In an era in which we are quick to indict others for ‘cultural appropriation’, Johannes Phokela, thankfully, has been redeemed from this charge. Is this because he is a black artist re-interpreting European art? Are some accorded liberties, while others not? No matter, this is the subject of another boxing match. What intrigues and delights me here is Phokela’s playful immersion in the artists of the Southern and Northern Renaissance, namely Caravaggio, Breughel, Rubens, among many others. While the artist’s adaptations or reworkings are cavalier, off-the-cuff and deliberately rough in execution, one cannot ignore their allusive power. Standing in front of a Phokela painting, we feel that we are in the midst of a secret, allowed free entry into a playful conspiracy. However, for Storm Janse van Rensburg, co-curator of the show, Phokela’s ‘vision is of a world history drenched in the spoils of violence’. This is true, but it is not the entirety of the story. How so? Because Phokela is not solely perturbed by the absence of black bodies in the European narrative, or their servitude therein, but – through his reworking of the story – their integral role and place within it. He never forcibly reintegrates blackness into white history. Neither does he believe, like Titus Kaphar, that white history must be amended, in the manner, say, of the amendment of a legal constitution. Phokela, unlike Kaphar, is no ideologue or politician.
On entering the show, the first painting one sees is of a black man on the verge of clubbing a white man to death – whether he does or not is another matter. The black man wears a loin cloth, the white man is in 17th century gear. The scene is set on a rocky beach, in the distance, bizarrely, we see an oil rig. Clearly, we are caught in a temporal mashup. Framing the whole in white is the declaration: EATING PEOPLE ISN’T ALWAYS WRONG. Humour is key. This is because Phokela is primarily inspired by a comic perversity. Aware that we are acutely conversant with the devastation of colonial extraction and exploitation – the paintings of the Renaissance are profoundly informed and shaped by Imperialism – Phokela nevertheless seeks not to rub our noses in an incontrovertible historical fact, but, reflexively, playfully, entertain, or edutain, us. His revisionist take is a jolly act of cannibalism. Phokela engages our attention by skewing the received context and culture of reception; and does so without puffed up moral outrage. Comprised of works from various periods, the Phokela retrospective can be seen on our doorstep, Zeitz MOCAA (Museum of Contemporary Art Africa), located at the southernmost point of Africa – Cape Town’s Waterfront – far removed from the hub of European power, and yet, profoundly connected to it. Cape Town, after all, played an integral role in imperial maritime traffic between West and East. As a port-city, it is a construct of empire.
Long before the 1500s, however, Africa was recognised as a font of dread and inspiration in the Western mind. It is not for nothing that the Roman, Pliny the Elder, should declare – ‘Semper aliquid novi Africam adferre’ – out of Africa something new emerges. Indeed. In Phokela’s case, novelty comes with a sucker punch. A monkey in a prison is acquainted with the writings of Darwin, Marx, and Nietzsche. A Bacchus inspired revelry displays zero inequality amongst its mixed-race male party animals. A pastoral scene – inspired by Rubens? – reveals a bounteously plump white naked male grandee and his child and black wife, in an apron, her firm round buttocks exposed, as she erotically poses between Springbok and a washing line. This last pastoral scene is a delight, because it refuses irony, defuses skepticism, and wholly embraces the normalcy of what, for those repressed, or bigoted, may seem atrociously off-kilter. But that is Phokela’s point. He is less interested in the revisionist desire to correct an historical wrong, than he is concerned with spoofing history, and delighting in what it refuses to reveal. Egalitarian revelry, dance, the orgiastic, macabre, and comedically radical – in the case of the Lucio Fontana inspired slit canvases – converge in a story boarded exhibition which mines many years, moods, and phases of painting, willing nothing other than the audience’s pleasure.
Phokela is never high-minded, never moral, and most certainly never righteous. In this breast-beating-pompous-shameful/shaming time, his art is a breath of fresh air, and a great relief. Phokela possesses none of Titus Kaphar’s politically correct provocation, nor Kehinde Wiley’s parodic flatulence. He is neither excessively earnest nor lite. If Phokela’s pitch is healthy, it is because he hotwires historical pain and forgotten fun. Most of all, Phokela understands the value of painting as pleasure and entertainment, something which the pious and dour among us long forgot. Of course, one can justly argue that there is also great seriousness in what Phokela does – he is, after all, rethinking history. However, it does not follow that he must instruct us as to the moral inequities that undergird this history – the black body as the phantom and slave of Empire. That is true, but it is not the entire truth.
Notwithstanding my view of Kehinde Wiley as is a painter who errs on the side of triviality, the ephemeral that is Pop, he has of late informed us of a wish to depict positive visions of black life in the 21st century. But then, this desire is the rage. Now, more than at any other point in a Eurocentric/Western history, black life is being readdressed, reenvisaged. The panoply of emergent black artists is rapidly expanding, their works avidly sought. Johannes Phokela, however, has been banging this drum for decades. It is unsurprising, therefore, that Koyo Kouoh, the Director of Zeitz MOCAA and co-curator of the Phokela show, should remind us of the artist’s immense importance domestically, on the continent, and across Europe. For Kouoh, we need to shift from our provincial purview, and ‘reconstruct a continental perspective’, if we are to reintegrate ourselves in an increasingly divided and divisive world. In this regard, Phokela is the arsenal and the glue. Parity, mutuality, conviviality, are the driving energy in paintings which never lose sight of the presence and beauty of Africans in a white narrative and mythology.
Yet another in a series of major solo exhibitions at Zeitz MOCAA, Phokela’s show – with the enigmatic title, Only Sun in the Sky Knows How I Feel – (A Lucid Dream) – is an encouraging choice, because of its buoyancy. Revisionism can be dull and tiresome, no matter how necessary. In Phokela’s case, thankfully, is comes with the ‘sun’, a positive healing source. That he has subtitled the show ‘a lucid dream’ is a further reminder that Phokela finds greater clarity in the oneiric, in realms inscrutable to logic, propelled wholly by wonder. In the end – after a gruelling two years, our brows knit with despair – what better way to wrap up the year?!
‘A large part of Johannes Phokela’s practice is to interrupt the past with the present’. This is true. Phokela never defers to the past, but shows us how we belong to it, and how we can alter time’s continuum. Rupture is not necessarily innovative. Sometimes all that is needed is to embrace one’s inheritance, the better to shape-shift it. Irrespective of race, gender, or sexual persuasion, Phokela’s democratic show is one that carries much surprise. There is nothing predictive within it, nothing designed to force the hand, convert the mind. No demagoguery lurks about, no sanctimony. Rather, Phokela’s is a world irresistibly lovable and uproariously profane. It is not only Europe which Phokela unpacks, but also each one of us here in Africa, whatever we are, wherever we reside, irrespective of what we imagine ourselves to be. Truly progressive art is rare. Art that truly delights more so. Enjoy!