African Dream Root features new photographs, sculptures, and wall paintings by Robin Rhode, inspired by his intensive research into visual and oral traditions of storytelling in Southern Africa.
Across the exhibition, Rhode draws upon the ancient histories of rock painting in the subcontinental region and their continued resonance in collective cultural memory. Throughout African Dream Root, Rhode envisions the wall as a portal between everyday experience and imaginative thought, and he examines the wall's relationship to narrative in various cultural contexts. The artist’s research-based practice is expansive, spanning art history, ethnography, anthropology, and psychoanalytic theory. We invite you to take a closer look at Rhode’s process and his cross-disciplinary research. Explore the artist’s motifs, references, and symbols that appear throughout his latest body of work.
The photographic works in his exhibition depict silhouetted figures interacting with carefully composed wall paintings that the artist painted on a public wall in Johannesburg. To realize these works, the artist collaborates with a team of community members. Working in urban space and engaging his local communities, Rhode situates his practice within and for the public sphere, and he probes the myriad ways that politics manifest in and as everyday life.
Representing a critical development in Rhode’s practice, African Dream Root marks the first time the artist has created wall paintings within a gallery context. As he transposes his wall-based works into the gallery space, Rhode suggests a fluid, mobile mode for representing Southern African diasporic experiences.
AFRICAN DREAM ROOT
African Dream Root: The plant depicted here, also referenced in the exhibition’s title, refers to the common name for Silene capensis, a sacred, psychoactive herb native to Southern Africa. When consumed, the plant induces vivid, dreamlike states, interpreted in some traditions as messages from ancestors.
Entoptic phenomena: With their geometric compositions, many of Rhode’s newest murals and photographs depict various psychoactive botanicals, and they also reference entoptic phenomena, a term which refers to subjective visual effects created within the eye. Geometric patterns often found in ancient rock art are thought to have derived from these phenomena, often experienced during altered states of consciousness. Much archaeological and ethnographic scholarship suggests that rock art was a key component of shamanism; the geometric forms found in ancient rock art depict entoptic phenomena experienced during shamanistic rituals intended to initiate both personal and communal healing.
Kaross: Rhode incorporates the skin of the Nguni cow, a sacred animal to many Southern African cultures as spiritual symbol of divinity. Here, he also references spiritual practices surrounding the kaross, noting that some scholars have hypothesized karosses were worn during religious rituals as if to “absorb” a sacred animal’s spiritual potency.
THE OSTRICH LADY
Ostrich: Ostriches have particular significance in Indigenous Southern African cultures, serving as symbols of renewal and resurrection. Fundamentally associated with healing, ostrich plumes are also used in Indigenous Southern African medicine and spiritual practices to rid a person of sickness.
Therianthropy: In this work, Rhode references the mythological concept of therianthropy, the belief that humans can metamorphosize or transfigure themselves into animal forms. In Rhode's artwork, we see the steady progression of his female character transforming into the bird. The feathers slowly attach to her body as she carries the 'ostrich bicycle' through space.
Bicycle: The bicycle is a recurring motif across Rhode’s practice, and the artist has noted its politically charged associations within the context of South African history. When Black World War II soldiers returned to South Africa, they were compensated by the state with bicycles, whereas white soldiers were given land.
Below, hear the artist describe his inspiration from therianthropy and the making of The Ostrich Lady in his own words.
Ostrich: This work also features references to the ostrich, and the figure holds an ostrich eggshell in his hand, as if trying to extract the plant’s healing properties. Ostrich eggshells have been used for thousands of years in Southern Africa as vessels.
Aloe ferox: A species indigenous to South Africa, Aloe ferox is well known for its healing properties and has been used for anti-inflammatory and other medicinal purposes for millennia. Rhode notes that the plant is also depicted in ancient rock art from the region.
Terra preta: This work was shot on the concrete street beneath the wall and shot aerially with a drone. The charcoal ground evokes Terra preta, a black Amazonian soil made by adding charcoal, bones, broken pottery, compost, and manure. Here, as he juxtaposes distinct, culturally specific references, Rhode attempts to bridge the various natural ecosystems found in both Africa and South America. Depicting Terra preta on a weathered concrete surface, Rhode envisions a fertile ecosystem on a street corner in Johannesburg to create a hybrid landscape that transcends time and place.
