Rhode Works Ahead.

South African artist Robin Rhode talks to us about his international fame, his 2008 BMW Z4 campaign, and the language of art he’s been developing.

Published: July 2018
Video/Photos: Graeme Wyllie; Supplied

Last year, South African artist Robin Rhode’s artworks were a common sight on the streets around Johannesburg. Posters adorned walls and light posts, advertising the 10th FNB Joburg Art Fair where he’d be appearing as the Featured Artist. Having participated as the Featured Artist in the first edition back in 2008, Rhode has gained much global fame and respect for his artwork since then.


As well as exhibiting around the world, over the years, Rhode has been the artistic director of an opera in New York’s Times Square, directed a film series for U2, and worked on an advertising campaign for the global launch of the BMW Z4. For the 2008 launch of the BMW Z4, Rhode teamed up with filmmaker Jake Scott (son of Ridley Scott) to create a 1,800m² artwork using the roadster as a paintbrush. He used the tyres of the BMW Z4 to apply explosive, vibrantly coloured designs to an enormous canvas with tyre tracks of precisely executed circles, arcs and lines. From a tower 10m above his “canvas”, Rhode choreographed the movements using a remote control device to direct when and where coloured paint was sprayed onto the tyres marking the canvas. Scott, from 40 simultaneous camera angles, captured the interaction between the artist, the BMW Z4 roadster and its driver.


It’s clear Rhode incorporates elements of performance, photography, video, drawing and sculpture, melded together to augment his inimitable artistic vocabulary. While the South African artist is now based in Berlin, he often returns home to the country that inspired his love for art. BMW Online Magazine caught up with him to speak about his work, that famous campaign in 2008, and to introduce him to the BMW 6 Series Gran Turismo, one of the most distinctive vehicles designed in recent years.

“My authentic visual language should come from a lived experience rather than a kind of aesthetic gained from knowledge and historical sources.”

The new BMW 6 Series Gran Turismo blends the long-distance comfort of a luxury sedan with alluring coupe style. Fitting for an artist, its unparalleled aesthetic appeal and flowing, sculptural design language make an eye-catching statement on the road. “[The BMW 6 Series Gran Turismo] gleams with dynamic design,” says Rhode. “It’s the embodiment of high-end performance – a vehicle with an all-round package of pleasure.”


The new model’s highly advanced equipment features, innovative control and assistance systems offer a leap forward in dynamism and efficiency. The result is a new dimension in cutting-edge functionality and supreme driving pleasure, which, coupled with the new BMW 6 Series Gran Turismo’s distinctive design, turns just the act of driving into an act of creative expression of individuality, which is exactly what Robin Rhode does with his work.



Tell us about your BMW Z4 campaign


I referred to myself as the creative navigator of the project, rather than the artist. For me it became a process of looking at German art history as a starting point for the entire campaign. It wasn’t just about driving a car on a white surface to make marks. [Among earlier references] I was looking at the German painter Gerhard Richter and his body of work commissioned by BMW in 1973 called Red, Yellow, Blue – a series of abstract paintings in primary colours. That became a very strong reference point.


How did this German-inspired artwork relate to South Africans?


Another visual reference in the BMW Z4 campaign was to look at Gusheshe (BMW 325 iS) car spinning in Johannesburg townships. I used elements of my own South African interest – I went to drag racing and car spinning when I was young – as a visual reference for the campaign, to bring in the local element. Embracing the South African experience and identity in association with German expressionist influences created something really fresh and exciting. I also couldn’t hide the fact that I genuinely love cars. I’ve referenced them in my artworks so many times.

Born in Cape Town in 1976, Rhode grew up in Johannesburg and is now based in Berlin, Germany.

“I was engaged with this idea of the physical body inhabiting a particular space, having the body relate or interact with a particular drawn element – an extension of the body in a way.”

Rhode is currently engaged with the idea of the body relating to, or interacting with drawn elements.

Colour theory and motion are themes that are explored in Rhode’s exuberant series Paradise (above).

Tell us about your current work.


Very early on, I was engaged with this idea of the physical body inhabiting a particular space, having the body relate or interact with a particular drawn element – an extension of the body in a way. That language has been fundamental to my work over the last two-and-a-half years. My practice has shifted to focus more on aspects of colour theory, abstraction and geometry, and the body in relation to this. This is what I’ve been doing in Johannesburg now, continuing that particular visual narrative and making it more complex in terms of physical choreography.


BMW: Where did this focus come from?


The relationship between the body and the drawing field, as I refer to it, has been important to me. I believe it’s a very authentic mode of expression, and I developed this many, many years ago as a kid. When I was in high school in Johannesburg, hazing or high-school initiation involved drawing objects on the walls and having the new kids interact with them. For example, we’d draw a candle on the wall, and then have a new student blow it out.


Later, during my time as an art student, I began to realise that my authentic visual language should come from a lived experience rather than a kind of aesthetic gained from knowledge and historical sources. In order for me to make a substantial mark in the art world, not only in South Africa, I needed to embrace a lived experience. Over the years, I’ve tried to allow this language to become more sophisticated. It’s a language that is evolving all the time, but the core identity of it is still the same.