Berlin based Robin Rhode occupies a unique position within the mainstream contemporary art world, revered equally for his performative drawings on the street as for his installations in some of the most presitigious galleries around the world. Told from the perspective of post-apartheid South Africa, his work is political, humorous and street savvy. Interview by Cedar Lewisohn
CL – Do you consider the drawings you do on the street as ‘graffiti’?
RR – I don’t consider it graffiti because graffiti artists don’t consider me a graffiti artist. The interesting aspect to my practice is that I embrace the ‘spirit’ of graffii, it’s more the mentality and approach to public space, and the motivation behind trying to create work in the public realm. What’s interesting now is that you don’t have to consider yourself a graffiti artist to be a ‘street’ artist, there are so many other ways now that an artist can engage with street art and public spaces. So, do I consider myself a graffiti artist, no. Do I consider myself a street artist… I would consider myself as embracing the spirit of street art.
CL – What attracted you to work outside the gallery?
RR – As a young art student in South Africa I was almost compelled to embrace the street because I felt the gallery was very much dominated by a minority of white South Africans, and I felt the only way I could subvert the white cube space was to embrace the streets; something that was familiar to me.
I tapped into this world as an adolescent and the beginnings or the routes of my ‘street art’ stems from music. In many ways I embraced American street culture. As a young South African my identity was very complex (I am considered a ‘coloured’ South African, meaning I have mixed race); I was part of a post-apartheid generation of kids who were trying to find their own identity or try to embrace a new identity.
As a ‘coloured’ people we couldn’t align ourselves with Zulus or Khoisans or Vendas, or with a European ancestry. But, we were searching for a cultural line so we began to assimilate cultures from abroad and embraced black culture from the US. This is not something that’s new to my generation, there are South African generations who embraced soul music from America – trying to align themselves to black identities from other geographies – and we embraced street culture from the USA, we played basketball, listened to rap music and we embraced graffiti.
CL – When you say graffiti what do you mean?
RR – I was tagging, and doing stencil pieces, not as part of any art practice, it was an outlet of my creativity as an adolescent. Then I went to study fine art and I somehow began to bring the two together – aspects of art history with street art. I felt I was free to break the shackles of some kind of identity based situation where I could subvert the dominant position of South African art at that time because by working on the street I could claim my own identity, and invent an identity at the same time. I’m doing the same thing today, it’s a bit more sophisticated but it’s the same thing I’ve always done.
CL – What kind of graffiti were you looking at as a teenager, how, and where did you see it?
RR – I came across a book called Subway Art by Henry Chalfont and Martha Cooper. That was my bible.
CL – I think a lot of kids around the world had the same bible! So you were looking at those letters and trains from New York?
RR – And also looking at stencil graffiti because then I could develop some kind of aesthetic or graphic which I could then take to the streets.
CL – How did going to art school affect your approach to your street work?
RR– It became very problematic in some ways, because I was never at the college – I was always working on the streets. Then I had a moment where I recorded a performance and showed the performance on video. at made so much sense.
I was doing a lot of low key graffiti work; even getting your hands on a spray can back then was very difficult. is is the late ’80s early ’90s, there were hardly any aerosols or spray can work (in South Africa). It was all brush, oil paint, political slogans, or wall paintings with strong religious iconography for social or spiritual upliftment. No spray cans. That was really for rich people, people couldn’t afford spray cans. It only came later on, using a spray can was actually very sophisticated.
CL – That’s a whole other conversation – graffiti as a luxury.
RR – We had an initiation ritual in high school where we would take the young kids and initiate them in the boys’ toilets. Our system was very formal, we wore school uniforms, it was very disciplined but at the same time some crazy shit was going down. So, we’d get the young kids into the toilets and then we would draw objects on the wall with chalk. We would draw bicycles and candles and force the kids to interact with the drawings as an initiation into the high school subculture.
And that experience only hit me a er my second year of studies, where I realized the only way I could create an authentic practice was to look at my own experience rather than embrace a philosophical or conceptual mode of practice – I needed to touch on a personal moment within myself that would then open up all the political connotations where I could have a socio-political dialogue in my art. So I did that by making a drawing then interacting with my drawing and showing the video as a work of art.
