South African visual artist shows at Istanbul arts festival

Yazeed Kamaldien

When art, fashion, film and media power-players gathered recently to reflect on their craft it was Cape Town-born artist Robin Rhode who opened the three-day festival with a series of video works.

The Istanbul International Arts and Culture Festival, held last weekend in Turkey’s we-never-sleep Istanbul, pulled so many stars it made the moon look lonely.

Rhode was in stellar company alongside New Zealand-born film director Andrew Dominik who has worked with actor Brad Pitt on two films. Dominik has another Pitt project lined up and will also shoot a film about late actress Marilyn Monroe.

Skinny-forever fashion veteran Carine Roitfeld, who was editor-in-chief of Vogue Paris for a decade until last year, was also at the festival to launch her latest book.

Turkish big-timers meanwhile did not disappoint as this country’s novelist Ayşe Kulin, who reportedly sells the most books in her homeland, shared insights into how she would research a dialect of a region that she was going to write about to ensure that her work remained true to her subject matter.

It was the third edition of a free-for-all festival organised for the third year by its Turkish founders Demet Muftuoglu-Eseli and Alphan Eseli. Filmmaker Eseli describes it as a “cultural weekend where participants feel very relaxed”.

Rhode found his way through opening night’s flashing lights and a presentation about his art the following day to talk to Weekend Argus about what it’s like working in an international context.

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“A lot of South African artists have become so self-engulfed and self-relational that they have forgotten that we live in a global village. Art needs to be so transcendental. There are certain ideas that I grew up with that can now be celebrated internationally,” he says in between interruptions to have his photo taken.

But he adds that throughout his career he has always kept his eye on home because “there is a lot that we can gain from South Africa”.

“It influences us wherever we are. We can’t discard that experience,” he says.

Rhode is an international artist though, represented by the Lehmann Maupin gallery in New York. He has been Berlin-based for the last 10 years, having emigrated shortly after graduating from the South African School of Film, Television and Dramatic Arts in 2000.

Since then his artistic works – in photography, performance, video and street art – have been praised and shown worldwide. His narrative is described as a “comment on urban youth culture, post-colonial context, and society at large”.

Rhode’s work has also been snapped up for public collections at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, France; the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., United States; and a few New York museums, including the Museum of Modern Art.

The question comes up whether he thinks he would have been as successful as he is now had he never left South Africa.

“That is not a guarantee,” he offers. “If I lived in South Africa I would still succeed, but differently. Maybe I would be more socially active. I would be more community orientated. Maybe I wouldn’t work with a gallery. Maybe I would have moved into education.”

In any case, he adds: “Young South Africans, especially coloureds, assimilate global culture”. So his work might not even have been that different from what it is now. He understands that this is why his work speaks beyond borders; references similar sub-cultural experiences in the existence of urban anywhere.

“We assimilated a globalised identity. When I project this out to an international context it is found to be startling. When someone from the geographical periphery mirrors the global experience it becomes a major talking point,” says Rhode.

It is near ironic – but not unique – that Rhode, initially gazing in from the periphery, has garnered recognition and global art credentials for challenging the art world with what started as street art. He started drawing on public walls before showing photographic and video works inside art galleries.

“I have an obsession with walls that exist in the public realm. I want to bring the outside world into the white cube (of the gallery) and destabilise the atmosphere of a gallery or museum space,” he explains.

“I wanted to use the street as a starting point to create my art. A lot of my work takes place on the walls of various street corners. I want to communicate my work to the broader public, especially where people have limited access to art galleries.

“I was interested in shifting the idea of the viewer from being elites who had access to attend galleries to the broader public, people who were unemployed, walking the streets. This was my target audience.”

Protest graffiti and the “tension of being one of very few students of colour” articulated Rhode’s dialogue with society. He sought to redefine the art world and produce work on his terms. He adopted humour and play as his tools.

“The idea of play can be used as a quiet force to deal with other more dramatic or serious issues. Humour allows me to engage with serious issues. It allows me to destabilise very important issues in society, whether it’s political or social,” he says.

“It is part of my identity as a coloured South African. We are a community filled with gesture and role-play that has allowed us to overcome other social issues. It’s a way of building resilience, coping and to show a smile in the face of fear.”

He continues that humour and play “helps us to endure”.

“It is amazingly positive. It has helped me to sustain my ideas in a very ruthless international context. I’ve adopted these particular languages of art and coloured identity to find an authentic language. It’s not only specifically South African but it relates to other societies and geographies.”

Intersections of class, race and culture all appear in the work that Rhode presents. His Piano Chair, for example, shows a black man “sacrificing” a piano. The latter includes – as with all Rhode’s works – a simple chalk drawing on a wall that a performer interacts with.

Rhode says while there are “many deep meanings” in this piece, it is essentially paying homage to a deceased black South African pianist that he admired.

While continuing to reflect on his work, Rhode explains that what he does “comes from a sub-cultural influence born from a social margin”. Fortunately, it has led him to “being on to something”. Does he mean to say that he is successful?

“Success is so hard to define… but I’m working my ass off,” he offers.

He would be working hard these days as he has just established a record label to “publish limited edition vinyl records not for financial gain. I have also started a publishing company because I love publishing”.

“If you have a platform to pursue your thoughts then you are on to something,” he continues.

“If you are able to be free… Freedom is important. Being able to do what you want to do. If you are able to pursue a career and self-actualise then you are successful.”

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About Yazeed Kamaldien

Self-employed journalist and photographer from South Africa.

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