Arts and Culture 2007-2015


Johannes Phokela at the Venice Biennale

First appeared
Thursday, 23 May 2013


It’s not uncommon to hear Italians make statements like: “There is no such thing as Italy.” This may seem a little melodramatic, not to mention factually inaccurate, but after some explanation it makes sense. As with many countries in Europe – the continent that bequeathed to the world the dubious idea of “the nation” – Italy’s history, culture and geography evince strong tensions between the regional and the national.

People from southern Italy share bitter anecdotes about advertisements for apartment rentals in northern cities that specify “not for those from the south”. This north/south anxiety is just one part of the story. Medieval and renaissance conflict between neighbouring “city-states” resulted in a strong sense of autonomy and mutual distrust, which was reinforced in the twentieth century despite (and sometimes because of) Mussolini’s attempts to forge a united fascist idiom.

Venice, of course, has always positioned itself as separate from the rest of Italy. Its status, initially, as a city of trade and commerce and, later, of leisure and tourism, has secured a global reputation for cosmopolitanism. Combine this with the sinking, stinking grandeur of the place and it’s not hard to see why the Venice Biennale, first held in 1895, soon became an international arts phenomenon.

Yet, just as the Olympics simultaneously stage global sporting fellowship and divisive national rivalry, the Venice Biennale celebrates a form of urbane universality through the arts even though its very structure reinscribes national identities. Each “National Pavilion” becomes temporarily representative of the art of a country, however artificial this may seem.

South Africa’s participation in the Biennale has not been without controversy in recent years, but this is probably no more or less than happens in every country – given the prestige of exhibiting at the event, competition between artists, curators, galleries and their agents can be fierce. In 2013, the South African Pavilion is being curated by Benton Maart under the auspices of the National Arts Festival.

The list of South African artists to be exhibited has grown steadily since the first names were announced – an indication of the difficulty of “representing” the country to the arts world descending on Venice in June. Some of the names will be familiar to South African art fundis; others, like one Johannes Phokela, are probably more likely to be recognised in London or Paris than in Johannesburg or Cape Town.

Phokela may have been born and raised in Soweto, and may have been based in South Africa for the last seven years, but he is a true “citizen of the world”. Talking to him at his studio (located amidst the industrial bustle of Selby, south of the Joburg city centre) before he left for Venice, I realised that Phokela is an artist whose life and work resist any easy conception of the South African “nation”.

Phokela (born in 1966) was in his twenties when, before South Africa’s transition to democracy, he swapped Soweto for London. The narrative of the South African artist fleeing apartheid and achieving renown in his or her adopted country is a well-established one, but Phokela insists that his migration shouldn’t be viewed in terms of “exile”: “I wasn’t forced to leave, and I didn’t leave out of desperation. I was simply fortunate enough to join a programme for young black artists wanting to study and travel abroad.”

Phokela studied at the Royal College of Art, as well as Camberwell and St Martin’s. By the mid-1990s he had become “attached to London”, his family was settled there and, over the next decade, he had opportunities to exhibit across the city, in Paris and elsewhere. His return to South Africa was not tied to “political change” and was, in fact, not planned. “I got a commission to do the Soweto memorial (to the student uprising in 1976), came back for a short time and just stayed on.”

One effect of new communication technologies, Phokela notes, is that “the international art world is smaller – you can literally be in two places at once.” So a South African artist can be “plugged into” global networks while working and exhibiting locally. Still, Phokela is restless and thinks he’ll be leaving again soon: “I don’t like the idea of staying anywhere too long – movement, living in different countries, is part of the creative complex.”

South Africa might not be the only country that Phokela thinks of as “home”, but there is much in his experience as an artist, as well as in his artistic output, with which South Africans specifically might sympathise. “When I first came to London, I wanted to avoid classification as an ‘African’ or ‘black’ artist. I just wanted to be an artist full stop, engaging with artistic traditions and art histories from across the world.”

He adopted an appropriative, iconoclastic, parodic method – one that, he admits, he used as “a ladder to climb the arts scene” – imitating but also subverting famous works by European Masters. Phokela’s aim was to explore how “familiarity breeds contempt” for the images we consume, to “reinvent a way of seeing” and encourage viewers to ask questions about material and aesthetic histories: “Why, for instance, did Italian renaissance paintings become what they did, and why did African art become ‘craft’?”

Phokela’s engagement with artistic precursors is not antagonistic – rather, it takes the form of homage. His triptych Regarding Fontana, for instance, invokes the Italian artist Lucia Fontana, who slashed with a knife and burned with acid to turn two-dimensional canvases into three-dimensional “holes” or “wounds”. Phokela rendered this effect with paint, a tromp-l’oeil lending focus to the figures he then inserted into the gap: victims of human trafficking, child soldiers, slave-labourers.

Phokela’s paintings may pose “serious” questions, but they are not always earnest. His Santa Claus on Holiday depicts “a typical South African situation” – a chubby, pale Father Christmas reclines naked in a neo-classical pose, with black servants ready to attend him. “He was depressed, in need of sunshine,” says Phokela, “so he’s come to Africa. Not unlike Bono and other celebrities who serve their own careers by ‘saving’ the continent.”

The red nose on Santa’s favourite reindeer/springbok, Rudolph, is the kind associated with comic relief. When Phokela was in England, he tried to support this charitable campaign but found that he couldn’t put the plastic nose on – it didn’t fit. “This got me thinking about the perception that Africans can’t help other Africans, which is linked to ‘aid dependency’ in Africa and, sometimes, enforced charity.” This motif recurs in different media; Phokela’s “Olympic Medals” has gold, silver and bronze skulls mounted on a podium, each with a plastic red nose nailed onto it.

Phokela may mimic “high art” subjects – like his St Sebastian, whose skin is pierced by AK-47 rounds instead of arrows – but he also sources images from more mundane sources. Exciting Recipes is based on a magazine photograph from the 1980s depicting a stereotypical “white” braai; Phokela playfully disrupts the cosy cliche by inserting black figures and alluding to “traditional” culinary practices.

A tragicomic rendering of consumption is also at the centre of South Pacific Seascape, one of the works chosen for Venice. Referring to colonial myths about cannibalism, along with the contemporary arms trade and Africa-China relations, this painting seems suitably trans-historic and trans-national: like Phokela himself, it will resist any easy categorising of “South African art” at the Biennale.



Comments (0)

Leave a comment

You are commenting as guest.

Cancel Submitting comment...

Latest from Arts & Culture