CL – Was that more acceptable for the college professors?
RR – Yes, but also for me, because it was combining early influences of graffiti art, still embracing the street and political space, with aspects of art history. One of the objects I always drew was the bicycle…
CL – That also relates very much to Duchamp in a strange way, right?
RR – Duchamp, and also to cave painting. I felt it was going back right to the beginning of art which was bushman cave painting. This to me was the truth in my work as this is what I believe is the purity in my art. I believe this is where it all starts. Over the past years I’ve just gone about trying to refine it and add different elements to it but I’m kind of doing the same thing I’ve always done and it gives me great pleasure.
I do have issues with graffiti art. You can’t make a piece and expect it to be there forever, that you’ve claimed that wall. You do a piece and you have a month, two months max, and it’s gone, but graffiti artists in South Africa haven’t really evolved mentally in terms of understanding that. You’ve got to do your piece and understand it will exist for some time but it’s not a shrine, it should disappear. It is ephemeral.
CL – Did you ever see a connection with your work and the work of artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring?
RR – Yes, I can align myself with those artists because we embrace both the street and the gallery.
CL – There’s a stronger lineage between those artists and you then with graffiti writing.
RR – I think for a lot of street artists there is a hierarchical structure but for me there was no hierarchy, I embraced both spaces, I’ve trained and studied as a fine artist so I’m saying if you give me a museum space I must still do something as challenging and engaging as I’d do on the street. I bring the outside inside and the inside outside.
CL – A lot of street artists do great things on the street but the problem they have is when they move into the gallery.
RR – Banksy for example is very, very bad when he works in a gallery. I’m not being cynical, I’m being critical, maybe it’s due to a lack of art historical understanding?
“We’re all familiar with the American and European narrative, but the South African story from a black perspective is not so well known in art circles.”
CL – There’s probably a few issues but at the crux of it is context and how to remain politically engaged.
RR – It’s definitely within those lines.
CL – There is a kind of reverence for the white cube space that needs to be got rid of, fuck the white cube space like you say, I’m gonna do the same thing. Do you have permission for where you do your drawings?
RR – I never had permission but then it became complicated, now I have permission but only in Berlin. I actually gave up in 2002; I stopped working on the streets in Berlin because I was doing a piece in charcoal on a fucking concrete pillar and I was surrounded by half a dozen cops. I’ve got a South African passport and I’m living in Europe but I’m not trying to be a graffiti terrorist, I’m not going to risk it by doing work in charcoal! So, I stopped working in Berlin and I’ve been working in South Africa unannounced, anonymously on the streets of Johannesburg. It’s only been in the last three months that I’ve started to work again in Berlin.
CL – How do you choose the locations where you make the drawings?
RR – It’s all about the surface of the wall, it has to be smooth enough for me to apply charcoal, oil stick or spray paint.
CL – Do you feel a weight of responsibility as a ‘South African’ artist?
RR – Absolutely. I’ve always felt that responsibility, not only when I lived in South Africa as a young artist but even now. It’s a bit different now because I have a geographical distance from South Africa, but now I have a responsibility to chart a new territory internationally. When I was in South Africa I was involved with a lot of social programmes and I still work with a lot of young people in producing my own work in South Africa. I have a young crew that I work with who I’ve now sent to graphic school. Now I want to take South African art into new discourses.
CL – We’re all familiar with the American and European narrative, but the South African story from a black perspective is not so well known in art circles.
RR – It’s not so well known but at the same time South Africans have had a lot of exposure – we are hot on the block. South African photography – great. The shows at the MOMA right now of South African art are fantastic.
I do have an issue with a lot of international museums in that they don’t give enough solo exhibitions to South African artists, there has to be one voice at some point instead of a kind of collective voice. It’s becoming very easy for museums to say, let’s do a show of South African photography, let’s do a show of South African art from the political era. I’m saying, have the guts to select one voice that’s not always William Kentridge.