‘We Are Art Soldiers’: Watch South African Artist Robin Rhode and His Mural Crew Go to Work on the Streets of Johannesburg

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Production still from the "Johannesburg" episode of "Art in the Twenty-First Century," Season 9. © Art21, Inc. 2018.

The South African artist Robin Rhode finds raw canvases for his work in the walls of neighborhoods around Johannesburg, similar to those he grew up in as a child in Cape Town. Collaborating with local men from the community, he has embarked on an extended project to craft murals that grapple with post-apartheid realities in a mixed-race neighborhood filled with South Africans who practice Islam, visualizing positive futures for the drug- and crime-plagued area.

In an exclusive interview for Art21’s PBS series “Art in the Twenty-First Century” focused on Johannesburg, Rhode explained that over the course of one 8-year project, the group he works with has changed dramatically. “I developed from a three-man crew, which then developed to a much larger crew of ten persons…,” he explains. “Some of my team have vanished. Two are currently in jail.”

Despite the ebb and flow of his team, Rhode remains persistent in his mission. “To form this kind of camaraderie, we are going military. We are art soldiers,” he says. “Discipline is a huge factor here.” In the video, he muses on how members of his crew will spend their time when he leaves to return to his studio in Berlin, which he says “creates a vacuum,” leaving them to their own devices, often resorting to drugs.

As a child, he drew on concrete walls and blacktops with chalk, engaging with the works as if they were a backdrop for a film in which he was the star. Those early experiments led him to a more mature contemporary practice, but his roots are grounded in that directness: “a simple geometric form allows for a kind of transcendence over time, over space, over geography.”

Right now, Rhode’s work is on display at the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg in Germany, blending his minimal drawing practice with more colorful and layered photographs and films inspired by urban street culture. In the show, called “Memory is the weapon,” he infuses the South African imagery with themes of European art history, connecting the disparate elements through universal visual signs.

Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s flagship series, Art in the Twenty-First Century below.

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists. A new season of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship Art in the Twenty-First Century television series is available now on PBS. Catch all episodes of New York Close Up and Extended Play and learn about the organization’s education programs at Art21.org.

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