by Mario Pissarra
This text was originally published on Phala’s page on asai.co.za, October 2005. A slightly edited version of this review appeared in Art South Africa, 2005.
For many years Madi Phala put most of his creative energies into mentoring others. Last year’s move south to Cape Town has coincided with him stepping out as an artist in his own right. Recent shows in Cape Town and Johannesburg have been well received by the buying public. His emerging profile is matched by a successful transition from small and modestly sized works to a much bolder scale, and in the increased physicality of his new works.
Herdboys, a favourite theme of Phala’s, appears to be the result of a longstanding interrogation on his part of ‘African culture’. Many of his works emerge from a reflective and critical contemplation of the past (‘tradition’) and the present (‘modernity’). Indeed, it is tempting to view Phala as a latter- day herd-boy, ostensibly charged with guarding the wealth of his elders, but prone to distracting himself with his own enquiries. One can also read his choice of cattle as a metaphor for a duality that is evident in his art. If historically cattle represent wealth then the tactile qualities of his paintings reinforce this emphasis on the physical and material. On the other hand if cattle also serve as a link to the ancestors, both as a symbol of ‘tradition’ and as an offering on important occasions, then the mysterious and enigmatic qualities of his imagery represent the otherworldly, spiritual realm occupied by those who came before us. The mystical qualities of these paintings are enhanced by wide expanses of deep space, anchored by busy surfaces that compete for attention. The synthesis of these apparently contrasting elements results in compelling articulations of intangible presence. These are ‘serious’ works that are mediated by elements of whimsy, sometimes expressed through his titles, particularly those such as “Herdbooyz” that use idiosyncratic spelling.
“Spirits Descending” challenges traditional compositional devices, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to think the invite had been printed upside down. Phala defies ‘logic’ by creating an image of the sky below. Beings that are both menacing and funky respond with purpose to the pull of gravity. In other works the use of brown suggests earth, a physical counterpoint to the celestial sky, but no less spiritual given its associations with fecundity and burial. “Herbooyz” reveals an artist who is reflective, inventive and not least, enjoying what he’s doing. Phala is showing no signs of standing still, catch him if you can.