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PARIES PICTUS


11 APRIL – 1 JUNE 2013


THE ART OF LO-FI, HI-DEF ROBIN RHODE INTERVIEWED BY JAMES SEY

JS: It’s more than a decade since you’ve exhibited in South Africa. How would you contextualise your own work now, after this long break? RR: For me, South Africa is fascinating in its openness to things, its attitude towards materials and spaces especially. I’m especially interested now, and think this has a lot to do with a particular South African aesthetic, in the lessons of African-American artist David Hammons, whose own work is street-smart, and blurs the lines between private and public spaces. I’ve always, like Hammons, used everyday materials and spaces, encoding them into an aesthetic experience, and not been too concerned with institutionalising art, whether in galleries or through identity politics. I’m also very taken with the ideas of the Arte Povera movement in Italy in the late 1960s, for the way they valued the everyday also, and returned to simple, powerful visual messages. South Africa has a great attitude to materials in this way, it’s not so institutionalised. Your combination of performance, lens-based media, street art and attitude has brought you exposure in major European and US galleries, including the Hayward Gallery in London, and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Tell us a bit about how you’re received in the world. It varies quite a bit. My work is well-received in the UK, partly because of a larger, more prevalent black community of

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art lovers. It’s also good in Italy, but perhaps more because

date, there’s our political past of protest murals, rather than

of a conceptual understanding in the market there. In

graffiti, the mural art in the townships that was more about

France, there’s more of an affinity with the performative

social upliftment than tagging – I was always drawn to that.

and comedic elements in my work. There’s a lot of street

Messages like ‘Stay away from drugs’, ‘AIDS kills’, ‘Down

art, buskers and live elements to art there, so that goes well

with Apartheid’. Once I took a US curator through Westbury

in France. In fact, the Centre Georges Pompidou has just

township, and we came across a crudely painted NYC

acquired what I call a ‘lo-fi, hi-def’ piece documenting me

skyline, which had in the foreground a view of the Venice

drawing a charcoal mic on a wall and interacting with it. It’s

Lagoon – why? Is it an aspiration to escape? A fantasy?

called Microphone. So there’s a diverse relation to my work,

It was so poignant.

and different kinds of appeal, with markets in Europe, but in the US it’s much more about the black experience. I’m

Paries Pictus – Latin for, roughly, wall drawing – includes

involved with the Studio Museum in Harlem in New York,

a site-specific intervention of drawings in collaboration

where I’ve started a record label out of the bookshop. We

with Cape Town children from disadvantaged

distribute through the museum, all limited edition vinyl, and

neighbourhoods. Could you say some more about

I design the covers. So that’s great to get involved in other

the wall drawing concept in this show?

artistic avenues, like design and music. I’m attempting to develop the idea of wall painting under Paries Pictus is your first show in South Africa in

the Paries Pictus banner, so that the potential of wall

12 years. Why now?

paintings can be used by ordinary people, can be better understood. I’ve taken this into a fine art context though –

A lot of it has to do with wall drawings! I’ve been much more

there are Bauhaus graphics in the template for colouring

involved with them lately, partly after seeing an amazing

in, and there are other considered design principles, such

show of wall drawings by Sol Le Witt at the Walker Art

as graphics on the evolution of urbanism, from mud huts

Center. And I’ve felt that there was a huge potential in South

to the megalopolis, on one side of the wall in the gallery. On

Africa for wall drawing. The lineage here, the ancient history

the other side are simple shapes forming a boat or yacht,

of Khoisan cave paintings, has always been important to

a set of dumbbells, a flower, etc, where the emphasis is

me. There’s something about the drawing of their belief

on geometry, shape recognition and change. Other parts

systems and rituals, their experiences and aspirations,

of the Paries Pictus space are devoted to drawing activity,

which resonates with me. And bringing that feeling up to

for example, where a stencil of five ‘colonial-era’ ships

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goes across the wall, and the kids draw waves under them.

myself as a street artist, but as a contemporary artist who

Bringing wall art into the gallery is about planting a seed in

has roots in the street, and as one who adopts the mentality

these young people, which is unusual in South African art,

of the street. I always saw myself as being in the white cube

especially for young, disenfranchised kids. It’s about turning

of the gallery, and always saw myself as a conceptual artist

the gallery into a large colouring book.

