Who is Johannes Phokela?

Johannes Phokela injects his own interpretation of post-colonial African history into his alterations to the paintings of the Old Masters
Johannes Phokela injects his own interpretation of post-colonial African history into his alterations to the paintings of the Old Masters

By Gillian Anstey

Johannes Phokela's quirky döppelgangers of Dutch and Flemish Old Masters query illusions of aesthetic purity and notions of cultural authenticity.

His beautifully painted manipulations of iconic images by the likes of Rubens, Van Dyck and others weave a personal post-colonial history into this historical canon.

Key protagonists are often removed from their northern European settings, resulting in unsettling images that challenge Eurocentric narratives around contemporary and historical art. His paintings are as much about the violent and twisted history of the developing world as they are about the history of painting.

Born in Soweto in 1966, Phokela now lives between Johannesburg and London, where he graduated from the Royal College of Art, gaining a Master's degree in painting in 1993. He has won several awards, including a John Moore painting prize and a BP Portrait Award. His work is represented in the South African National Gallery and the Smithsonian National Museum for African Art, as well as at the South African High Commission in London, among other collections.

Phokela is best known for his polemical use of iconography as a resource base from which to transcend the burden of cultural myths. The Baroque images of the 17th century, as well as old Flemish painting particularly fascinate him. He takes on what he perceives as being Europe's "grandiose" history of art as a medium to convey values and ideals represented within a global context of cultural elitism.

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"I, Tsietsi Mashinini, appeal to students to report back to school."
Tsietsi Mashinini, 1976
Picture © British Thames Television


In this lesson plan, learners are asked to think about how the different people in their lives would describe them. They are asked to reflect if they think that their caregiver or teacher would say the same things about them as their best friend. They will apply their insights on differing perspectives to historical sources such as newspapers and letters.

Lesson plan
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Archive Photo Gallery
Images from the short life of Tsietsi Mashinini.
Artwork Photo Gallery
Five views of the Tsietsi Mashinini memorial
The concept for the memorial
Johannes Phokela discusses the development of his concept for the memorial to Tsietsi Mashinini
Take a 360º tour of Mashinini's memorial opposite his former high school on Mputhi Street, Soweto.
Audio Slideshow