Interview with Robin Rhode
By Chad Rossouw
The central piece at Robin Rhode’s ‘Paries Pictus’ at Stevenson was a series of geometric forms taped in black on the white walls, and coloured in by children with outsized oil crayons. The idea of drawing and interacting with walls, is central to Rhode’s practice.
Robin Rhode: I’m using the idea of wall drawings and exploring this in the context of South Africa. We have a history, a tradition, of wall drawing going back to the bushman cave paintings. I’m interested how that has evolved. During the Apartheid era, mural art was a kind of protest painting. It has evolved from that into street and graffiti art, and, from there, wall drawing has become so much a part of contemporary visual culture. A couple of years ago, I started to develop this concept for wall drawings. It’s called ‘Paries Pictus’, which is Latin for ‘wall drawings’. I started taking social interaction and social drawing projects a lot more seriously than I did before. ‘Paries Pictus’, allowed me to do this in broader terms, working with educational groups and with museum programmes. This is the third time I’ve done this in the last two years.
The show’s iteration here comprised several elements, including a series of photographs of his more familiar interactions with the walls, and stop-motion animation. The two main rooms, though, were filled with a kind of vertical children’s workbook, including join-the-dots and mazes. Mostly, the ‘workbook’ was made up of regular geometric shapes organised into simple scenes and narratives: gardens, families and playthings.
Chad Rossouw: Where do these shapes originate from?
RR: What I’ve used to compose these graphic images are wooden block toys that were produced in 1924 by the Bauhaus. I’ve composed these narratives and I’ve composed the graphic component from these geometric forms. What is completely fascinating for me is that the kids had access to these large-scale oil crayons. So they had these difficulties of working with the weight of these things, drawing two at a time and developing a communal attitude to drawing, having to work with a partner.
CR: What made you want to work with kids?
RR: I’ve worked with kids from the early days of my practice. I had children interact with my drawings in animations and in my performances. Working with children has been so much a part of my practice. The theme of childhood has been so much a part of my work as well: childhood memories, notions of innocence, the purity of imagination. All of those kind of ideas I try to adhere to as an artist. When you are a child you are so brave, there is no conscience. As an artist I try to put myself into that mental state, so that I can maintain a kind of bravery. You know, there’s no fear, whether it is doing a live performance or conceptualizing a work of art. That sense of having your consciousness at its purest form is why I’m attracted to the idea of working with kids. Especially in South Africa, with me coming back from Germany for my first show in over 12 years here. I’ve developed a sense of consciousness of the role of art in the community. I want the audience to see how I have evolved as an artist into creating drawing fields that are inclusive for children. At the same time having photographic and sculptural works that go back to my practice. There needs to be a dialogue between social interaction and my kind of work which has a dialogue with these kinds of projects.
At this point, the kids gather around Rhode to say thank you and goodbye. There is an affectionate intimacy between the kids and Rhode, which suddenly activates the work. The idealistic, educational aspect of the work, which felt alienated on later visits in an empty gallery, seems to come alive with the laughter and chanting of little voices.
CR: So how do you feel the kids react, here?
RR: First of all, you hardly find children occupying a gallery space, a white cube as such. They feel a bit anxious, a bit nervous, when they enter the gallery: they find it a controlled environment. Though as soon as one or two kids pick up an oil crayon and begin drawing, some of the shackles are broken. A kind of entry point is opened into the project, and from there it just develops. All of them get a chance to draw, and it’s just amazing.
CR: Does it feel different working with kids from your home town?
RR: If I think of my childhood, growing up in Cape Town, I think maybe I desired something like this. Maybe inside me I wish someone had allowed me access into a gallery in the art context. So maybe I want to plant a seed into the minds of the youth.
CR: Do you think that art has the power for transformation here?
RR: I think for me, more than anywhere else. I’ve worked with disadvantaged communities from the Bronx, New York, and even then I felt this longing to do this work in my own country. There feels like there is a greater need for it here.
Rhode has been exceptionally successful in Europe and the States, but this will be his first show in South Africa in over 12 years.
CR: I suppose there is an idea that this is a kind of homecoming show, as this is your first show here for a while.
RR: People can be very nostalgic; South Africans are very nostalgic. It is a homecoming show for me though, and I’m not going to deny or ignore that fact.
CR: It’s not like you haven’t been here though?
RR: I’ve been here all the time, but I’ve been here undercover.
CR: So why is there a revelation now?
RR: The timing. It’s all about timing. I reached a point where I needed to realize these projects now. If I didn’t do it today, if I didn’t do it now, it was never going to happen. I felt I reached the point of my oeuvre, where ‘Paries Pictus’ needed to be realized in South Africa. And Stevenson were great, I didn’t have to beg to do the show.
CR: Do you think that having a South African audience is important to you?
RR: I think so. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to do this show, now. I wanted a South African audience to get closer to me. They’ve seen my work from a distance. And now I need to bridge that gap. I’ve reached an important part of my practice where I want my audience to engage with me.