Rhode to fame well travelled

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.”

Childish pranks

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.”

Mail&Guardian, 12 April 2013

Put money where your mouth is

Jules Mercer spares no expense in curating her marvellous feasts in the most unlikely venues.

‘There is no dress code but please don’t wear high heels,” reads the ticket to the Outlandish Kitchen. And that’s about as pretentious as this pop-up eating experience gets. But how were we to know that, peering into the Kalk Bay Community Centre at two laden banquet tables, wondering whether we’d gate-crashed someone’s wedding?

We were expecting a five-course meal with wines and all the typical social aplomb that would go with it. Quite the opposite. A stack of serviettes was passed around on the balcony before we ate the snoek aperitifs (pâté with bread, fish balls with Malay mayonnaise and baked with apricot butter glaze) with our fingers; rather messy to say the least.

It did make for general ice-breaking, in which I met a couple from Australia who had seen the event on Facebook, figured that they would be in Cape Town at the time, and booked tickets.

The balcony’s waterproofing was the reason for no high heels. Built in 1906 and originally a sewage pump station, the Kalk Bay Community Centre was converted in 1935. It still plays an active role in the social life of the area, hosting markets, yoga, dance and other classes. Historically, it has functioned as a World War II entertainment centre, a municipal library and a council cash office.

We entered the hall and found our name cards; the “tablecloths” were newsprint, laid with mismatching plates and stock-standard tumblers, and decorated with unwashed potatoes, paper straws and glass paraffin lanterns.

“We’ve wanted it to be all about the food,” says organiser Jules Mercer, a trained chef-turned-food writer and stylist, who has leveraged her connections with local farmers to curate feasts served in unlikely venues.

“Once you’ve paid, I tell you where it is. That’s it. Otherwise people come with too many expectations,” she says, explaining the unpolished charm of the venture, still marvelling that complete strangers (from Australia even) are happy to put R550 a head into her bank account without even asking who she is.

Trust is the key to this story and it goes back to trusting our food, what’s in it and where it comes from — something all South Africans can identify with after the recent donkey meat scare.

“Are we happy to buy poor quality meat?” asks Mercer. “As long as it’s cheap, we don’t complain. But how much water is in that mince? And the addition of brine and meat extracts to chicken and other meats — is that okay with you?”

Local and lekker

The concept of the Outlandish Kitchen builds on the locavore principle (eating food grown within a 160km radius of your home) by adding that, not only is the produce reared in the immediate proximity and artisanally treated, it also has a person and a story attached to it.

By introducing the farmers and their fare and sometimes even their farms when they are used as venues, Mercer hopes to make diners more aware of what they eat and where it comes from.

As special guest of the event, Janine Basson of the Southern African Sustainable Seafood Initiative, an initiative of the World Wildlife Fund, casually chatted to us about responsible fish eating, over courses of farmed Saldanha oysters, followed by trout boards from the Streams Fisheries in Franschhoek. The trout is certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (an environmental standard) and “by using it in the menu we wanted to show how smoked trout can be just as delicious — local and lekker — as its Norwegian salmon counterpart,” says Mercer.

“Oh no, I’m not the chef; you must be crazy,” Mercer laughs boisterously as she hoists the huge mussel pots of the next course on to the table. Served with baked angelfish, potato salad and a garden salad with such unusual delights as zucchini flowers, the mussels were one of the two unanimous highlights.

Chef Rina van Velden studied at the Institute of Culinary Arts in Stellenbosch and has worked at Le Quartier Francais, Welbedacht Wines and Mamma Mac’s Bakery. With her emphasis on the produce itself, however, Van Velden’s style seems closer to Babylonstoren’s. “Rina is an alchemist in the kitchen — and ridiculously humble!” says Mercer.

All the while the food was served with wines from Usana Farming Estate where “brothers JP and Pierre Winshaw work hard to produce a range of delicious wines, along with pasture-reared eggs, lamb and beef,” explains Mercer, who has a similar anecdote for just about everything on the menu. The bread, for instance, is from Oude Bank Bakkerij in Stellenbosch and the exquisite salted-caramel and fig ice cream — the other unanimous highlight — is by the baker’s wife, Chanelle.

How does one really put a price on this word-of-mouth food network? “We all need to get it into our heads that we need to pay more for our food. Full stop.” Mercer puts her wine glass down and gets serious. “If something lands on my plate and it’s really cheap, it worries me.”

In an effort to make this type of food more accessible, Mercer has now also launched the Outlandish Kitchen food boxes — and we’re not talking limp, sandy, malnourished-looking vegetables, if the treasure-filled salad was anything to go by. A basic box includes seasonal organic veg from Naturally Organic and properly free-range eggs from the Winshaws. Two variations on the basic box include exotic mushrooms, wine and pork cured by the renowned Richard Bosman. Prices range from R150 to R500 and can be ordered online (delivery is extra).

Mercer talks about everyone as a personal friend and struggles to quantify the value of the venture. Deals and bartering, word-of-mouth connections, and new friends through the producers and the guests who come to the event … trust is the currency. Like the packet of heirloom seeds that each guest received as a take-home gift, the investment is more than money and the antithesis of the instantaneous gratification of our contemporary food culture.

“If I look at the amount of time that I put into each event, I’m not doing it for the money, and as soon as it stops being fun I’m going to throw the towel in,” Mercer says. “Although I very nearly reached that point when the hot water gave in on Saturday night and at 1am we had to put every drippy fishy plate in my car and drive them home to be washed!”

Mail&Guardian, 5 April 2013