The Portfolio: John Phalane’s art ‘gives me a sense of being myself’

It was my dad who got me into cars. He taught me how to drive, but even before that, he’d always wash and polish his Valiant. At some point he drove a golf cart at a golf course.  

In the mid to late 70s, I joined him at the Royal Johannesburg Golf Club as a caddy and as part of the maintenance staff. After some time, I didn’t want to do it.

Between 1978 and 1997, I was on the road for quite a bit. There was a time when I was transporting goods between Johannesburg and Tzaneen, which is why airports, buildings, roads and maps feature quite prominently in my work. I’ve never been inside an aeroplane, but I’ve taken many trains to Germiston and Isando with the objective of looking at aeroplanes take off and looking at others as they stood still. 

Right now, I live in Polokwane.  I’ve become a pensioner and, over the years, I’ve become an avid collector of books and magazines. I’d read some; with others I’d look at the images of places in America, Europe and Asia.

In the late ’90s, there came a time when I didn’t want to drive any more. In between, there have been times when I have operated a scrapyard and worked as a used-parts salesman. 

I was thinking a lot about Nelson Mandela and how during the time he was imprisoned, he had had to do the will of somebody else. I thought about how this applied to my own life, which is how I took up drawing. I wanted something that could give me a sense of being myself. 

My work conjures memories of being on the road. But it is also about places and buildings I have never been to, that I cut out of magazines and bring to life through my work. Roads and landscapes I usually do from memory, and then I reference vehicles like aeroplanes and boats. 

Sometimes I get obsessed with it and I tend to work well into the night. This is something I plan to do until I die, like Winston Churchill, because art offers no pension. My art is unique to me, and I say this having looked at many other artists’ work. 

That way, it can sell right through and be of benefit to my children. But I’ve been checking with the galleries that sell my work and they say Covid-19 has been bad for business, which is frustrating. 

As told to Kwanele Sosibo.

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