catalogue.

In a mammoth tryptich, titled Tender Loving Care (2006), the central panel is a reworking of Hogarth from 1748, contrasting the one-time luxuries of England with the poverty of France.

In Phokela’s rendition the painting is set against a black background and features a priest, flabby and boasting several chins, about to receive a hindquarter of meat from a black supplicant. The right panel shows a black man in stylish contemporary dress labouring under the weight of a white man, a white woman and a child. The turbaned woman holds out a stick on which a dollar bill is stuck.

Phokela says the triptych is about “the economic relations of Africa and the West” and the image of the black man carrying a burden of whites is meant to mock affirmative action. “Having a BMW and drinking expensive whisky does not mean you are economically empowered,” he says. “This painting is not meant to be political, but you can read it in the way you want.” He says the real beneficiary of affirmative action is white business.

When I ask him about the influence of European painters on his work, Phokela explains that, for him, “Europe is a means to an end”. His oeuvre—an eclectic mixture and pastiche of classical paintings, religious imagery and popular imagery culled from tabloids, television and the internet—is his way of refusing to be pigeonholed.

“An African artist is expected to work in a certain way. My art can’t be only about masks,” he says. He doesn’t draw on traditional African art because he views it as more nostalgic than functional.

“Assimilation is inevitable,” Phokela says. “Those who assimilate are the ones who benefit the most. That’s how we evolve as a civilisation.” When he is not using the word “assimilate” or its variants, Phokela talks about his works being a result of “swapping cultures” or a “balancing act”. He finds some of his critics hypocritical: “The people who say this is not black enough are the same people who drink Johnnie Walker Blue and not umqomboti [a home-brewed alcoholic beverage].”

Phokela is attracted to iconic images that he subverts into subtle messages and biting socio-political commentary. Yet even with its subtlety his work is gripping and exhilarating. Phokela is deeply aware of the many influences that permeate his work, something well captured by a line from poet Walt Whitman: “I am large, I contain multitudes.”

He was born in 1966 and was 10 when Soweto was in flames. As part of his tribute to South Africa and the heroes of 1976, he designed and erected a memorial opposite Morris Isaacson High School in Soweto in 2006. The memorial, “10 to 15 minutes” from his home, features a montage that retraces the route taken by the protesters on a wall that resembles an exercise book.

In Soweto, he says, he is known as an artist and people routinely walk up to him to ask the meaning of his work. “When they ask me what my art means I say to them: ‘It doesn’t have to mean anything’.”

As Paul O’Kane writes in the exhibition catalogue: “Phokela has thought about painting so thoroughly that he doesn’t need to take a particular position.”

About the title of this retrospective, I Like My Neighbours, Phokela says: “It could refer to Zimbabwe, to the way we conduct our foreign policy or to bilateral agreements between countries.

“It should be done fairly,” he says, before adding: “Anybody is my neighbour.”

I Love My Neighbours shows at the Standard Bank Gallery until March 21

Percy Zvomuya

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