SA artist Robin Rhode carries on…

Written by Yazeed Kamaldien

In one of Cape Town-born artist Robin Rhode’s latest works, the geographical shape of South Africa becomes fragmented as it is swung on strings gripped in someone’s hands.

Rhode has been based in Berlin for the last decade and calls this piece ‘Carry On’.

“The shape (of South Africa) symbolises a piece of hand luggage. As the narrative of this work evolves, the geographical picture of SA evolves into a point of abstraction. So the carry on (luggage) relates to the inherent baggage that comes with the complex progression of our present modernity,” comments Rhode on this piece.

Carry On by Robin Rhode

Carry On by Robin Rhode

The work is a series of photographs documenting the different stages of fragmentation. Rhode uses walls as his canvas, graffiti or paints evolving images on to the walls and photographs these images to create picture stories that are exhibition in galleries worldwide.

His latest show in Cape Town includes other pieces that talk about his readings on black consciousness. The artist has also followed his “mission of making art accessible to the public” by creating a colour-in book on the gallery walls.

Rhode says he spent time with anti-apartheid author and poet Don Mattera last year. His conversations with the writer inspired his latest work.

‘Blackness Blooms’ is one of the pieces that arose from these interactions. Rhode says it takes its title from a line in one of Mattera’s poems: “Blackness blooms like a wound in the sky.”

“It’s taken from a poem by Uncle Don where he describes his incarceration. He told me how he was detained in a dark police cell. He said it was like a wound in the sky dripping liquid darkness,” said Rhode in Cape Town this week.

“I tried to envision what this wound or blackness could be. I wanted to create this visual narrative where a synonymous character is taking this enlarged comb and combing this wall and this round circle appears on it like a seed or even a wound in the sky. He uses this comb and it becomes larger and larger like an afro or also like a flower.”

The series of photos follows the progression of the small seed transforming into an afro.

Robin Rhode (left) with journalist Yazeed Kamaldien (in black) in Cape Town.

Robin Rhode (left) with journalist Yazeed Kamaldien (in black) in Cape Town.

Rhode says living abroad has enriched his work.

“It allows me access to strong historical periods in art history. I am able to reflect that back again onto my South African identity. In the end my work becomes a fusion of both modernities. It’s a steady growth of where I am from as well as the dominant discourse in Western modernity where I am based,” he said.

He looked happy to be showing his work in Cape Town, his birth city, for the first time. Rhode was raised and educated in Johannesburg before becoming a Berliner.

“This is the follow up after having placed my avant garde roots in Cape Town. This exhibition is an amalgamation of various ideas that I have been engaging in with regard to notions of wall drawings and how the aspects of the wall drawing has pervaded the aesthetics of southern Africa, dating back to the caves of the Bushmen,” he said.

His research on wall art took him to South African townships too, “that during apartheid history were reflections of struggle and hope.”

“The idea of the wall drawing is in our society but has not been grappled with as a concept. I have young children under the age of eight years old colouring in various graphics that I painted onto the wall. The gallery evolves into a large colour-in book, destabilising the notion of the gallery or a white space only occupied by a minority elite,” he said.

“It’s a space once again for social engagement. I thought that it was extremely important to create an exhibition with a strong social consciousness. This comes from my roots as a child of the Western Cape and as a product of the post-apartheid generation.”

The notion of turning the gallery into an accessible space is vital to Rhode’s work. He usually makes art works in city streets. What he shows in galleries are documentations in the form of photos and videos of those works.

“It has been my mission to make contemporary art and culture accessible to the majority of our population who have had limited access or means to engage with visual art,” he said.

At the same time, he wants to challenge how “society pushes us into these spaces where we are.”

“The idea that we are a democratic society was imposed on us. People are still coming to terms with who they are or how an identity was imposed on them.”

He added: “I’m trying to engage with grey areas. It’s also a psychological space where we are in our lives. It’s about being in a grey psychological space.”

Exploring the world through his art, Rhode walks often back to his childhood in Cape Town.

“I take my inspiration from daily life. I take inspiration from social interactions that I have experienced. Art is a philosophy. It should reflect and critique our daily lives. I also believe in the pleasure of process and experience,” he said.

He reflects in ‘Bones’, a work that sees him “grappling with my childhood” while making it a statement regarding his views on art. This series of photos shows enlarged drawings of dominoes on street walls, being set in motion, much like it would be thrown on a surface during a domino game.

“It’s about my experiences as a youth, playing dominoes with my father and uncles. It’s very part of my Cape Town upbringing. The source of inspiration is something which is not even a consciousness. It’s intuitive,” he said.

“I love the idea of the game as a symbol of inclusion and exclusion that is part and parcel of our reality. My art work functions as a completed game in that everyone, the audience and the viewer, is inclusive.

“This work is more about opening up a space for inclusive thought because you can then decide if you want to be part or not.”

Rhode’s latest exhibition ‘Paries Pictus’ opens at the Stevenson gallery, located at 160 Sir Lowry Road in Woodstock, tonight (Thursday APRIL 11). It runs until May 25.



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About Yazeed Kamaldien

Self-employed journalist and photographer from South Africa.

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