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Johannes Phokela

Born, 1966 in Soweto, South Africa

Soweto-born Johannes Phokela began his art training at FUBA (Federated Union of Black Arts) academy in Johannesburg, South Africa. Moving to London, he continued his studies at Central St Martin’s College of Art & Design, Camberwell College, finally gaining an MA from the Royal College of Art in 1993. Johannes Phokela’s paintings depict history by unpacking, deconstructing, and reconstructing icons of European art history. This is perhaps a surprising strategy on Phokela’s part. There is after all a tendency for us, when looking at ‘art history’ to become less and less connected with what we see, the further back in time we go. For many of us, ‘art history’ only comes alive as a subject the nearer it gets to the present day or more recent times. But Phokela reaches back into the art history of several centuries ago, in order to produce multilayered paintings that have a powerful, modern day resonance. Phokela’s approach to art history in particular (and history in general), constructs it as signifying (or impacting greatly upon) earlier episodes of his current existence as a twenty-first century artist of South African background, who has spent a significant amount of time studying art, working as an artist, and living in London and South Africa.

We might say that Phokela’s work “looks back to look forward, it raises questions about prejudice and stereotype” (1) In evoking words such as ‘prejudice’ and ‘stereotype’ we might ordinarily or instinctively be thinking of the ‘victim’ or the ‘other’. But Phokela raises questions about European hegemony, white supremacy and white settler domination of southern Africa by a startling, original and unusual device. He takes a calculated (and yet at times playful) look at European - specifically Dutch and Flemish - painting that has come to symbolise Europe’s greatness and Europe’s civilisation; and consequently, Europe’s supposed God-given right to embark on its colonial project.

In exploring Phokela’s work we need to begin with the history of European painting of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (or more precisely, specific elements thereof) to examine his own history, which in turn relates directly to the history of South Africa, the country in which he was born. It is a country with a particularly tortuous and messed-up history, with particular and principal regard to the ways in which Dutch settlers interacted with the aboriginal populations of Southern African whom they encountered. Look closely at Phokela’s work and we begin to see controlled, intelligent, and probing critiques of the ideology that underpinned white South Africa’s notions of assumed racial superiority and its subsequent justification of its apartheid system. But this is not exploring (art) history for its own sake, or for the sake of seeking to explore the pathology of racism in Southern Africa. In examining this (art) history, Phokela is attempting to make some sort of sense of where he’s at, where South Africa was/is at, in its days of apartheid, but also in the here and now. Like a number of other Black artists, Phokela has a pronounced interest in the history of painting. In seeking to familiarise himself with that history, Phokela seeks not so much to make work that stands outside of that history. Instead, he seeks to make work that critiques that history, whilst simultaneously demanding for himself a place within it. This is in effect, amongst other things, a restructuring of art’s history and its relationship with the social, political, economic and racial realities of the present time.

Frequently, the starting point for Phokela’s works are old master paintings by the likes of Rubens (1577 - 1640) and Breugel (1525 - 1569). Such artists are taken as being representative of Europe’s so-called ‘Age of Enlightenment’ and it is this period of history, and its wider/subsequent global ramifications, that are so effectively critiqued by Phokela. As Terence Doohan has written “Phokela takes as his subject matter the art of the Enlightenment and through his re-workings of these images” critically interrogates the values and ideals that have been attached to them.” (2) Thus Phokela’s work functions as some sort of starting point for us to look again at the European project of exploration and its subsequent enterprise to occupy and subjugate the African continent, particularly its southern section. As Doohan elaborates, “The values given out” in the Enlightenment images, can be seen as a justification of a European desire for power. But in order to justify this desire for power these values had to appear neutral, and therefore natural.” (3) Doohan further illuminates that Phokela’s work “reminds us that, at the very height of the European Renaissance” Europeans discovered - my italics “the Americas and thus signalled the death of innumerable other civilisations and cultures. Nor is it a coincidence that European Enlightenment led to the darkening of Africa, which they referred to as the Dark Continent.” (4)

Like Rasheed Araeen before him, Phokela’s intention is to make himself visible (5) And in making himself visible, to reclaim a humanity lost to huge numbers of unfortunate African people, dispossessed and marginalised within the land of their birth, by European settlers and their modern-day descendants in Southern Africa.

Phokela was one of five artists selected by Rose Issa for inclusion in her exhibition Routes, at Brunei Gallery, SOAS, London, 1999. In her introductory catalogue essay, Issa wrote, “From Soweto, Johannes Phokela’s deliberate use of classical European imagery, sometimes in mysterious settings, reflects the artist’s concern with the effect of iconography upon the human psyche. His versions of Old Masters such as Rubens, Snyder, Jordaens, or his more recent interpretation of Manet’s ‘Execution of Maximilian’, with added comic elements, are intriguing and show his preferences and critical attitude. In situations that conceal other ideas behind the actual scene, he introduces cigars, credit cards, or Kalashnikovs to create mysterious settings and a theatrical atmosphere. Innocent objects and hidden information are added to his irreverent translocations. Sometimes white squares divide the paintings - a voluntarily act of desecration and demystification.” [from Singing Your Own Song, Rose Issa, Curator]

(1) Bonhams catalogue for Modern and Contemporary African Art Sale, September 2000, p. 32 (on Godfried Donkor).

(2) Johannes Phokela Fixation, The Art Exchange Gallery, Nottingham, March - April 2000, Text by Terence Doohan. Catalogue unpaginated.

(3) Ibid

(4) ibid

(5) Rasheed Araeen, through Kala Press, published in 1984 a collection of his essays, articles and correspondence, titled Making Myself Visible.

Related items

click to show details of Routes

»  Routes

Catalogue relating to an exhibition, 1999

click to show details of There is No Redemption/Origin of End

»  There is No Redemption/Origin of End

Catalogue relating to an exhibition, 2002

Related exhibitions

Related venues

»  Bonington Gallery, Nottingham Trent University

Nottingham, United Kingdom

»  City Gallery Leicester

Leicester, United Kingdom