An interview with South African artist Robin Rhode, who brought his vision of contemporary art to Israel

Written by
Joy Bernard


South Africa-born, world-renowned contemporary artist Robin Rhode wears an enormous grin as he points at what is undoubtedly the centerpiece of his solo exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum, extending his hand in an inviting gesture. 

Rhode, who is there to orchestrate the final preparations ahead of the special opening of the first-ever art exhibit by a South African artist at an Israeli museum, insists that gallery goers step out of their comfort zone and into the, somewhat austere, playground he has erected for them at the Architecture and Design Wing. 

The unordinary gallery will be home for the next four months to Rhode’s artistic presentation of his fantastical experimentations with color and light, most suitably titled Under the Sun.    

It took the artist some four years to transform the long, sinewy metal statue that rolls in on itself in a wave-like pattern from a dream in his mind into the vibrant object that it is. The sculpture operates like a touch sensor, buzzing with ripples of light that travel across it and increase when it is pressed on either of its ends. Looking at Rhode as he enthusiastically demonstrates the effects of the fruit of his labor, one can’t help but recall a popular game that preceded the age of cellular phones; that in which children hooked empty tin cans with chords to emulate how sound travels in regular phone conversations. 

The artist laughs at the association, then explains that it is exactly this type of journey he would like to invite people to join him on as he focuses on the interaction of the human body with its surroundings. “I placed a strong emphasis on the human body in my work from the very get-go,” he says. “I think that it’s because of the very gestural society I grew up in. The society in South Africa is very narrative-driven. The way people told stories there was extremely gestural and animated.

“Humor,” he continues, “was an important mechanism as well. The idea is to subvert things while telling jokes. We would find a way to subvert a harsh story into something that’s playful and funny.” 

Rhode’s fascination with the body is evident in another work he is slated to unveil in Under the Sun, a striking series of photographs that depict a dark silhouette of a man stretching his limbs into different poses against the backdrop of a big wall that the artist has colored over with blocks in sunny hues. He explains that the wall is situated in a poverty-stricken and “problematic” area in Cape Town, close to where he grew up. 

The squares of color evolved from a digital image he had created, and while they seem to reflect the phases between sunrise and sunset, they also correspond with the silhouette’s striking poses that seem to embody an animalistic but ever-so-graceful expression of a variety of states of mind. 

Under the Sun, 2016

By Robin Rhode

On the adjacent wall a series called Inverted Cycle depicts two masked characters clad in black and white who appear to be either fighting or locked in an embrace, as they react to the progression and changes in the color wheel behind them. Rhode, who is himself of mixed heritage, says that both creations can be perceived as commentary on the social unrest in South Africa, but that he doesn’t want interpretations of his artwork to be limited just to the climate in his homeland, which he saw emerge from the hateful grip of the Apartheid regime in his teens. 

On the one hand, he explains, “I need to charter these territories as a contemporary artist. Art functions as the best critique to issues that plague our society.” On the other hand, he is just as quick to defiantly ask: “Why, just because I come from a particular place, must I be seen as an artist only making that kind of art? If I started working on the street, why does that necessarily mean I’m a street artist? And now that I’m in Israel, why must I address the Arab-Israeli conflict?” 

“Look at Damien Hirst for example,” Rhode charges in a nod to the celebrated and controversial English artist. “What the f**k are his paintings about? No one seems to be sure but they sell for millions. Or Banksy with his ‘Walled Off Hotel’ in Bethlehem. I stayed there. It’s a joke. If they can do what they want, I can do what I want. I want to be more liberated than all these joke painters.’”

Art, Rhode stresses when asked about the meaning of his activity in Israel which is often dubbed an ‘Apartheid State,’ should facilitate a dialogue between people and open their hearts. 

“I think that the situation of the conflict in the Middle East is hyper-complex. But I also think that in countries such as Israel art can be the most fertile. It’s in places like this where the most interesting ideas develop. Maybe in a way I’m searching for places with a parallel history to my own. Conflicts don’t only exist geographically. They exist in the artists themselves.”

On display through February 3, Tel Aviv Museum of Art

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