South Africa, 1976
In an interview in which he talked about growing up in South Africa as the country was taking the decision to abolish the monstrous system of apartheid, Robin Rhode (Cape Town, 1976) said that one of the strangest features of this society was that people were always communicating through “movement and performance.” He went on, “they loved to tell stories, crack jokes and devise situations; everything was fun in motion.” Rhode was sure that this outlook had a lot to do with the appalling social situation and in a certain sense it was a way of tackling political dramas by using the body as the means to transcend a hostile reality. Together with this feature linking Rhode’s work to a very specific context, another factor that caught the critics’ eye when his work started to become known in early 2000 was the original ways in which it interlinked public art, graffiti, youth cultures, the muralist tradition, drawing and performance. He Got Game, for instance, is a playful piece from 2000 made up of 12 photographs that show a young man in sportswear bouncing a basketball towards a hoop drawn on the ground, spinning around in the air and slam-dunking. The action is really all the result of a simple trick often found in his work whereby the camera is placed high up to shoot the street shot as if it were the background rather than the ground. In Brick Face (2008) this approach leads to a different magic trick. Here, a smartly dressed black man wearing clothes and a hat from another age, perhaps from some time in the first half of the 20th century, walks up to an old sewing machine outlined in chalk against a dark wall. He takes the geometrically patterned fabric he has slung over his back and begins to feed it into the fictitious Singer. As he sews, the fabric disappears and comes out the other side as graffiti, which grows and spreads like magic, covering the wall with white bricks. When the wall is completely “bricked up”, the man jumps back, astonished by what he has done—much like in the early silent films—and walks away. The piece is presented as a series of 20 black-and-white pictures that shows Robin Rhode’s interest in street art and conjuring tricks and also focuses attention on the story, in this case, racial prejudice. From the perspective of art history, it also shows the influence that some neo-avant-gardes have had on his artistic project, including Minimalism and, above all, Sol LeWitt’s work. Finally, this piece illustrates the fine line that Rhode sees between reality and fiction in popular South African culture (also present in the work of other leading artists in his country, such as William Kentridge) by setting itself up as a fable in which space is transformed in an unexpected way.
Pedro de Llano