About a year ago, as I wandered the halls of the Turbine Art Fair, an annual fair featuring the works of emerging South African artists, I stopped short in front of some poster-sized pictures by John Phalane. The pictures portrayed maps — mostly Joburg maps — drawn in riotous rainbow colored pencil.
I go to the Turbine Art Fair almost every year. I always see tons of art that I love, and even some that I briefly imagine hanging on my own walls. But John Phalane’s art was different. I went back and looked at his works twice. I thought really hard about buying one then and there, but I’ve never spent several thousand rand on a work of art before and the prospect of doing so felt dauntingly grown up, even for a nearly half-century-old person. So I didn’t.
I googled John Phalane when I got home and read some articles about him. He’s in his mid 60’s, born in Limpopo, and spent most of his life as a driver — first for the Inanda Polo Club in Joburg and later as a long-haul taxi driver in Limpopo. He is a self-taught artist. Years of driving before the invention of the GPS filled John Phalane’s head with maps; now he spends his retirement turning those mental maps into art.
A few weeks later I wandered into an art gallery called the Atelier, around the corner from me in 44 Stanley, and found a whole bunch of Phalane pictures wrapped in plastic in a kind of vertical stack. I flipped through them all, looking for streets and places I recognized in the maps of everyday Joburg neighborhoods: Boksburg, Sandhurst, Germiston, Linden, the CBD. (Sadly I couldn’t find Melville or Brixton.) Not all of Phalane’s pictures portray Joburg. But his Joburg images captivated me most — especially the ones portraying drab, forgotten areas in such vivid colors. Again, I thought about buying one but didn’t.
A few weeks ago, on my birthday weekend, Thorsten and I wandered into the Atelier again and there were a couple of Phalane works framed on the walls. One was huge and far out of my price range. The other was slightly smaller, and cheaper. So I bought it.
We took the picture home and Thorsten hung it right away.
The picture portrays a cluster of suburbs to the west of downtown Joburg — Maraisburg, Robertville, and Florida, which are all part of the city of Roodepoort — a former mining area that I would describe as run-down, with scenery you drive right past without thinking about much.
As Thorsten and I stood in our hallway, gazing at John Phalane’s interpretation of this mostly downtrodden neighborhood that’s only 15 minutes’ drive away, we wondered at the fact that neither of us recognized most of the landmarks portrayed.
What is the “Hennie Hugo Pleasure Park”, and does it really have speed boats? What’s the story behind the “S.P.C.A.” and the ominous “shooting range”? What is the “C.M.R. Golf Course” and do people still golf there? We knew Phalane’s portrayal comes from a map book and he may never have physically visited the area himself. (Although also, maybe he did.) What is it like in real life?
Thorsten and I both had the same urge: to go find these places.
It was late on Sunday afternoon, a freezing-cold wind was blowing (it snowed the next day), and the sun was setting soon. We had to move fast. We entered “Hennie Hugo Pleasure Park” into Google Maps but nothing came up. Next we tried “CMR Golf Course” and got a result: 17 minutes away. We hopped into Thorsten’s bakkie and went.
Exploring John Phalane’s Maraisburg
Note: I Googled this area after our exploration and didn’t find much. For those who are curious, there’s a nice little history on the CMR Golf Course website.
We drove out into the Roodepoort hinterland, following the shabby shopfronts of Ondekkers Road and eventually to Spencer Road, which borders the golf course. The gate to the course was forbiddingly closed, so we kept driving and eventually stumbled upon the SPCA and the shooting range.
We went back to the golf course and followed the signs to the driving range, across the road and up a little hill, which looked like it might be open. We found a small, seemingly well used café and many people hitting golf balls, despite the cold wind and impending darkness.
Looking at Google, Thorsten felt pretty sure the Hennie Hugo Dam was on the other side of the driving range. We followed a dirt road until it ended, then off-roaded a bit (this made me nervous but Thorsten is braver than me) and found a sad little pond — barely more than a puddle — obscured by underbrush. The area had recently burned in a brush fire, which often happens around here in winter.
Satisfied with our exploration, we left the driving range and drove home.
And that is my John Phalane art story. I don’t know if it will mean anything to anyone else but I had to write it. The experience was inexplicably poignant. I hope John gets to read this somehow.
I love my picture, which sent us inside John Phalane’s map book and back out again.