In her book, South African Art Now, Sue Williamson points out that the unprecedented interest in South African contemporary art that followed the fall of Apartheid in 1994 was accompanied by a tendency to view South African artists under one homogeneous banner. The myth of the “rainbow” nation ignored relevant issues such as segregated education, segregated exposure, segregated experiences. At the very least, segregated means separate and individual. What it did not mean is together and group.
As Williamson points out, however, the last ten years has witnessed a new understanding and embracing of South African art not as one homogeneous voice, but as a vibrant, globally relevant movement that is as diversified as its artists. Amongst the many South African artists who belong to this group are Robin Rhode and the 2007 winner of the Michealis Prize (the top prize awarded by the Michealis School of Fine Art to one of their graduating students), Rowan Smith.
Born in 1976, the South African-born, Berlin-based artist Robin Rhode uses a variety of media including photography, drawing, and animation. His tools are deceivingly simple, often involving no more than chalk, a wall, and himself – a sort of graffiti art meets performance. His Park Bench, 2000, is a life-sized bench drawn, in chalk, on the wall of the Parliament Building in Cape Town. On its own, the image appears harmless, almost child-like. The narrative changes the moment Rhode steps into his art. No longer is the wall just a “canvas” to draw a bench. The wall belongs to a building in a part of town that, until the end of Apartheid, no black or colored person could enter. Wearing a dark hoodie (a piece of clothing immediately associated with “trouble” and “youth”), Rhode proceeds to “sit” on the bench and look furtively around – a suspect action the police call “loitering”. The hoodie doesn’t help. Nor does the fact that Rhode isn’t white. It doesn’t take long before he is arrested for defacing public property.
The themes of perception, prejudice, and control are further explored in some of Rhode’s videos (the YouTube video above gives short clips of three of Rhode’s videos). In Colour Chart, 2004-06; Candle, 2007; and Promenade, 2008, the videos were shot from above with the subjects lying on their side. The word “colour” immediately invokes race, especially when connected to a South African artist. Colour Chart, however, also alludes to the German artist Gerhard Richter’s Colour Chart paintings executed in the late 60’s, early 70’s – a play in contradictions given the political strife in South Africa during this time juxtaposed against Richter’s carefully calculated colour applications. Against the cracked cement wall, the colour white – a multi-layered metaphor for white skin tone as well as elitist sports such as tennis and croquet – fights various colours (only medium blue is shown in the clip). White holds a white canvas “shield” – a possible metaphor for the coloured voice in art to be heard amongst the white ruled art establishment.
We see the same urban backdrop in the next clip, Candle, in which Rhode tries to light a two-dimensional candle. There is something incredibly naive and hopeful in the simplicity of this act of faith that again assumes political undertones as the light flickers on and off and we become uncertain as to what/who is black and what/who is white. Promenade was done in collaboration with Norwegian pianist Lief Ove Andsnes. In this video, Rhode assumes the role of Master of Ceremonies who cannot control his own animated creations suggestive of the fight to own one’s belongings – both physical and spiritual.
A child-like belief and simplicity coupled with uncertainty are, perhaps, two commonalities that Rowan Smith’s art shares with the art of Rhode. Leaving politics and skin tone aside, Smith’s conceptions explore a futuristic world with wonder and trepidation by looking towards the past for clarity and understanding. Obsolete technology, such as the three printers in Dot Matrix Loop tell the story of how we got from there to here. Suspended as they are from the ceiling, they seem to float mid-air, like three wise story-tellers whose human history (there are little figures printed on the paper) they print on the stream of paper that intertwines from one printer to the next. This is how stories get passed down and this is how they become altered as each story-teller adds their own imprint.
In the end, what the art of Rhode and Smith explores – albeit through very different means and artistic concerns – is the frailty of our world and ourselves; themes that are as universal as they are relevant to our present reality.