In 2013, the South African-born artist Robin Rhode, whose interdisciplinary practice blends drawing, performance and photography, converted a 19th-century alcohol distillery in Berlininto a vast 16,000-square-foot work space, split across two floors. Still, he continues to make much of his work outside its bounds. While he produces most of his preparatory drawings in Berlin, his primary site of creation has remained in Westbury, a suburb of Johannesburg. There, using the plastered concrete wall of a vacant building as his canvas, he makes fleeting paintings (a shoal of small geometric shapes for the 2012 series “School of Fish,” a spiral staircase for the 2017 work “Principle of Hope”), and invites a performer wearing a mask — oftentimes the dancer Kevin Narain, a collaborator of eight years — to interact with the work, contorting his body to echo its shapes. He captures the dancer’s actions in a sequence of photographs and then scrubs the wall clean in less than 24 hours (although he leaves the vacant building as he found it, he also gives its owner a bottle of whiskey whenever he’s in town). For Rhode, the ephemerality of the movements and the reactionary nature of graffiti art underline the overlooked poverty and injustice permeating urban slums in cities; often he will work with more than a dozen local collaborators on a single piece. “My community are my studio assistants,” he says.
Rhode with a salvaged metal frame that he used as a prop in his live performance “House/Fate of Destiny” (2017/2019).
Bicycles have always been an object of fascination for Rhode; they were featured in many of his early spray-paint works made in Johannesburg.
Born in Cape Town during apartheid, Rhode, 43, came of age in its brutal final years. He studied art at the Witwatersrand Technikonin Johannesburg in the 1990s, and since the early 2000s he has made street paintings that meditate on the violence and trauma he has witnessed in disenfranchised neighbourhoods of the city. While he doesn’t describe himself as a graffiti artist, the anonymity of street art granted him freedom of expression in a time of sociopolitical turmoil and taught him to work with limited resources and time. In the past decade, Rhode has made work in cities from Istanbul to Mexico City, and he allows each new wall he finds to dictate the scale and content of the imagery he paints. “I have to flex my intuitive muscles and remain open to chaos,” he explains. “I don’t consider walls as barriers but rather as portals that I can almost see through. I invent mechanisms to flip the barrier into something else.”
Most recently, he traveled to the ancient Palestinian city of Jericho in search of a concrete canvas, leading to the photography series “Phantom Rain,” which he will debut this week with Lehmann Maupin gallery during the Frieze art fair in London. Rhode had long wanted to make art in Jericho — whose once-glorious walls, in the famous biblical story, were demolished by Israelite soldiers — since his first visit to the West Bank city in 2014. Currently governed by the Palestinian Authority, the city and its inhabitants’ struggle to survive in harsh conditions — water, for example, is scarce in Jericho, and its access is controlled by Israel — reminded Rhode of South Africa. The resulting work documents his creation of a painting of water droplets that fall like rain onto two performers below.
Rhode admits that when he returns from his travels, he finds creating within the confines of a studio challenging. The need for artificial lighting at his Berlin space, for example, and witnessing the city’s rapid gentrification since he moved to the city in 2002, have driven him to seek inspiration in other, more remote, corners of the world. But on a crisp, early fall day in September, not long before his solo exhibition “Memory Is the Weapon” would open at the Kunstmuseum in Wolfsburg, the artist was in his studio, perched on an aluminium bar stool amid wooden crates and works-in-progress, where he answered T’s Artist’s Questionnaire.
Rhode with his work “Untitled/Black Void” (2007), an abstract spray-painting on canvas.
What is your day like? How much do you sleep, and what’s your work schedule?
I usually sleep eight hours a day. I work until about 3 p.m. and pick up my sons from school at 3:30. I spend the rest of the day with my sons, who are 17 and 9 years old. We have dinner, then I come back to the studio and usually end up sleeping here.
How many hours of creative work do you think you do in a day?
Never enough. I go through different periods of work intensity. My usual work routine is 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., but I’d say five hours, maybe even less.
What’s the first piece of art you ever made?
In high school, I used to do portraiture and draw people around me. I was very shy growing up, and drawing profiles of girls in my class and gifting them the drawings helped me communicate with them. I was that kid who used to leave the school dance as early as possible. Art helped me get over my shyness.
