A man pushes a mechanical lawnmower across a rocky surface alongside a rough stretch of wall. This anonymous performer is wearing, somewhat improbably, a top hat and suit jacket with worn trousers and simple rubber shoes. With every gesture and push, impressions of diamonds are seen billowing out onto the wall behind as if being churned up, magically, from the soil. The action is photographed in a sequence that depicts an increasing number of diamonds being unearthed in each successive frame; in the final scene a multitude of diamond shapes appear to glisten and refract light in the bright sunshine. Belying the complexities of mining such highly prized mineral deposits, the performer’s apparent ease of generating the diamonds is undercut by the realisation that, in these images, they are impermanent and their beauty is an illusion. The photographic series is Rough cut, 2007, one of several works by contemporary South African artist Robin Rhode that features the diamond motif.
The composition of the man toiling and use of the diamond patterns can be read as references to the complex history and impact of mineral mining in South Africa. With the discovery of abundant mineral riches in the country in the 1860s a ‘diamond rush’ ensued. The attempted annexation of diamond and gold fields by the South African Republic and British colonial government contributed to an epic dispute between them, a long and complex struggle for political control that contributed to the outbreak of the First Boer War, as well as to the beginnings of the racial exploitation and oppression that were to have such devastating repercussions for South Africa in the twentieth century.
A major outcome of this political struggle was the implementation of racial separation and formalised legislative apartheid in the late 1940s by the National Party, as a means of prioritising the rights of mine owners and white farmers and of maintaining their political and cultural domination. Apartheid lasted until 1994, at which time the general election saw a change to democracy and majority rule and the African National Congress, led by President Nelson Mandela, assumed power.
Rhode is one of several artists of the post-apartheid generation to forge a significant international art career. Despite being based in Berlin since 2002 and travelling and exhibiting widely, Rhode frequently returns to his hometown of Johannesburg to create works. He has spoken of how his identity, worldview and, as a result, his art practice have been ‘shaped by the political turmoil of the past’, but have not been weighed down by his background. In a recent interview, Rhode said:
It is the youth generation … who have a new perception of the future without having to carry the baggage of history. Only through understanding our past will we be able to shape the cultural landscape of the future, no matter how peripheral one could appear to be.1Tamara Warren, ‘Visual artist Robin Rhode speaks on South Africa exhibit’, 14 April 2013, Life and Times, accessed 19 April 2013.
In conversation with Stephanie Rosenthal, Chief Curator at the Hayward Gallery, London, in 2008, Rhode played down direct references to the politics of mining in South Africa when discussing the diamond motif within his wall drawings and imagined narratives. Rhode stated that his use of the pattern goes beyond commenting on the social and racial turmoil spawned by the mining trade to focus instead on the optical and perceptive possibilities afforded by diamonds and their highly refractive material properties:
SR: For over a year, the diamond shape has recurred in your work. The diamond is one of the world’s most precious raw materials; it is certainly the strongest, and almost indestructible. I’ve read that roughly 49 per cent of the stones originate from central and southern Africa. So, form or content?
RR: The diamond influence has been more formal that anything political. Beyond the issue of ‘conflict diamonds’ or the religious and ancient iconography of the diamond, I’ve been fascinated by the dynamism of the diamond form – the sharp points and angles, the cutting, the implication of the infinitive, and that the shape can rotate or be placed in any direction – and also, more importantly, that the form disperses light, therefore affecting optics, distance, perspective and so on.2Robin Rhode, ‘Robin Rhode in conversation with Stephanie Rosenthal’, in Robin Rhode: Who Saw Who, Hayward Publishing, London, 2008, pp. 52–3.
In addition to the display of new photographic works and animations, Robin Rhode: The Call of Walls at the National Gallery of Victoria – Rhode’s first solo exhibition in Australia – sees the artist translate his passion for wall drawing into a unique contemporary project for children. Rhode refers to this project as Paries Pictus, the Latin term for ‘wall painting’, and has described how its idea is to shift the sense of artistic authorship to children and the community, and to create an expanded drawing field.
While children have often featured as protagonists in Rhode’s work – they appear to spin and twist around a chalk-drawn merry-go-round in Marongrong, 2004, and they chase painted planes which dip and weave in Paper planes, 2009 – this new project encourages their direct involvement and collaboration. In Paries Pictus graphics from Rhode’s Rough cut series are transformed into wallpaper paste-ups adorning the gallery walls. These paste-ups, printed in black and white, will gradually transform over the duration of the show as children and their families are encouraged to apply their own colours in layers, using crayons.
The slow and beautiful evolution of the wall drawing, from black and white to high colour, will extend Rhode’s solo performances by transferring the impetus to children, displacing his authorship by a communal process of participation. In this way Rhode reclaims the diamond motif as a celebration of collaboration and beauty. The Rough cut diamond motifs were first transformed into wallpaper designed for children to draw on in 2011 for an exhibition at the Castello di Rivoli in Turin, Italy, and have again been adapted in Melbourne for this unique contemporary project for children.
Reminiscent of the American conceptual artist Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings that are to be performed and executed according to a set of instructions (some highly specific in terms of line formation, others loose and open to interpretation), authorship and control in Paries Pictus is attributed to others. While Rhode does not prescribe how the communal drawing is to be performed, or dictate the specific placement of colours, the idea of a shared drawing process is the driving force behind the project. Individual marks will gradually transform the wall drawing which, like all of Rhode’s works of art, is poetic, abstracted and intentionally open-ended. In his words:
The idea for Paries Pictus is to develop a kind of communal process of wall drawings; to shift the role of ownership from the artist to the community; to allow the expansion of the drawing field from the artist to the children.3Robin Rhode, artist video, Lehmann Maupin, accessed 25 March 2013.
1 Tamara Warren, ‘Visual artist Robin Rhode speaks on South Africa exhibit’, 14 April 2013, Life and Times, accessed 19 April 2013.
2 Robin Rhode, ‘Robin Rhode in conversation with Stephanie Rosenthal’, in Robin Rhode: Who Saw Who, Hayward Publishing, London, 2008, pp. 52–3.
3 Robin Rhode, artist video, Lehmann Maupin, accessed 25 March 2013.
An additional essay by Maggie Finch is published in Robin Rhode: The Call of Walls, available for purchase at the NGV Shop for $19.95 (purchase online here.)