Robin Rhode’s drawing and performance-based art, which manifests largely in the form of photographs and stop-motion films in his new exhibition The Call of Walls, features several of the archetypes associated with street art. While barbed wire may still signal the entangled politics of tyranny and oppression and hooded figures allude to the influence of American hip-hop culture, Rhode creates subversive narratives that unfold via a lexicon of costumed movement, tracing issues of social inequality, displacement and shifting identity in the process.
The infiltration of American popular culture into South Africa in the mid 1990s had a great effect on Rhode, whose early work, he says, was largely a response to the lack of urban characters in South African visual art. “There was a massive assimilation of urban street culture into South African youth culture, post-apartheid,” he says. “There was a huge American influence in fashion, in sport, and I was part of this generation that absorbed the hip-hop culture – we could relate to it.”
Rhode is equally influenced by art history, citing inspirations that range from Dada to Bauhaus to early 60s performance artists such as Vito Acconci, who photographed the experience of following strangers around the streets of New York.
“Being a contemporary artist, my work was very much influenced by art history and I conceptualised my art using the context of the street as a way to destabilise Western modernity,” he says. “The notion was to take abstract painting into the streets and then to bring it back into the museum or gallery context.”
An untitled work comprising vinyl graphics translated from a photographic series called Rough Cut follows the action of a minstrel-esque figure in a top hat pushing a lawnmower in front of a wall. As he pushes the lawnmower, diamonds jut out like grass cuttings being hurled forward, creating a blur of prismatic colour flattened onto the wall.
“This character and a lot of the other characters who exist in my work – the doppelgangers – are an amalgamation of Eurocentrism and Africanism,” Rhode explains. A personal disguise is expressed through the wearing of hats, sunglasses and hoods, while blacked out backgrounds consciously remove the photographed work from its original street context.
Bones, titled for the bones from which dominoes were traditionally made, showcases the poetry of motion in Rhode’s work at its most dynamic. A choreographed, “very formal” piece, it reveals a heightened understanding of dance, incorporating traditions of popping into a game of dominoes. When we hit upon the word rhythm, Rhode responds with wide eyes. “Rhythm” he says emphatically, repeating the word for effect. “Rhythm is an absolutely massive part of it. Before we even get to dance the rhythm is in the drawing.”
The connections between the political and the personal are no more poignant than in Blackness Blooms, named for a poem written by African poet Don Mattera, a former warlord who turned from gang conflict to political activism when “he ran out of enemies and realised apartheid was his new enemy”. Drawing on lines from the poem, Rhode transports us to a scene in which Mattera was incarcerated for his political activism during the apartheid years. “After spending weeks in a pitch-black cell,” Rhode says, “he started envisaging liquid darkness dripping like a wound in the sky, and people speaking about his blackness like a weed that was dying. So I imagined this piece as a way to bloom blackness like a flower, like a wound in the sky, but at the same time it’s this Afro that begins to bloom.”
Running counterpart to such work is an entire gallery space devoted to Paries Pictus, an interactive children’s art project whose graphic and sculptural elements arose from a Bauhaus-designed wooden toy game that Rhode bought in Berlin.
“The museum is a very planned environment so I think children can be empowered within this given space once they have a particular responsibility or activity to fulfil,” he says.
Children’s drawing activities on the walls will evolve for the duration of the exhibition, accompanied by short films that explore the notion of children and youth. “The space becomes theirs even though it’s ephemeral,” says Rhode. “The artist plants the seed of creativity and that I think that is very important.”
Robin Rhode: The Call of Walls shows at NGV International until 15 September.