Trickster gods: Across his practice, Rhode depicts figures dressed entirely in black in order to allow their identities to remain undefined and ambiguous. Throughout this body of work, Rhode’s enigmatic figures exist in a state of transformation, and the artist evokes Southern African trickster gods–hybrid creatures, part human and part animal, who are able to shape shift. Rhode’s silhouetted figures likewise exist as suspended identities and each is characterized primarily by their potential for metamorphosis.
This installation includes a site-specific wall drawing and a found object sculpture, a ship made by a street vendor from discarded materials. With the work, Rhode references the Porterville Galleon, a 17th-century rock art painting of a three-masted Dutch ship. Located in a rock shelter in the Cederberg mountains, the original rock painting bears witness to a colonial encounter, and as he draws inspiration from the Porterville Galleon and reinterprets wall painting for the gallery space, Rhode offers a hybrid narrative mode that contends with decolonial South African histories.
These works reference the Strandlopers, a hunter-gatherer group who lived along the coast of Southwestern Africa and combed beaches for sustenance. Their name, which translates from Dutch and Afrikaans to “beach walkers,” is itself a product of colonial encounter. While Strandloper communities were largely assimilated under colonial rule, evidence of their existence (and that of their ancient predecessors) still manifests in the Southern African landscape. Shell middens–mounds composed of shells, bones, pottery, other remains–are found throughout Southern Africa. Some, at sites such as the Blombos Cave, date back over a hundred thousand years.
The artist mines these prehistoric narratives to create his own mythologies. His sculptures are suggestive of the bodies of Strandloper peoples who once consumed and foraged shellfish, and he visualizes them transforming into shell middens, the physical remnants of their existence. Here, Rhode envisions mythical bodies for the age of the anthropocene, and his figures act as embodiments of the sea and land Strandloper peoples inhabited. Creating these life-size sculptures within the gallery space, Rhode imagines an alternative, decolonial narrative of Southern African history and stages encounters across time and place.
BLOCK OF FLATS
Here, Rhode depicts an aerial view of a Johannesburg public housing complex where many of his collaborators reside, and he gestures to the complex history of urban housing in the legacy of Apartheid. Throughout this body of work, Rhode examines notions of landscape and shelter across Southern African history, and the artist notes that much Southern African rock art can be found in rock shelters, which functioned as housing for ancient peoples. The artist has also stated that the public wall in Johannesburg on which he creates his large-scale paintings also serves as a shelter to some members of the local community, who have taken up residence alongside it.
Against this backdrop, Rhode visualizes a dance between this couple dressed in traditional school uniforms, and dance becomes a liberating act in the face of societal constraints and injustices. Embracing color and choreographic performance, the artist transforms his surroundings into an emancipatory landscape.
Below, hear the artist on why this particular block of flats is so important to him and his community in Johannesburg.
About the Artist
With his research-based and socially engaged practice, Robin Rhode (b. 1976, Cape Town, South Africa; lives and works in Berlin) engages the urban landscape to create complex, symbolically rich narratives that disrupt and transform their environments.
Rhode studied at the University of Johannesburg as well as at the Association of Film and Dramatic Arts (AFDA), from 1996 to 2001. Select solo exhibitions of his work have been organized by the Museum Voorlinden; Kunsthalle Krems; Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg; Museum Haus Konstruktiv, Zurich; Tel Aviv Museum of Art; Savannah College of Art and Design Museum of Art; The Drawing Center, New York; National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, Ohio; Hayward Gallery, London; and Haus der Kunst, Munich.
Rhode has participated in multiple biennials and triennials, including PERFORMA, the Venice Biennale (in 2015 and 2005), and the Biennale of Sydney, among others.
Rhode’s work is included in numerous public collections, including the Baltimore Museum of Art; Centre Pompidou; Collection Martin Z. Margulies, Miami; The Detroit Institute of Art; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.; Goetz Collection, Munich; Johannesburg Art Gallery; Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA); MTV Networks, New York; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Nasjonalmuseet, Oslo; National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina; Pérez Art Museum Miami; Rubell Family Collection, Miami; The Smithsonian Institute, Washington, D.C.; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; South African National Gallery, Cape Town; The Studio Museum in Harlem; and the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Credits: All installation views at Lehmann Maupin, New York by Daniel Kukla. The Ostrich Lady and Block of Flats videography and photography by Tilman Vogler