South African Artist Robin Rhode Dares to Treat Race and Class Lightheartedly

The highly serious subjects are addressed lightheartedly in a new exhibition by a South African-born artist, now showing in Tel Aviv.

Eitan Buganim
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Robin Rhode, '36 Ways a Dice Can Roll' (2011).
Robin Rhode, '36 Ways a Dice Can Roll' (2011).
Eitan Buganim

“Anima,” the first exhibition in Israel by the South African-born artist Robin Rhode, is currently showing at the Braverman Gallery in Tel Aviv. Born in Cape Town in 1976, Rhode moved to Berlin in his youth and now lives in Johannesburg. Initially he engaged in street art and graffiti, using chalk or charcoal to draw on street walls in the course of staged performances.

Echoes of that abound in Rhode’s current exhibition in Israel, in which he continues to address – in humorous, playful fashion – deeply serious questions that probe the connection between artistic and cinematic practice with regard to issues of race and class.

The public space serves Rhode as a platform for his works, which fuse painting and sculpture with performance elements, photography and animation. “I am a contemporary revolutionary,” Rhode says of his manner of working and referencing the strategy he wields, which examines questions of culture, identity, history and social reality.

There are four photographic series and two video works in the exhibition, all recent. A theme that cuts across the works is the relation between the moving and static image. Visually, says Adi Gura, the exhibition’s curator, Rhode’s work recalls the pioneering photographer Eadweard Muybridge’s studies of motion as an animated sequence of individual images. Another apparent influence is William Kentridge, the acclaimed South African artist who focuses on political issues, in films consisting of sequences of drawings and erasures.

In his photographic series, Rhode usually makes use of a double of himself or of native, black South Africans. His digital animation work “Kinderstoel” (2011), for example, is made up of a series of 12 photographs, each depicting another movement that completes an action and a particular rhythm, together fusing into one imagined motion. The work shows two children playing against a background of contour lines of a square-shaped chair.

Rhode’s use of a lone male figure and children is aimed at creating a kind of self-portrait that reenacts or invents a formative experience of the artist’s childhood in the streets of Cape Town. As a boy, he relates, he took part in a popular game in which he had to enter a lavatory, draw a bicycle on one of the walls and pretend to be riding it.

Echoes of that particular childhood memory crop up in all of Rhode’s works, which include an image painted on a wall or a floor, and some sort of human figure interacting with the painted object.

There is usually also a narrative line in the form of an image and voice. Rhode makes frequent use of everyday objects, such as bicycles, chairs and bottles, and his simple animation technique evokes the mechanical awkwardness that marked the historical first efforts in filmmaking.

According to art historian Tom Gunning, “Rhode’s images simultaneously ... celebrate [the] possibilities but also ... encounter the resistance of the material circumstances of the real world.” From this viewpoint, the object’s potential emerges doubly: arousing an experience of simultaneous attraction and repulsion, while also being perceived as amusing and childish – but with an underlying social-political thrust.

In “36 Ways a Dice Can Roll” (2011), for instance, a besuited man with a briefcase interacts in an odd way with dice. He throws them against a wall, and they leave a trail of evanescent forms along it. In this case, Gura notes, Rhode is evoking highly charged elements, such as the world of finance – a gambling man in a suit, complete with briefcase – while the scene plays out on a street wall fraught with social significance.

There is also another work, she says, that makes use of iconography to make a political statement. In it, a pocket knife, which at first looks like a bird of prey, appears and then multiplies itself, and starts to pursue another figure.

Rhode, whose work is included in the collections of major institutions – including the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Pompidou Center, Paris – visited Israel in conjunction with the opening of the exhibition in October. In addition to maintaining a constant dialogue with the contemporary art world in his work, he composes original music for his videos, capturing it on vinyl records he manufactures in his studio. Some of these records, of Rhode and others, are also on view at the Tel Aviv exhibition.

Braverman Gallery, 12b Hasharon Street, Tel Aviv (part of the old Central Bus Station). Open Friday-Saturday 11 A.M.-2 P.M.; Tuesday-Thursday 11 A.M.-7 P.M., (03) 566-6162; until January 1, 2015.