that incorporates street materials. My work is in fact not on the street, but on a metaphorical roll of film, the one I use to

The wall painting approach raises the issue of the

document the drawing, performance, whatever it is.

relationship of your work to street art generally, which has been experiencing a bit of a vogue, what with Banksy,

You’re also showing a range of photo-based series –

Shepard Fairey and others going global. How do you

can you tell us a bit more about these?

perceive the relationship, if there is one? The choice of works for this show is all about their relevance There’s a much greater focus now on street art, and on its

to South Africa. One of my spiritual mentors is poet and

commercial value. When I showed at White Cube in London

activist Don Mattera, and a few of the works are inspired by

in 2011 there were street art blogs covering the show. So

him. Blackness Blooms, for example, with the giant comb

it’s big now. I think it’s a healthy thing that my work really

and the drawing which blooms into a huge afro that is also

just touches on but runs parallel to street art. Many street

about the blooming of black identity and consciousness,

works and techniques have now evolved into abstraction,

is inspired by lines from his work. It’s also of course a

but this doesn’t necessarily imply that they’re moving into

reference to the ‘comb test’ of blackness during the

a gallery or fine art context. My work in turn is more about

apartheid era, those strange markers of racial identity

an aesthetic evolution, about redefining the real. I have a

that we obsessed about at that time. Twilight and Vultures are companion pieces, also partly

creative need to push an idea of painting or a conceptual idea out of the gallery and into the street. The legitimacy

inspired by Mattera. Twilight references his metaphor of

of street art is about bravery in making a statement and

coloured people existing in a twilight zone, between black

risking injury and arrest, as much as about the image itself.

and white, night and day, indeterminate in terms of racial

I don’t want to be embroiled in the tired notion that being

classification and apartheid politics both physically and

an artist in a gallery context, but who works with concepts

psychologically. The feather in the piece acts as a kind of

and materials close to street art, means that I somehow

barometer or timepiece, moving from dawn to daylight to

appropriate that work or that idea. I therefore don’t see

evening. The purple hoodie the character in the piece wears

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In the piece called Bones I’m relating the history of the

is referencing thug life, but also has spiritual undertones – a kind of priestliness or monasticism. Vultures was the

game of dominoes to the human body. All 28 domino pieces

name of Mattera’s gang in Sophiatown. The metaphor is of

are used, and the title puns on both the skeleton and the

the bird that feeds on scraps, but is only there when death

slang name for domino pieces. The character in the series

is around. The actual bird is replaced by an Okapi knife,

has a relation to each piece as part of the choreography.

used by the gangs as a weapon of choice. In the piece, the

It’s a very large work, 9.5 x 2.45m, and both numerically

knife appears closed, perching on the tree branch. As the

and visually very interesting, for example with the double

character approaches, the knife opens, and confronts the

blank and double six. The game also unfolds as part of the

character as his shadow.

viewer’s experience.

The series called Bird on Wires is inspired by the serial

The last two works, A Day in May and Carry-on, are

‘chronophotography’ of the 19th-century scientist EJ Marey.

perhaps the most personal in terms of my feelings for South

He made very influential studies of animals and humans in

Africa. A Day in May is inspired by Worker’s Day. The digital

motion, including many of birds in flight, which influenced

animation shows the figure carrying a black flag, the symbol

the development of early cinema. The wires are also meant

of anarchism and opposition. But as he protests, he is held

to recall the strings of a guitar.

back by clothes pegs, so it’s domesticity that puts a stop

The Point of Vanishing offers an ironic take on imagining

to his revolutionary fervour, and hangs him out to dry. It’s

the perspectival view of inhabitants of the land when the

about coming back to a sense of self, and a sense of home.

colonists first landed in their ships off the Cape of Good

Carry-on is a pun on carry-on luggage, which in this case

Hope. Imagine a bushman cave or rock painting of such a

is a graphic outline of South Africa, tethered by ropes to

ship … the piece plays with the idea of such a representation,

the character, his sense of home that he carries with him,

and the character is dressed as a sailor, of course.

but struggles to deal with. It begins to repeat itself, and to

A Spanner in the Works of Infinity links the wall drawing of

fragment, so that although he is pulled by the South Africa

the car at the entrance to the gallery with the tool that fixes

symbol, by the end of the work it’s undefined.

it. Also the wheel spanner denotes an ‘X’, such as the one marking treasure or put down when casting a vote. When the character in the series throws the spanner into sky, it spirals, into the wall, creating the illusion of another dimension. Structurally, this piece has quite a formal compositional style,

James Sey is a writer, academic and artist. He is a Research Associate in the Research Centre of the Faculty of Fine Art, University of Johannesburg.

based on the Fibonacci mathematical grid.

