Solo Exhibition
4 June - 16 July 2022

Exhibition Opening: Saturday 4 June 2022
Exhibition Closure: Saturday 16 July 2022

WHATIFTHEWORLD is pleased to present Sefapi an exhibition by John Phalane. 

John Phalane’s richly textured drawings operate in multiple and shifting dimensions. Flat, squared representations of urban and residential districts, that cue the visual language of street maps, are upended by blue horizons. Here, traffic lights bend to your gaze, their limited spectrum submitting wholeheartedly. If you drive south along Hans van Rensburg Street in Central Polokwane, you will pass Grobler Street, the Nedbank Headquarters, Thabo Mbeki Street, and enter cerulean abyss. The rooms on the western side of Sun City’s ziggurat spill over its unreliable edge and are committed to the mountain. Buildings squeeze into one another, competing for space before the checkerboard shoreline of Rio de Janeiro. You may look down (from above) at the Hartbeespoort Dam and also (from the side) at the tiered gradient of surrounding mountains. This tiered gradient is a dimension in itself, a layer cake of brown and green, in which the artist’s sure hand and long hours are embedded. These distortions are generous. They loosen the limits of perspective while providing sufficient evidence of its systems to reassure you that this is a place you’ve been to, driven past, flown over. As such, the drawings tap into processes of remembering and recounting, the ways in which our personal memory or image of a place is transformed when we describe it to others.

Unpopulated, like most maps, Phalane’s work invites projection from its audience. My brother lives there. That’s where I work. I always get stuck at that intersection. That’s the Beacon Isle Hotel. But is it? It’s true that every street is either brightly signposted in colour pencil or labelled in ballpoint pen, and that these names are drawn directly from Phalane’s recollections of being on the road. But the chequered expanses, fluid dimensions and vibrant palette of the drawings pull these known worlds in and out of a far more subjective space. 

Phalane’s drawings delight in line work, stippling, colour and pattern. Nine meticulous strips make up each of his roads. Suburbs are outlined and zoned in bright oranges, pinks and purples. The gridded windows of skyscrapers, hotels and densely packed apartment buildings vibrate with detail. Vast areas of heavily layered blue and green counter this frenetic energy, summoning mountains, skies and lakes. 

Titled after his grandfather, Sefapi includes drawings from three series’ made between 2015 and 2022. Phalane is best known for his map drawings that meticulously chart and embellish territory between and around Johannesburg and Limpopo, South Africa. Depicted in another featured series are the latticed facades of international tourist attractions that take up most of the picture plane. These drawings celebrate their subjects through rich texture, sharp colour and small information panels that occasionally include contact numbers. They read like giant postcards. They wish you were here. While these works represent a distinctive move away from a cartographic language, they consider their subject from afar, looking out, possibly from the same locale as the map drawings. In Phalane’s most recent drawings he has returned to his earlier style but focused specifically on mining areas in the east rand of Johannesburg. 

When it comes to the organisation of space in South Africa, perspective and distortion have obvious social and political implications. Within the context of deep inequality and societal divisions, a local audience brings to the work its own set of inferences with regards to boundaries, access and experience. Phalane’s approach is a quiet but powerful one. His intention with these drawings is to depict his distinctive experience of space and place in a way that resonates with an audience by referring to the language of maps. The latter has universalistic aims. It’s premised on the idea that we have enough in common to be able to transfer information through a single medium, in this case, a map. But familiar as they may appear, Phalane’s drawings are clear and deliberate reconfigurations of the places represented. They make a claim on perspective. Phalane’s perspective, though shared through his drawings, is very much his own. 

Text by Chloe Reid


Artist Biography

John Phalane (b. 1957, Tzaneen, Limpopo) uses layers of colour pencil and ballpoint pen to create vivid geographical drawings and architectural impressions that bend conventional perspective. He has exhibited widely over the past fifteen years in solo and group presentations, mainly in and around Johannesburg, Sefapi is his first solo exhibition with WHATIFTHEWORLD in Cape Town. 

Phalane is a self-taught artist who started drawing maps in 2004. Much of his work is inspired by the routes he travelled as a driver for the Inanda Club in Johannesburg where he worked for sixteen years. He later transported goods between Johannesburg and Tzaneen and after returning to Limpopo, drove a taxi between Polokwane and Musina, South Africa. Intermittently, when he grew tired of driving, he worked as a used parts salesman and operated a scrapyard. 

Cars, trains, planes, boats and, occasionally, rockets feature prominently in Phalane’s maps, whose highways, back roads and toll plazas he draws and labels from memory. Having grown up in rural Limpopo, he prefers to work from his imagination in figuring mountains, dams and other natural features. An avid reader, he also sources imagery from books and travel magazines, of which he has an extensive collection. Phalane cites Winston Churchill’s six-volume history of the Second World War as a primary influence on his decision to become an artist. For almost two decades now, he has worked as an artist full-time from his home in Mamabolo, Polokwane, South Africa.