Since 2000, Robin Rhode has been constructing images that show youths interacting with drawings on walls and other urban surfaces in his native South Africa. This uncanny combination of the two-dimensional and the human body moving through space, both flattened into a photograph, creates a strange hybrid—like the ‘Third Space’ that theorist Homi Bhabha speaks of—temporary enclaves that oppressed people create, where they can come together and experience ‘freedom’.
In some of his earlier work, the artist himself is the nimble figure negotiating these spaces, often in ways reminiscent of parkour—a cultural form that is also about redefining public and urban places. In his most recent project Principle of Hope, Rhode makes a point of employing young people in the township that is home to the cracked wall that becomes his canvas. Through his work Rhode wants to obliquely draw attention to areas like this in Johannesburg, which even twenty years after the end of apartheid house Black and mixed communities beset with poverty, violence and high levels of unemployment.
The people he collaborates with, usually young men, assist with all aspects of production from the painting of the large geometric murals and props, to packing and unpacking equipment, to gymnastically engaging with the painted blocks of color. In this sense the project is much more than the images: it is the event of their production, and relates to socially engaged practice in how it seeks to impact the world outside of the art milieu. “When you give young people a sense of worth, you can really change their own identity and sense of self,” says the artist.
The title references The Principle of Hope, philosopher Ernst Bloch’s book from the 1950s which explores utopianism in literature, religion and art. Rhode has spoken about how there is very little art education in South Africa, and it was only when he moved to Berlin in the early 2000s that he taught himself art history, learning about modernism and enlightenment philosophy.
Many of the shapes in these works suggest charts and diagrams, and the artist states an intention to “embrace maths and geometry as an educative tool to assist in developing reason and logic in the minds of young people.” But there is a tension between these breathing bodies in motion and the hard edges of the bright forms that they wrestle with, lift and lie under. It seems to be a complex dance to negotiate the place of the human within this division of the world into data, and Evergreen particularly suggests the abstraction of the living natural world. But in the playfulness of the images, and in the generosity and openness of how they are created, hope can definitely be glimpsed. As Rhode says himself: “The work is a challenge to our current disaffection. It is a testimony, perhaps, that art can save us.”