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PARIES PICTUS COLOUR IN THE PICTURES 2013 Vinyl stencils, paint, oil crayons in custom box With the participation of children from Lalela Project

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PARIES PICTUS CONNECT THE DOTS, DRAW THE WAVES, COMPLETE THE MAZE 2013 Vinyl stencils, paint, oil crayons in custom box With the participation of children from Lalela Project

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BIRD ON WIRES 2012/3 8 framed C-prints 41.6 x 61.6 x 3.8cm each

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Paries Pictus: Complete the Maze

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Paries Pictus: Draw the Waves

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THE POINT OF VANISHING 2012/3 15 framed C-prints 41.6 x 61.6 x 3.8cm each

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Paries Pictus: Connect the Dots

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VULTURES 2012 8 framed C-prints 41.6 x 61.6 x 3.8cm each

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TWILIGHT 2012/3 8 framed C-prints 41.6 x 61.6 x 3.8cm each

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A SPANNER IN THE WORKS OF INFINITY 2012/3 9 framed C-prints 41.6 x 61.6 x 3.8cm each

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UNTITLED (MOON STAMP + INK PAD) 2012 Wood, metal, rubber, Indian ink Installation dimensions variable

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BLACKNESS BLOOMS 2012/3 8 framed C-prints 41.6 x 61.6 x 3.8cm each

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ALMANAC 2012/3 8 framed C-prints 41.6 x 61.6 x 3.8cm each

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CARRY-ON 2013 9 framed C-prints 41.6 x 61.6 x 3.8cm each

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BONES 2013 28 framed C-prints 50 x 50 x 4cm each

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A DAY IN MAY 2013 Digital animation Duration 3 min 15 sec

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Robin Rhode was born in 1976 in Cape Town, and lives in Berlin. Major museum solo exhibitions have taken place at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, California (2010); the Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, Ohio (2009); the Hayward Gallery, London (2008); and Haus der Kunst, Munich (2007). Notable group exhibitions include Fruits of Passion at the Centre Pompidou, Paris (2012); the 18th Sydney Biennale, All Our Relations (2012); Staging Action: Performance in Photography Since 1960, Museum of Modern Art, New York (2011); The Original Copy: Photography of Sculpture from 1839 to the Present, Museum of Modern Art, New York (2010); The Dissolve, 8th Site Santa Fe Biennale, New Mexico (2010); Prospect.1 New Orleans, 1st New Orleans Biennial (2008); New Photography, Museum of Modern Art, New York (2005); the 51st Venice Biennale (2005); and How Latitudes Become Forms, Walker Art Centre, Minneapolis, and other venues (2003-5).


Thanks to the staff and children of Lalela Project for their contribution to Paries Pictus, and to the teams at Rhodeworks, Berlin, and Stevenson, Cape Town. Special thanks to Sabinah Odumosu-Rhode.


Back to the Future, 2013, vinyl stencil, paint, 185 x 434cm


CAPE TOWN Buchanan Building 160 Sir Lowry Road Woodstock 7925 PO Box 616 Green Point 8051 T +27 (0)21 462 1500 F +27 (0)21 462 1501 JOHANNESBURG 62 Juta Street Braamfontein 2001 Postnet Suite 281 Private Bag x9 Melville 2109 T +27 (0)11 403 1055/1908 F +27 (0)86 275 1918 info@stevenson.info www.stevenson.info Catalogue 71 April 2013 © 2013 for works by Robin Rhode: the artist © 2013 for text: the author Front cover Paries Pictus: Colour in the Pictures, 2013 Editor Sophie Perryer Design Gabrielle Guy Installation photography Mario Todeschini Printing Hansa Print, Cape Town


Robin Rhode: Paries Pictus  

Paries Pictus documents Robin Rhode's first solo exhibition in South Africa in over a decade. (Stevenson catalogue 71)

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