Bruce Haines What are the main inspirations behind your paintings?
Johannes Phokela That is a difficult question! My background and where I come from inspire me, but I have always believed that I have assimilated influences from the different environments I find myself in.
BH Does the political history of South Africa influence your approach to making paintings?
JP Yes, I am not sure exactly how, but the experience of growing up in South Africa will always be with me.
BH The majority of your oeuvre appears to rework so-called Old Master paintings. What was you main interest in taking on Dutch genre painting?
JP I grew up thinking that the so-called Old Masters only existed as religious or iconic knick-knack prints, particularly those by the likes of Leonardo da Vinci or William Blake. They were or still are very popular and are often used domestically in Soweto. I have always been curious about what these prints were actually produced for, apart from making money. Besides their religious or popular value, what possible effect can they have on those who own them? As for Dutch genre painting, it portrayed a certain European lifestyle that coincided with a period in history that saw the arrival of 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.
BH Are you interested in how Dutch painters such as Jacob Jordaens and Jacques de Gheyn were reflecting a petit bourgeois lifestyle, through artificial images of economic and social wealth? Are you exposing the genre for what it was by pastiching their style?
JP I am more interested in exploring the implications of that period from history on the present day. For instance, Europeans wore much more clothing than Africans when they first arrived, and today it is the opposite. Traditional South Africans are offended by semi-naked Europeans sunbathing in bikinis, as they perceive it as a violation of common decency and Christian morality. In some ways they have coveted each other, and yet the economic relationship between the two remains ambivalent.
BH Because the wealth of Northern Europe was pretty much predicated on trade and exploitation of those trade routes?
JP Yes, any form of expansion involves economic interest.
BH Can you talk more about Candle Bathing (1998), on of your earlier works, and how it relates to that history?
JP Candle Bathing is a cocktail of different source materials, but is based mainly on Rubens' Samson and Delilah. Like the myth of Hercules, the legend of Samson is a tale recounted in many cultures. The work is about social stereotyping and the fear of other people's capacity to do better than oneself.
BH The fear of some unsettling presence in society?
BH The theme of sexuality is prevalent in much of your early work, not only in Candle Bathing, but also in Roman Charity (1997) and Percussion Piece on Mount Serious (1998). There is a kind of sexing up of the original version of the painting, transition between the earlier sexed up works and what seems to be a more political, dour approach in the more recent paintings?
JP Not that I am conscious of, but what I do now comes as a natural progression, building on what I did in the past. I suppose it is like looking at the same issue from a different perspective.
BH Can you tell me about the recent Pantomime Act series (2001), which takes figures from the popular press or found magazines and pitches them around classical figures of law and death.
JP Pantomime Act is the title of a body of work largely based on Jacob de Gheyn's allegorical drawing, Death Allegory, from 1599. It is at the British Museum although I have not seen the original yet. Pantomime is an odd English dramatic tradition, which I feel has similarities with the African sense of humour. There is a South African proverb which translates as 'the greatest death is laughter'.
BH Your interpretation of Jordaens' The King Drinks is not particularly flattering. What do you think were Jordaens' intentions in depicting such debauched characters?
JP Artists in Jordaens' position were often caught between differences stemming from a political change in climate. In the light of cultural transformation in the Netherlands, religious conflicts ensued and artists had to adapt strategies to maintain a sense of balance between the different parties. The sleazy representation of feasting peasants seemed to please the artists' feudalist patrons, while also appealing to the aspirations of freedom on the part of those seeking independence from Catholic domination. A similar situation prevails in today's environment for cultural production, whereby artists have to, on one hand, respond to a taste prescribed by market forces and, on the other, pursue their own artistic interests. The work also demonstrates an element of creative play - a kind of self-indulgence - that was independent of the social climate of the time.
BH Looking at what hangs around your studio, from kitsch key rings to souvenir masks and the odd photograph, I am stuck by how playful your practice is. Did you start inserting the red noses at the time that phenomenon began?
JP No, but I always found it an entertaining and divergent way of bringing attention to those countries burdened by economic hardship. In the 1980s, when Comic Relief was initiated, I was excited by the fact that I bought a red nose that did not fit. At first I thought I must have bought the wrong size, but in the end I realised that they were not really made for my type of nose.
BH Who is the boy soldier that appears in more than one painting?
JP He features in my collection of newspaper cuttings of the media's depiction of war and slave children. The children then appear in my Pantomime Act series, adorned with red noses.
BH First and foremost there appears to be an ongoing struggle with the nature of painting itself.
JP I try to use paint like a writer would use a pen or a typewriter.
BH But you could be manipulating images through other media, electronic for example.
JP That is a good point and something that I will try to do in the future.
BH Your painting Land of Cockaigne (1998) sets up a relationship between two societies, represented by the statue of the woman spilling her breast milk on to the four men lying below.
JP Bruegel's Land of Cockaigne is based on a utopian idea. My version introduces a sea-nymph fountain into Bruegel's composition. I am responding to or commenting on an old allegorical tradition of the Renaissance. The fountain represents raw materials or mineral resources, and the figures below represent those who appropriate them for refinement and profit. There is often conflict in those countries where there is plenty of mineral wealth.
BH Do you think that the idea of fighting for something feeds back into your practice through the struggle for pictorial space in say Candle Bathing or Mortal Diptych Surmounted by Cameo Emblems (1997). In both cases, the space is denied by the application of the white grid on top. Does that in some way relate to the way in which modernism wanted to deny pictorial space? Similarly, you have abutted two very different kinds of work, one figurative and almost biblical, and the other a seeping bloody affair, with pigment coming through the back of the canvas and slashed areas re-stitched, resembling the surface of skin. There are implicit references here to the history of the dominant white European male and the suppression and anxiety that that necessarily introduces. Maybe you could say something about your relationship to the grid?
JP The grid gives another dimension to the work; it is a device to challenge the viewer's perceptions of the image and form beneath. It is intended to have an effect like an ornamental frame surrounding a mirror, or a glass pane mounting a picture. Compositionally, the grid can unify pictorial space or even deny it, but you have to regard it as part of the work, just like the traditional framing of a painting.
BH Are you saying then that applying this quite crude grid on top of beautifully rendered surfaces is deliberately problematic?
JP It gives the work a sort of focal point that can stimulate the viewer's reaction.
BH So you have to look beyond the grid.
JP Yes. If the grid were not there, the picture would be different.
Johannes Phokela in conversation with Bruce Haines. 2002