FNB Art Joburg
Sandton Convention
Centre, Johannesburg,
South Africa

Artist of Interest

On building, breaking and growing while always resisting

with Robin Rhode

Gestural and tactile, Robin Rhode’s interdisciplinary practice uses performance as research towards resolve. A means to make sense of what is happening, the twenty-something year long practice is adamant on maintaining its agility as the contexts it finds itself in are never the same. On one of his recent visits home, from Berlin, we caught up with the artist about maintaining a long-distance relationship with Johannesburg as home and the site of his conceptual studio.

Traditionally, an artist’s studio is where their processes, research and experimentations get together to become the practice that the public engages with. It is where we know artists go in order to mutate conception into exhibition. A guideline, it acts as an intervention that informs, insulates, limits or broadens its artist as they please.

So what happens when the studio is embodied? Located in his psyche and rarely tethered to the same space, Robin Rhode’s practice commits to nothing but resistance. A constant reckoning with comfort, the artist repels ease because of how far removed it is from the empathy and agility that a joyous survival demands.

Below is an introductory excerpt from a conversation that Rhode had with FNB Art Joburg. The first of three parts, it introduces the premise of his practice and its current context.

Robin Rhode: Is it just me, or is there currently a conformity to traditionalism?

Zaza Hlalethwa: If the answer were yes, would that be an issue?

RR: My issue is not so much the embracement of traditionalism. It seems there’s been a stronger shift towards painting and two dimensional works and so forth. I guess it’s a generational thing because the emerging Black artists are trying to question figurative painting and what better way to question the traditional language of art than studying the vocabulary of art? With my situation, it was more than questioning. The process and the means of painting was to challenge the idea of what art is from the perspective of image creation. From the perspective of creating site-specific projects or site specific performances, I was asking: What is a photograph? What is a performance? What is painting? How do these things combine? What is sculpture? Can sculpture not be tangible? All of these factors of finding meaning behind what we create as artists; that was my interest. It wasn’t just from the surface of the visual. It came from a broader, more socially engaging kind of perspective.

ZH: If that was the premise back then, do you maintain that premise 25 years deep? Can you reach the ceiling of figuring out this social aspect of what you do as artists?

RR: That is a very good question. I think that just when you think you’ve reached the ceiling, the ceiling somehow extends. When I reach what I think is the limit and I’m ready to move my practice in another direction, I somehow keep coming back to those same premises I thought I was done with. Now I’m always thinking about how the premise is reinvented. I think that it’s very difficult to maintain a practice that doesn’t do that. I have been doing this for over twenty years now and it could be argued that I’ve created my own canon. But it’s very difficult to sustain that interest over a period of two decades. It’s a lot of ups and downs for sure

ZH: I can imagine that it is like any other relationship whether platonic, romantic, corporate or familial. But let’s go back a bit, back to your practice and how you see it. How would you describe the relationship that you have with your practice right now?

RR: We are very very good friends. We are the best of friends. I have a very comforting friendship with my art practice. I don’t think I’ve ever had a fight with my art practice. If at all, it’s my fault when there’s something up. But other things are true as well. I have a very conflicted practice. I find myself deeply conflicted inside my practice because I’m a non-traditionalist.

ZH: I would think traditionalism has confines and limits that a non-traditional approach would not have. So tell me more about this conflict?

RR: With me, making a drawing on paper is an event. It becomes a production. If I decide to make a drawing on paper, I’m already thinking about scale. What does that scale mean for the representation of what I am drawing? How do the parameters of the physical paper relate to me? Then there is the issue of time. How much of it do I have or want to give? Time begins to play a role in how I approach and mark that paper. I’ve got all these issues already. Then there is the question of what the energy around me has? What are the conditions that are physically around me as I draw? As if that wasn’t enough, that conflict grew when I established myself as an artist in the diaspora because I attempted to become more traditionalist in terms of embracing a studio practice. That is conflicted too.

ZH: I would assume a studio practice would become a safe space, a sort of grounding as an African living in the diaspora. Was there no solace for you?

RR: I never used to have a studio. As a young artist, I never had studios. Actually the first space that I had as a professional artist was an office. It was fancy and I used it to sort out my admin. But over the last four years I’ve had to confront what studio practice really means and what my art practice needs. I’ve had to acknowledge what my strengths are and what my weaknesses are. As soon as I tried to be normal or traditional in terms of having a studio and setting out the conditions to really embrace that type of work, it failed. Eight years. It all collapsed.

ZH: But you are still making. Your practice exists and continues to benefit from engagement. With this in mind, where would you say you are right now, considering the period you have just come to terms with

RR: In terms of where I am right now, it’s like I’ve had to endure the pain of realising that traditionalism is not for me. I’m not a traditional artist. My strength right now lies in the exterior. It is in the outside world: finding locations and allowing that location to trigger a form of painting, drawing or mark making. Being in dialogue with space triggers an authenticity that cannot be replicated elsewhere.

Part two and three of this conversation will be published in weeks to come


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