I like my neighbours!!

Who is your neighbour?  For many, a neighbour is a person who lives in your vicinity, someone with whom you may have a close, fleeting or non-existent relationship. Artist Johannes Phokela describes a neighbour as anyone around you, be it ‘a person sitting next to you or someone you have met or lived next to for a day or two’.  People we meet, he says, have a psychological impact on us, him included – ‘They all supply me with all the material I need’ – and such is his gratitude that his latest exhibition was entitled ‘I Like My Neighbours’.  It has just concluded at the Standard Bank Gallery in Johannesburg, South Africa.

During the 10 March walkabout organized by Gallery Momo (which represents him), art enthusiasts were amazed at Phokela’s intelligence, talent and wit.  ‘He understands what he is doing and the works are beautiful,’ one said. 

‘He is very much aware of his social being, he is not afraid to say what he wants in a subtle way, and I love his humor,’ another added.  A recurrent theme in Phokela’s work is exploitation, ranging from subtle to outright to ironic, from social to economic to religious, often through well-known images or stories. One of the works that caught people’s attention was the Triptych (Tender Loving Care) (2006).  In ‘Tender’, a black man dressed in a smart jacket, pants and shoes is carrying a white man, child and woman, who is sticking out a dollar on a rod pointed in front of her porter.  At a first glance, the painting may smack of racial oppression, but for Phokela it represents the economic empowerment in the world today.  The one who is seemingly exploited could actually be enjoying being well paid.  ‘Everyone has a boss directly or indirectly and it’s a classic example of people at work.  It’s a hierarchy and sometimes you never get to see the people at the top.’ 
In ‘Loving’ a merchant is trading a parrot, an exotic creature, with a woman who offers a little ball in return.  The imbalance between developing countries and so-called developed ones, this time of economic trade, is not hidden.
A man giving beef to a priest in ‘Care’ is an allegory for benevolence, charity or religious devotion, though not the austerity one would like to associate with the clergy. Continuing on the theme of authority and exploitation, in the Head on Collars series, Phokela evokes the fact that people wear uniforms often for social, political and influential reasons.  Collars define one’s position.  They are like a vocabulary that can used to make orderly society whilst creating prejudices.  ‘It’s a form of dichotomy.’ Phokela is known for recontextualizing works by Old European Masters like Breugel, Jacob De Ghen and Rubens, among others, and giving them a completely new meaning by adding unsettling features such as an African person, a red nose or bananas.  

He was inspired to use the red nose after acquiring one from Comic Relief, a British charity that holds a biannual ‘Red Nose Day’ to raise funds for local and overseas development projects.  It did not fit him. ‘Scene of Eden’ could pass for the biblical garden, but in place of the apple is a banana.  This, Phokela says, signifies ‘banana republic’, a termed coined by the American author O’Henry referring to unstable countries with large-scale, unsustainable plantations.


 Chocolat’ is based on a story about an old Greek king Candaules who was so obsessed with his wife that he dared his bodyguard Gyges to see her naked.  His queen, aware of her husband’s motive, took revenge and gave Gyges two choices, to kill Candaules and marry her or she would expose him and he would die.  He chose the former and became king.  In Phokela’s painting, two people are seen peeping, on the right, one holding a baseball bat, which Phokela says, could represent America.  The old man next to him, ‘[King Leopold,] ‘is trying to teach [George W] Bush how to conquer the world without spilling too much blood,’ he adds.  

The painting can be interpreted in many different ways, but Phokela does not want to delve much into the politics.  He chose the title because the man behind is chocolate-colored and the scantily-dressed woman offers a piece of chocolate to the man holding a baseball bat to show that she has a piece of him.



 Another triptych (Regarding Fontana: Spatial Concept I, II, III (2005)) from afar looks like a French flag that has been lacerated in the middle. Italian post modernist Lucio Fontana, renowned for slashing canvases, inspired Phokela.  ‘I have taken his work as a resource base for mine and added images to deny the illusion of space.  He is highly accredited with breaching two and three dimensionality.’  In one canvas, a child soldier with an AK47 seems to emerge from a slash; in another a boy is eating a banana while holding a red nose. 

The last one represents the black American performance artist Jacqueline Baker known for her banana dance.
Phokela describes his work as a ‘cocktail of ideas’ and is influenced by whatever he lays his hands on.  As well as the European masters, some of his material comes from tabloid magazines and newspapers.  ‘I take popular images of well-renowned people and mix them with my own ideas and use them as a bait to draw the viewer’s attention, using this more as a means rather than an end.  A characteristic technique in his paintings is the gridlines which he uses to draw his audience into the work.


Johannes Phokela (b. 1966) left South Africa in the mid-eighties to further his art studies at St Martin’s College of Art in London.  He graduated from the Royal College of Art in 1993 and today shuttles between London and South Africa. He has had numerous exhibitions locally and Internationally.

 With such thought-provoking work, one understands why ‘I like My Neighbours’ was a success.  Studying and living in London might have influenced him, but his execution is his own.When I asked the Soweto-born artist which artwork he liked the most, he replied, ‘I like them all.  Sometimes you listen to one record for two months and get tired of it.  I like what I do and for that matter, I like my neighbours.  They supply me with all this information and thoughts; I am much like a child who learns a vocabulary by listening at how a society operates.’  Enough said.


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