/ 13 December 2019

Rhode’s canvas: Westbury walls

Rhode’s Canvas: Westbury Walls
Cover art of 'The Geometry of Colour' by Robin Rhode (Rhodeworks/Skira), edited by Ashraf Jamal



But why all this absorption with bricks and walls? One answer is suggested in the dissident literature and fin-de-siècle artistic practices that flourished in the embattled 1980s, the final decade of minority rule in South Africa. In his 1981 essay The Babalaz People, playwright Matsemela Manaka argued that “mampara bricks” (a low-grade stock brick meant to be plastered over), along with corrugated zinc and the mud and stench of township streets, formed an essential part of the mise en scène of authentic urban black theatre.

Manaka’s comment is useful in expanding the terms of Rhode’s fidelity to place. In a 2013 interview, Rhode described the site of his many wall animations as “magnificent” and “very vibey”, and the wall as “spectacular”. Superlatives yes, but also expressions of affinity and endearment. The site in Westbury where Rhode continues to stage his wall animations is, in a word, authentic.

What I am trying to highlight here is the importance Rhode attaches to his setting. The wall in Westbury is not a random backdrop. This extends to his understanding of the visible crack in the wall used as a setting for so many of his photographic-performance works.

“It symbolises a powerful imperfection, as if something can pour out of it, through this crack in the wall,” Rhode told me in 2017. “I call the crack the vein,” he said on an earlier occasion. “It makes the wall become more organic. It is one of the reasons why I love the wall. It has an imperfection. It is almost as if you are looking at a piece of geography and this is the river that runs through it. It is the vein through the land.”

The process Rhode is following has a name: defamiliarisation, or ostranenie, as Russian literary theorist Viktor Shklovsky called it. It proposes a “sensuous and evocative” involvement with the thingness of easily overlooked things. One of its chief proponents as literary practice in South Africa, at least when it comes to bricks and walls, is Ivan Vladislavic.

Vladislavic’s short fiction Journal of a Wall appears in his debut work, Missing Persons (1989), a collection of 11 short fictions. At once farcical and acutely perceptive — of the material culture of Johannesburg and disassembling psyche of white South Africans — Journal of a Wall unfolds as a series of diary entries by a man obsessed with his neighbour’s new wall. The story is a parable for attentive seeing. “It was an extraordinary brick,” gushes the narrator shortly after pilfering a brick. His wonder, however, sours. “I was tempted to keep it as some sort of memento. But by late afternoon I had begun to resent its stony silence, its impenetrable skin.”

The narrator returns the brick to his neighbour’s yard, albeit now marked with a dot of white paint. He continues watching. A boundary wall begins to take shape, offering him a revised target for his resentment.

It turns out the wall is simply a plot device for its builder. Once completed, the house it bounds is sold. The story ends with the narrator’s description of his stoic neighbours, who rebuffed his approach and unspoken attempts to link the meaning of the wall to “the state of the country”. “The wall looked ashamed of itself. I went back home.”

Much in the way Rhode’s early work, Classic Bike, heralded an artistic talent with a distinctive set of preoccupations, Journal of a Wall did the same for Vladislavic. In these two early works, Rhode and Vladislavic fix their attention on a physical terrain, Johannesburg, without precisely naming it, finding latent meanings in its walls, those utilitarian ciphers of an incoherent whole. Given the importance of Johannesburg’s utilitarian infrastructures in Rhode’s work, how much significance should one attach to the bricks and walls?

In a 2010 interview, Rhode stated: “I like to think that even if I am from a particular geographical periphery, I don’t need to be associated with that, my work can touch on other aspects.”

He is gesturing towards an optimistic destination, an everywhere we collectively imagine through our participation in a networked series of urban localisms, corralled by the meta-term globalism. In 2011, his international career already well established, Rhode held a solo exhibition in London titled Variants. The exhibition included five projected animations staged and filmed in Westbury, each featuring a chair design by Gerrit Rietveld, a Dutch furniture designer and architect who was a principal member of the De Stijl modern movement. The exhibition marked an incremental shift in Rhode’s practice, which, since his 2009 collaboration with pianist Leif Ove Andsnes on a project for Lincoln Centre, included new studio-based photography exploring the intersection of performance and geometry (Ballad to Ballet, 2008), as well as the genre of still life. Variants included 15 black-and-white studies of triangular forms titled Pascal’s Triangle (2011), inspired by the French mathematician and physicist Blaise Pascal.

Worldliness is not a synonym for nowhere. Rhode continues to produce wall animations in Westbury, a suburb well known for its gang culture. The cipher of violence, the thing Johannesburg’s vertiginous boundary walls are a response to, floats around the periphery of Rhode’s work, but — and I believe this to be crucial — does not infect either the artist or his work. Rhode sees a wall and smiles. His wall animations, which are filled with vividly coloured geometric volumes, are expressions of that ambiguous smile.