What’s the first work you ever sold?
A photograph titled “He Got Game,” named after the 1998 Spike Lee movie, in 2000. That sale covered my expenses to move to Berlin. I didn’t have a studio then and I remember working on the street and using a balcony to take the photograph.
Spray paint is one of Rhode’s most frequently used mediums; he applied it to walls first and later paper and canvas.
Rhode uses Sennelier brand soft pastels, which, he notes, were a favourite of Pablo Picasso’s.
When you start a new piece, where do you begin?
For me, it’s about the wall. I spot a wall — sometimes the wall lends itself to an idea. I am so tuned into walls because I see them as a piece of paper or a canvas. Similar to the scale of a piece of paper dictating the entire piece, a wall’s surface allows me to construct specific lines or choose the material I will use, whether it is charcoal, paintbrush or spray paint.
How do you know when you’re done?
A moment of exaltation comes. It means the work has been resolved. I also rely on people around me.
How many assistants do you have?
I have one assistant in Berlin, and he works two days a week. I also have a lot collaborators in Johannesburg. I sometimes have 13 to 18 people working with me for one work. I prefer the community around a wall over the solitude of a studio, and I am trying to reconstruct that more and more.
What music do you play when you’re making art?
I listen to the BBC Radio 1 app. There’s a British D.J. called Benji B, who has an amazing two-hour podcast every Thursday morning starting at 1 a.m. The two-hour show helps me time myself — once it’s done, I know I spent two hours at the studio.
When did you first feel comfortable saying you’re a professional artist?
As soon as I finished my studies, I was good to go. I couldn’t wait to be called an artist.
Is there a meal you eat on repeat when you’re working?
No, but I drink a green smoothie that consists of spinach, celery, cucumber and kiwi — anything green. Lately, I’ve started drinking a shot of ginger every day too, and I am addicted.
What’s the weirdest object in your studio?
Some of my old artworks.
Rhode using a cardboard cutout and black spray paint to create the impression of waves in a work in progress that he based on images of a colonial ship.
How often do you talk to other artists?
There were times when I didn’t speak to a lot of artists, but I’ve recently become close to a collective of young artists whose studio is opposite from mine. Some of them are really young, only starting to study painting in Vienna. I find creativity in being around young artists and talking about work. I gravitate toward young people, because many years ago, I was that young person and I can relate to them. They’re not shy to critique me as well — actually, they’re my fiercest critics.
What do you do when you’re procrastinating?
I watch YouTube.
What’s the last thing that made you cry?
One of my former classmates from college, who helped me with my early animations, passed away a few months ago. His name was Richard Fitzgerald, and he was so generous. Separately, a couple of weeks before his death, a South African diplomat from Berlin was shot by an intruder at his home in Johannesburg in front of his family. He survived, but I was shattered when I heard that. These two things happened very close to each other.
What do you usually wear when you work?
I wear the same grey pants and dark grey shirt. I travel and work with these clothes. I wore them in Jericho all the time. When I leave the studio, I change immediately.
If you have windows, what do they look out on?
They look out on a beautiful green garden. I discovered that there is a fox living somewhere around this studio. I see him from time to time and call him Mr. Fox. He’s become my studio mascot — I embraced him as my sprit animal. In Johannesburg, some people call me Mr. Fox now.
What’s your worst habit?
I’m easily distracted. It’s something I’ve been working on.
What embarrasses you?
I am embarrassed when my work is not exhibited to its fullest potential and when I have to compromise to show it.
What are you reading?
I’m currently flitting between a few books. One is a collection of poems and essays by the Afro-German author May Ayim, titled “Blues in Black and White.” She committed suicide at age 36. She was of mixed race, and that’s why I particularly relate to her.
What’s your favourite artwork by someone else?
An artwork that I saw last year at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris still really moves me. It’s Jean-Michel Basquiat’s “Riding With Death” from 1988, a tragic piece that still makes me say, “Wow!” I love a good reference point in art, and this painting is a great example for that. He is directly inspired by a Leonardo da Vinci drawing of a mythical scene that shows Phyllis riding on Aristotle, a female figure over the symbol of philosophical thinking. It’s a masterpiece in the way he depicts the scene and appropriates Western civilisation.
Subscribe to our newsletter