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The title of Johannes Phokela’s second solo exhibition at GALLERY AOP, A World Sacred and Profane inadvertently references that of the famous Titian painting, Sacred and Profane Love (c. 1514) in the Borghese Gallery, Rome. In the same manner as the two central figures in the Titian’s work cannot be described neatly as nude-woman-equals-sacred-clothed-woman-equals-profane, so can Phokela’s work not be taken too literally. His is full of ambiguities and contradictions, creating a complex postmodern world replete with playfulness and irreverence, satire and irony.
The sacred world of art and its histories, one often characterized by religious sentiment, reverence, sense of justice against violation, infringement and encroachment, and so on, is thoroughly turned on its head in Phokela’s new readings of ‘’old masters’’, full of disregard, contempt of sacred things, often secular, irreverent, impious and irreligious. His is a world of ‘and’, not ‘or’: sacred and profane.
What is clearly, and paradoxically ‘sacred’, even sacrosanct in Phokela’s work, is his deep-seated respect for oil painting as primary medium of expression in a contemporary art world that often flouts it. Also ‘sacred’ is Phokela’s indefatigable pursuit of the ever-elusive notion of the contemporary aesthetic. But it is the quest for the profane, the secular, that gives Phokela’s work its impact in the current art scene. His philosophical quest is not so much a pursuit of questioning faith or capturing the truth, as it is about the inevitability of liberal ideas, reason, and logic. In other words, the inevitability of cause and effect, or the philosophy of art that underlies his art practice.
The secular, on the one hand, is captured by Phokela’s rendering of twelve Flemish proverbs, based on Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s famous work of that title. Phokela suggests human folly in such proverbs as ‘’Banging one’s head against a brick wall’’, ‘’Throwing money into the water’’, and ‘’Don’t count your chickens before they are hatched’’, wryly commenting on the ridiculous spectacle of human life and the absurdity of human behavior.
The secular is equally strongly captured in Phokela’s comment on the profanity of politics by using as key references the execution of Maximilian, Emperor of Mexico, a theme famously painted by Edouard Manet in 1867, and juxtaposing it with the assassination of Maximilian’s nephew, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which precipitated World War I.
The sacredness of beauty, on the other hand, is equally strongly questioned in such works as Phokela’s take on Peter Paul Rubens’ famous Three Graces. Beauty is not only depicted in the form of a nude portrayed from the front, the back and the side, as does Rubens, but more importantly in terms of race: one ‘’Grace’’ is White, another Black and a third, of mixed race, or ‘’Coloured’’ in Phokela’s version of this well-known theme.
Johannes Phokela was born in Soweto, in 1966. After three years of diploma studies at the FUBA (Federation of Black Artists) Academy, Phokela went to the UK to pursue a career in Fine Arts. He obtained a Masters Degree in Fine Arts at the Royal College of Art, London in 1993, having completed a Bachelor’s Degree at Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts, London, in 1991. Phokela has exhibited extensively abroad and was given due recognition in South Africa with a major retrospective exhibition mounted at the Standard Bank Gallery, Johannesburg, in 2009. He was awarded the John Moore Painting Award, Liverpool, England in 1993; a prestigious residency award in Stockholm, Sweden in 2001, and the Decibel Award by the Arts Council of England in 2004. His work featured prominently on the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London, October 2015. This is his second solo exhibition at GALLERY AOP.
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