Incognito, Robin Rhode uses South Africa’s streets as his canvas – but his path to renown was international.
“Contemporary artists see me as a street artist and the street artists see me as a conceptual artist,” says Robin Rhode, sitting in the atrium at the Stevenson gallery in Cape Town. Around him, his “crew” is setting up his first solo exhibition in South Africa in about 13 years. “I use the same space [the street] but I use it so differently.”
The last time South African audiences saw a dedicated Rhode exhibition was at the Market Theatre Gallery in 2000, where half the shoes from his installation were stolen. That was the same year he moved to Berlin “for love”, where he still lives with his wife and two children. However, if you are to read his life according to the international press, they would have you believe that his first solo exhibition was in New York in 2004, shortly after a residency at the Walker Art Centre in 2003 where his performance brought the house down and saw his first work sold straight into the prestigious Rubell Collection.
After that, Rhode was the youngest artist to participate in the Venice Biennale in 2005 and has been included in high-profile group exhibitions around the world by institutions that include the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 2008, he presented a solo exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London, alongside a retrospective of Andy Warhol.
“What has brought me back is not ‘South Africa’ or the people, it’s the work. The concept of this exhibition, which I’ve been engaging with for the past year or two, had to be realised in South Africa.”
Titled Paries Pictus, which means wall drawing in Latin, the exhibition turns half the gallery into an oversized colouring-in book. In the days leading up to the exhibition, kids completed the images on the walls using oversized crayons. From the Cape Town-based arts education programme for disadvantaged communities, Lalela Project, the children were all “strictly under the age of eight”. At the opening, the audience saw only the completed work, not the children or any other form of performance or intervention.
The evolution of the project first began in 2011 at the Castello di Rivoli in Turin, where Rhode worked with Italian kids. It was realised again this year at the Lehmann Maupin Gallery in New York. “Working abroad made me realise how much my own country needs to access this working process, especially our youth. To plant a seed in their minds that visual arts or contemporary art is a way to nurture their growth and creativity.”
When Rhode talks with such philanthropic zeal about the impact of an isolated two-day gallery intervention on the youth of South Africa, I become sceptical. Who is this prodigal son of South Africa with his contemporary art cure-all? Is he even still South African — besides his 100% Mzansi accent?
Beyond the gallery
As the interview continues Rhode explains the origin of his art — the signature street art illusions that he has become known for. The second half of the exhibition comprises this work — photographs, drawings, moving images and sculptural works, ranging from abstract drawings made in Germany in 2007 to a new photo series done in Johannesburg in 2013. From talking about this work, I begin to understand the self-referential significance of Paries Pictus and the true impact of Rhode’s work being beyond the gallery.
The fact is that Rhode is making about 90% of his work in South Africa. About five times a year he returns incognito and heads straight to the Jo’burg streets to make work for eight- to nine-day periods. Berlin, he says, is too risky with the cops — he feels much more comfortable engaging in the local graffiti crew turf wars.
“It’s more theatre than graffiti,” says Rhode, who is known for whiting-out his work after he has captured it on film. Nonetheless, for the brief time in which he is executing it, he amasses an audience of “other street art crews, kids coming home from school, workers coming back from the factory, the junkies, the homeless people,” all who watch him.
“When I started out as an artist, I wanted to change the notion of the audience, so I started working outside on the street” — which makes one wonder whether the work, the photograph hanging in the gallery, is actually the real art or just a souvenir. But it’s impressive that such a high-profile artist still manages to keep such a large aspect of his work completely underground, beneath the radar of the art scene or the blogosphere. I ask why he doesn’t tweet it, secretly hoping in the future that he will at least tweet me. But Rhode is not into spectacle, he says, which is also why he has almost completely stopped doing performance art.
The invisibility of this rich community context of his work is part of the theatrical quality of his work — it’s the backstage of what the audience sees in the gallery. Just as the audience did not see the kids completing Paries Pictus, it is up to our imaginations to fill in that aspect, says Rhode: “Invisibility is the narrative that the audience needs to make.”
Generally, in his work the South African — and Jo’burg — context is completely framed out by the camera. It could just as well be Mexico City (which is where some of them were created). But Rhode is fundamentally a South African artist. “My art has to come from a lived experience. The only way I can make it is to find something inside myself that leads to my visual language.”
This struck him in his second year at art school when he was learning about Duchamp, Dada and performance art. He recalled a teenage experience that has become the conceptual basis of all of his work: the Americans call it “hazing”, he says. The matrics in high school initiated the new kids by forcing them to interact with life-size drawings of everyday things — a bicycle and a candle, for instance — drawn with chalk on the bathroom walls. The kids were humiliated and then accepted. (It has nothing to do with William Kentridge’s stop-motion work, he claims, adding that he has started looking forward to interviewers asking him about Kentridge’s influence on him when actually he slept through that part of his art school lectures.)
“That moment meant so much,” Rhode says. The chalk was apparently stolen from the classrooms. So it makes reference to the basic material of education. The drawings were life-size and rendered on a wall, so somehow they also take us back to the historical art of the Bushmen. Furthermore, the physical act of engaging with his drawing leads Rhode into performance art.
One of the recurring images in the childish pranks he recalled was a bicycle, although none of the kids could afford one. The significance of the two-wheeler in the work of Duchamp, and throughout art history, shines through. Rhode marvels that “all of those [contemporary art] discourses formed my subcultural experience as a South African youth”.
He relates it to Paries Pictus: “I’m working with children, to educate them about artistic processes and introduce them to the notion of creativity. Contemporary art is a space that is overly refined, more adult, learned and institutional. I thought that working with children could inject a new energy into the process.”