Limerick, Ireland
Johannes Phokela, Flight of Europa, 2015, oil on canvas, 200 x 170 cm, courtesy of the artist

Johannes Phokela

b. 1966, South Africa

While Johannes Phokela’s work is, at first glance, an irreverent representation of Western art history, it is the cultural and political consumption of pictures that interests him most. He is himself a voracious consumer of imagery, drawing especially from the iconic works of the European masters – Caravaggio, De Gheyn, Hogarth, Rubens, and so forth. He fuses them together with imagery found relating to current global affairs; that is, those found in magazines and on the Internet.

Phokela’s art, which encompasses painting, sculpture, and drawing, is animated by a wicked sense of humour, technical virtuosity, and an ability to draw together a number of associations within a single work. Phokela is especially concerned with the narratives that are left out of European art. ‘Dutch genre painting,’ he explains, ‘portrayed a certain European lifestyle coinciding with a period in history that saw the arrival of the Europeans in South Africa. It was the only visual reference available – utopian in many ways, with the harsh realities of war and famine left out. The subsequent cultural collusion is significant and becomes an essential source for my ideas.’

Pantomime Mortal Act (2016), a painting exclusively produced for EVA 2016, evokes the turbulent political history of the Republic of Ireland. The painting broadly references the resilience of the Irish nation against regional domination, starting with the reign of Elizabeth I to that of William of Orange. The work also references the European scramble for the so-called New World. While religious reformations engulfed Europe with political turmoil, a quest for colonial expansion shifted from being the aspirations of the ruling elite to that of those who desperately needed to escape the limitations and trappings of life within a feudalist Europe. And in particular, the accession of William of Orange, which changed the course of history in countries such as the United States, Australia, South Africa, and others.

The Ides of March (2015) is part of a series of work based on the execution of Emperor Maximilian in Mexico in 1867. Édouard Manet’s version at the National Gallery in London was the inspiration behind Phokela’s first reinterpretation of the execution. Ides of March is the tenth reworking of the painting, but in it Phokela introduces the assassination – a precursor to World War I – of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, who was, surprisingly, the nephew of Maximilian. The rendition of the execution is depicted in an opera-like composition.

Flight of Europa (2015) mirrors the Three Graces of Classical Greek mythology. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Europa was a daughter of an African king who was abducted by Zeus who, after changing into a bull, carried her across the Mediterranean Sea. With the current influx of political refugees in Europe across the Mediterranean, Europa can be considered to represent an asylum seeker who can offer cheap labour to the wealth beyond the shores of the Mediterranean. South Pacific Seascape (2012) is inspired by a newspaper article on the subject of cannibalism. Phokela was initially attracted by the illustration that accompanied the article and the heading that read: ‘Eating people isn’t always easy.’ He was fascinated by the fact that cannibalism outside Europe was an invention of a colonial mind that emerged because of the belief that those who resisted occupation were viewed as savages.

Johannes Phokela is an artist who lives and works in Johannesburg and London. His artistic practice spans printmaking, sculpture, drawing, and painting. He is known for his polemical use of iconography as a resource base from which to transcend the burden of cultural myths. He studied for three years at the FUBA Academy in Soweto, South Africa, before relocating to the United Kingdom, where he studied at the Camberwell College of Art and at Central Saint Martins in London. In 1993 he obtained a masters degree in fine arts at the Royal College of Art. Phokela is the recipient of numerous important international awards, including the John Moores Painting Prize and the BP Portrait Award. He was honoured in South Africa with a major retrospective at the Standard Bank Gallery, Johannesburg, in 2009.

Phokela has exhibited extensively in South Africa, and elsewhere. Recent exhibitions include: A World Sacred and Profane (2015), Gallery AOP, South Africa; PAINT I: Contemporary South African Painting 2002–2012 (2012–13), SMAC Art Gallery, Stellenbosch, South Africa; Collateral (2012), Reservoir at Oliewenhuis Art Museum, South Africa; Translation (2006), Johannesburg Art Gallery, South Africa; Body of Evidence (2006), Smithsonian National Arts Museum, Washington DC; Tremor (2004), Palais des Beaux-Arts de Charleroi, Belgium; among others.

(Text: EVA 2016, Still (the) Barbarians, catalogue)


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