Robin Rhode [South Africa]
location: walls of a building, Panieńska Str. (can be viewed from Zamkowa Str.)
The Edison Company film The Enchanted Drawing (made in 1900) was one of the first to combine live action and 2D animation in a story about a sketch artist whose caricature comes to life. Nearly a century later, South African artist Robin Rhode performs similar actions through the combined lens of street culture, colonialism, and post-Apartheid politics. In his rapid maturation as an artist, Rhode has translated an act of high school initiation (where older boys drew objects that younger boys needed to “perform”) to a place where street art, graffiti and flipbooks meet traditions of silent film, stop motion and theatre. Wanting to move ever closer to his work – and to a salient address of the poverty, segregation and racial inequalities that marked/marred his South Africa – Rhode declared, “I didn’t want to make art, I wanted to become it.” He makes good on this ambition by interacting (in remarkably realistic fashion) with two-dimensional images drawn with chalk/charcoal (or spray paint) upon urban surfaces near at hand. Streets, sidewalks and walls become both canvas and collaborator in this process, creating a collage of motion, memory and mark making somewhere between Eadweard Muybridge and William Kentridge. Through layers of inscription and erasure; existence and effacement; he marries charged irreverence (once urinating on a Duchamp-inspired Fountain drawn upon the National Gallery of South Africa) with theatrical whimsy and the folk charm of early happenings. And while his themes grow increasingly universal – reflecting on notions of metamorphosis and regeneration – Rhode’s work continues to manifest his unvarnished experience of the city.
Like Jimi Hendrix burning his guitar on the stage of the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1967, Rhode stages a spectacular assault on his practice, and an extension of himself, in Piano Chair. His altar ego/avatar in this particular video evokes the degrading 19th century minstrel show where men in blackface and bowtie performed naïve acts for the pleasure of wealthy patrons. The violent distrust of such “artistic” performance echoes through Rhode’s young career as he wrestled with the legacies of racial caricature. In a seminal 2003 performance at the Walker Art Center, Rhode drew a car on a wall that he then attempted to steal as a hooded thug – employing a variety of tools before casting a final stone in frustration. In the 2007 work Juggla he references historical South African minstrel carnivals where troupes from outlying regions would assemble, parade and perform in the city for food and drink. At the same time Rhode began to curb his performance schedule and confront the objects that brought both identity and enslavement to the embattled minstrel. Piano Chair is arguably the next step in this retort as Rhode’s blackface surrogate inflicts a barrage of attacks upon a baby grand piano drawn in charcoal upon a white wall. As much an assault upon the piano as it is upon his signature act of wall drawing, the composer attempts to kill the anthropomorphic instrument with rock, knife, axe, pillow, fire and noose. This final act suggests that of lynching, and the brutal ghosts that continue to haunt race relations in America, South Africa, and the world over because of it. Here in the Zamkowa cluster of buildings, amidst the nascent growth of graffiti and street art, Rhode thus organizes a painful, but necessary audit of his performative identity – aggressively interrogating the instruments of injustice.
In his 2007 short film Candle, Rhode draws the eponymous object on a piece of paper and proceeds to light it with a match to create a flame. He extends the surreal fusion of lived and drawn reality by switching the image from negative to positive: alternating between light and dark before he blows the candle “out” to end the film. Two years later Rhode continues this meditation on the visibility of African peoples (in post-Apartheid South Africa and around the world) as a young boy silently interacts with another hand-drawn candle. In this iteration, an anonymous boy dressed in knit cap, grey hoodie and black jeans lights the candle as he puffs – creating a bellows-like effect that begins to burn away the surface on which the object is drawn. As he continues to blow the flame appears to flicker as Rhode polarizes the Super 8 film – creating a simple, but no less symbolic trick of the eye. For it is in the oscillation between black and white that he reflects upon the racial politics that organized so much of the social, physical and economic principles of his native country. In his avatar’s attempt to stoke the flame and light the room, the boy begins to destroy the drawing/façade and reveal the truth that lies beneath. Yet despite the seemingly imminent breakthrough, too much breath blows the candle out: turning the room black as the young boy turns white. But while the ending suggests an ongoing polarization between tonal values and race relations, the process – the flickering between the two – points to a potential state of alignment. Paired with Piano Chair, Kid Candle lives as a pivot point between revelation and disguise; enlightenment and ignorance; shame and solidarity.