Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Interview with Johannes Phokela

'Eating people isn't always wrong," reads the title of a newspaper article Johannes Phokela has clutched in his hand as we stand in front of South Pacific Seascape.

Complementing this story on cannibalism is a dated drawing of a half-naked African with a white colonial in his grip. In his usual satirical take on politically loaded topics, Phokela has scrawled across the image "exotic snack" in black koki pen, thereby inverting the stereotypical view of the African as exotic.

Phokela has replicated the image in South Pacific Seascape. It's two weeks before the opening of his largest major solo exhibition in South Africa and he hasn't finished painting it yet, so it won't be on show. But it is a rare opportunity not only to compare the artist's source of inspiration with the final product but also to see how Phokela constructs his art. In true Phokela style, he has included a number of other motifs in the image - such as an oil rig and a ship - which will add other layers of meaning to his painting.

Like much of his art, South Pacific Seascape references the colonial condition, its attending ideologies and how embedded they are in popular culture.

"Even today, there is no evidence that anyone devoured human flesh. It never existed. And let us not forget what has happened in Europe; they beheaded people. This article talks of how it was so wrong that people were perceived as cannabilists [sic]. I don't think you could ascribe any meaning to the eating of flesh," says Phokela, his eyes flicking between the image in his hand and his painting.

Much like a satirist looking for material, Phokela consumes political and cultural imagery and iconography from a variety of sources and, though he replicates these signs and symbols, he places them within reconfigured contexts that destabilise their meaning. It's always a subtle subversion, one that can only be gleaned from a close study of his paintings and the art canon - said to be his favourite source. Up until now, local art critics have associated his aesthetic with the traditional Dutch genre of painting, but it's a characteristic he eschews. "[My sources] melt into the work and people don't often realise it. Generally, I am quite interested in all iconography and symbols. But when people give you a label, you are seen as that," he says bitterly.

He characterises his approach as "creating a pastiche out of existing images. I recycle existing material to come up with something new. Say I see the image of The Thinking Man. I look at that and think that it could be of Thabo Mbeki. I am like a cartoonist in the way that I conceptualise; they use iconography that we are all familiar with and I work on the same level except I go a bit deeper and try and involve other elements. I like to put lots of conflicting elements in my work so that it is not assigned a specific meaning; that anyone can read whatever they want to read into it."

In his studio, images cut from newspapers, magazines or books are sticky-taped adjacent to paintings, and open books lie scattered on the floor. For Phokela's expression to have impact, the iconography he mimics must be faithfully represented. His modest two-roomed studio in Milpark, Johannesburg, is chock-a-block with paintings in different stages of completion. Phokela likes to work on a variety of paintings simultaneously.

He doesn't reveal much about his process, but I sense that it is not a case of fluctuating bouts of inspiration that see him flitting between his creations. When he goes into an in-depth description of an installation piece - Dream Home - describing every detail of its construction down to the lighting, it becomes clear that he is a methodical creative thinker buoyed by concepts rather than visceral or emotional compulsions.

Painting is no longer revered as the sole conduit of supposed high art. But it is hard not to feel a frisson of excitement when faced with a studio brimming with Phokela's characteristic large-scale paintings. It is in such moments that one intrinsically recognises that installations or photographic artworks simply lack the visual and sensual impact that painting evokes.

Phokela is well aware of the medium's intrinsic power, especially the traditional representational mode of painting that reflects reality like a mirror - albeit distorted. But it is those distortions that Phokela is most interested in; he likes to dig deep into art's canon, regurgitating them for the contemporary viewer. Ironically, in the process of ridiculing the tradition of Western painting, Phokela has become an accomplished painter in his own right.

But Phokela doesn't fit the archetypal painter mould. For starters, he doesn't consider himself a painter. His exhibition, wryly titled I Love My Neighbours, will boast a number of sculptures and he is anxious to get stuck into Dream Home. "I don't see those works as a departure from what I have done. I am still doing what I have always done, which is dealing with iconography. It's been a natural progression."

Phokela resists any kind of typecasting. He desists from recalling his past, filling out the bare bones of his extensive CV. Is he the epitome of the postmodernist artist who doesn't want the meaning of his work to be deflected by his context or doesn't he want the story of his life to be presented as the Soweto boy makes good?

Many have found it tricky to resist casting him in the latter mould. For someone born in Soweto in the 1960s to have gone on to study at the world's most prestigious art institutions - the Royal College of Art, Camberwell College of Art and St Martin's College of Art - is an achievement. Not only did Phokela receive a first-rate education at these institutions, he also rubbed shoulders with the Young British Artist set, or YBAs as they are more informally called, which included Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Michael Wallinger and Rachel Whiteread.

"People keep asking me about my background and childhood as if I finished school yesterday. A lot has happened since I left school." A surprising amount has happened to Phokela since he left Soweto; he has become a well-respected international artist who flits between South Africa and London, where he has lived on and off over the past 20 years. He has also built a career on avoiding being typecast; a feat that any artist from Africa values. Initially, Phokela battled with preconceived ideas about African artists.

"I remember arriving in London and being questioned about African art. No one ever stops a European artist and asks them to define European art."

Phokela's retort was to usurp the Western tradition of painting. It was not so much about subverting the canon but the attitudes about African art and artists - African artists aren't expected to be painters; painting has always been the preserve of European high art. "It wasn't about proving anything, it was about saying: 'Fuck you, I am going to do what I want'.

"Back in the Eighties, there was this idea that African art was supposed to be this way and European art is supposed to be that way. I tried to combine what I then perceived to be authentically contemporary African art at the time. But I constantly felt impeded by the directness of questions about the significance of my work.

"My white peers were always asking these exotic questions, like: 'Do you have lions in Joburg?' My black peers were also debating what I was doing. Painting white naked ladies isn't African art. They felt like I was betraying my culture. African art did not end with the [wooden] mask; we have to move beyond that."

Attitudes around African art have shifted, but Phokela is still determined not to be classified by his geographical origins, which has seen him resist participating in contemporary African themed shows. "I just don't want to be labelled as an African artist. I hate it when people refer to me as being a black South African artist."

It's hard to reconcile Phokela's appearance and demeanour with his defiant nature; he is a softly spoken, petit man whose youthful face camouflages his forty something age - the grey flecks in his hair are the giveaway.

But belying this unassuming faade is a subversive artist with a very dark sense of humour. It is embedded in his art, in the manner in which he subverts familiar images, such as portraying a Rubanesque female nude with a G-string tan-line.

"Artists see beyond what everybody sees. I am trying to create a language independent from objective rhetoric. One of the reasons I am using iconic images is that people easily recognise these things and it helps them to engage and start asking questions.

"Let's talk of the most popular images, say of Jesus Christ. He is usually depicted with blond hair and rosy cheeks when, in fact, he was Jewish, Middle Eastern, with dark hair. Not even the Bible describes Jesus as having blond hair. Iconography can change the meaning of things in a very sublime way."

Phokela says his brand of subversion is simply a means to an end. "If I use Rembrandt, I am not paying homage to him, it is just an end. I am more into the music than the artist. I don't think we should build shrines around artists. I am taking a different path. I am strictly into the image. If I see a dustpan and a brush, I try to go beyond [its physical appearance]. I go deeper. I want to stretch the possibility of meaning of objects."

· I Love My Neighbours will be showing at the Standard Bank Gallery in Johannesburg until March 21


Anonymous said...

that was an awesome article, and awesome artist--thank you.

Anonymous said...

that was an awesome article, and awesome artist--thank you.