John Phalane is a cartographic artist. He draws maps with coloured pencils of his native Limpopo province and of the streets and suburbs of Johannesburg, where he worked for a brief period of his life. His maps are artful, providing routes into and out of the ‘unknown’. But he also uses maps as shorthand for such ready metaphors as seeking location and experiencing dislocation, bringing order to chaos, exploring rations of scale, and charting new terrain.
The nature of his map art transcends the purely diagrammatic or semiotic. Like many cartographers, Phalane knows that embellishing maps with artistic elements can enhance their effect, making them more compelling through shear visual creativity. But as an artist, Phalane has swung around the relationship between maps and art. He uses maps to further his own artistic purposes. Cartography provides Phalane with a rich vein of concepts and imagery to mine, exploit and upend. Conventional maps can do no more than point the way to unpredictable, individual experience, while Phalane’s maps embody those experiences.
Phalane intuitively understands what master cartographer Claudius Ptolemy meant when he defined geography, a word he considered synonymous with cartography, as “a representation in pictures of the whole known world [those features likely to be mentioned in a general description of the earth, such as the larger towns and the great cities, the mountain ranges and principal rivers] together with the phenomena which are contained therein”, envisioning the so-called thematic mapping of modern times, in which such phenomena as climate, population density, income distribution, birth rates, disease incidence, and variations in the gravity of the Earth are related to spatial location.
Phalane’s art maps assume a virtual metaphysical element. Each map represents a personal, visionary experience of a particular stretch of road. Each map not only represents the land from above, but ‘sideways’ and ‘upwards’ as well. This is evident in the novel way in which he portrays the sky: looking down on the earth precludes representing the sky. It is ‘behind’ the immediate vision of the observer. Phalane, however, adds the sky on the edges of his mountain ranges, where it appears to be water or sea mass. This in effect results in a picture that inadvertently curls up at the sides to form the sky above the surface of the earth in a convex-like shape. One is reminded of the opening line of the metaphysical poet, John Donne’s famous sonnet, full of far-fetched imagery, witty conceits and fanciful notions: “At the round earth’s imagined corners”. In effect, Phalane takes the round earth and flattens it on a piece of paper.
John Phalane was born in Malete, district of Tzaneen, Limpopo on 19 January 1957. He was the first born child, followed by his brother, Jack and his sister, Zenda. John went to Nogoboya School in Tzaneen in 1965 and left school in 1974. He worked as driver for the Inanda Country Club in Johannesburg between 1980 and 1996. He then returned to Limpopo, ferrying people from the southern parts of the province to Mazina in the north and to other parts of Venda. The street maps of Johannesburg originated in 2004, when he first took up making art. They were done from his memory and his imagination. At that stage he traversed Limpopo and was intimate with all the highways and back roads of the province. He consequently was in a perfect position to map this part of South Africa with its mountains and hills and with its tarred roads and dirt roads and with its dams and lakes in and through his art.
Phalane did not attend any formal art lessons or go to an art school. He read many books, though, including Winston Churchill’s six volume, The Second World War. Churchill, a self-taught artist in his own right, set up his easel at a shelled farm that was one of his front-line head quarters and painted the shelling of the village, the pockmarked landscape, to the amazement of those around him. In an article encouraging others to take up painting, Churchill counseled that they forget about training, as there was “no time for the deliberate approach”.