African Renaissance

2008-02-01 00:00

The work of Johannes Phokela is visually sumptuous. Like the old masters with whose work he engages, Phokela has an extraordinary grasp of light and colour, and a remarkable technical prowess. But as you are drawn in through the canvas of his visual surfaces, you begin to realise that things are not as they seem.

Phokela is an internationally acclaimed South African artist who has lived and worked in London for most of the past two decades. His work consists largely of paintings that refer directly to the work of the old masters. But while the familiarity and sheer beauty of the images draws you in, the perfectly lit world of 17th century Europe begins to fragment, as Phokela reworks the visual narrative to allow space for the broader political and historical context that lies behind. And the world of the emerging European bourgeoisie becomes inextricably linked.

KZNSA curator Brenton Maart makes the point in the exhibition's accompanying catalogue that Phokela's work is not a modernisation of the original images, but a reworking that acknowledges the political and social reality of things as they were when the original paintings were executed.

Of course, the past and the future are not discreetly separate things, much as we like to treat them that way, and Phokela's images are also about our contemporary global reality, a reality that is, in many ways, an end product of centuries of expansionist trade, slavery and colonialism.

The exhibition also includes three sculptural pieces that provide a thread that ties together centuries of European expansion and its impact on the globe. The pieces are made of bronze but they are coloured gold, silver and bronze, the colours of currency, wealth and value - in its economic sense. The skulls each have a red clown nose nailed to where their nose would be. This red nose, which also appears in many of Phokela's paintings, symbolises Red Nose Day, the British-originated charity event held in aid of the starving third world. And it is through the feebleness, the ludicrousness, the infinitely small generosity of this gesture, into which centuries of suffering and subjugation are filtered.

I spoke to Phokela about his body of work, a selection of which is currently on show at the KZNSA Gallery in Durban.

PM: One thing that your work makes me realise is how much the work of the old masters remains part of pop culture. You don't have to have studied art history for it to be familiar. But a knowledge of art history will let you in on the specifics of the narrative. And so, who do you paint for (other than yourself)?

JP: There's no doubt that painting, among other mediums, and as a form of making direct or indirect visual reference to life, is ultimately a self-conscious act. I'd easily and selfishly opt for a more informed audience, but it's more interesting to have an audience that can view an art work from various perspectives.

PM: Do you think the work you make can exist independently of its influences and origins - as an object in itself? Do you think that the elements of subversion would rise to the top, even if you are completely unfamiliar with renaissance painting?

JP: It'd be pointless for me to make art solely for the sake of subversion and material source. And I guess that the disadvantage of being badly informed of the past is that it can easily dilute that, implying potency on an interpretation that we often associate with subtlety.

PM: When did you first start constructing the specific oeuvre you occupy? What led you to it?

JP: Well, over 20 years ago. But I've always been curious … as to how various elements and organisms cross paths. It was initially a daunting task to go beyond what was conservatively expected of me as a young learning artist. But in the end, I did what I wanted to do without any fear.

PM: And when you first starting reworking the styles and composition of renaissance painters, was it an intellectually-led process, or was it an impulse that you deconstructed later?

JP: As I stated earlier, it has been a process, taking many twists and turns. My interest in European Classical art was sparked by various social elements, including cinema and religion. And at a later stage of my understanding of these dynamics, I became familiar with processes relating to philosophies and theories behind the work.

PM: One of the triumphs of your work for me is that, despite the fact that you are working in the visual language of others, you have an immediately recognisable style, both in your painting and idiomatically. A technician might see that as a failure, despite the fact that the most virtuous of reproductions are fakes …

JP: One is tempted to believe that people must always turn away when truthful mirrors are held up to their faces. The urge to prettify has often brushed aside a worrying image in order to make way for a reassuring one. This is an attitude of a mind that has been reinforced often down the centuries.

PM: Tell me about the frames that you superimpose on some of your works.

JP: They're a form of diversion to indirectly state the fact that the way we see life is, and always shall be, inescapably conditioned. So an essential question for me is: Do we as humans get conditioned for common good or simply get pacified for a purpose? So my white grids are also like a form of neutrality and a matrix of systematic control.

PM: While your works engage with the broad canvas of history and art history and political economy, they must surely relate to your experience of growing up in South Africa - where reality itself was constructed in ways not dissimilar to the construction of your paintings. Do you think there is truth to this statement?

JP: I've always entertained the idea that what I do in life and for life will be inevitably influenced consciously and subconsciously by the environment I happen to be in. What interests me more on this subject is how a combination of current experiences in the UK and here in SA will manifest in new work.

PM: Your works seem to pull a thread from the past into our present, connecting time periods. And even as you move out of a stylistic genre, the connections remain. And so Dutch voyages of discovery, bourgeois European family scenes and the Red Nose charity event all form part of the same narrative. Do you think that it's too big a jump to suggest that this web of connections is an allegory for the whole of contemporary reality?

JP: I do indeed hope that my conceptualisations come across as an allegory of contemporary reality, even if only in a little way. My interest in humanist philosophy and “pessimistic” morality are components of my three-dimensional universe that is governed by laws of composition that cannot be explained by manual dexterity and recourse to a single tradition.

PM: Do you think that middle-class people are capable of appreciating the link between their contemporary wealth and, say, the political and economic situations in Africa and South America, both past and present. I think of the peculiar modern phenomenon of the mass media charity event such as Red Nose Day and the countless Live Aid/Earth Day style concerts? I remember reading that the money raised by Live Aid was equivalent to a tenth of one day's debt repayment from Ethiopia back to the West. Why do you think they even bother? Do you think it has anything to do with guilt?

JP: I have to concede that my knowledge of class, or society as defined by culture and wealth, is very shallow and no better than experiences of those living within context. And my take on charity rather concerns perception of it more than its economic counter-effects. What informs my work out of political situations is what I call human comedy …

PM: Your work invokes more of an emotional response in me than an intellectual response. What satisfies you more as an artist: when someone understands and appreciates something at an analytical level, or when it affects them in their gut?

JP: Gut-feeling reaction is like falling in love, isn't it? Hence we always have to find logical reasons for doing so. The reasons and excuses once you are in love becomes a platform for intellectual or philosophical recourse.

PM: Do you feel that as an African in London, you have a conceptual edge? What is your experience of race in London, both generally, and within the art world?

JP: I seem to be living in both worlds at the moment and it can be confusing at times. London is one of the leading European cities and the world, and inter-racial relations are far more advanced compared to here. But South Africa has its own unique cultural dynamic, perhaps “an ace up the sleeve”.

•Compendium runs at the KZNSA Gallery until November 11.

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