You're cruel, Britannia: Robin Rhode's art attack

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Robin Rhode spent quite some time in London in the months leading up to his show now on at the Hayward Gallery. He cycled along the Embankment, he strolled about the West End. It reminded him of all the times when, as a child, he had visited the city from his native South Africa - and it irked him. “My first language is English,” he says. “I played cricket, watched football, yet I'm a person of mixed race and I was brought up under the colonial system. So I've always felt a friction with British imperialism, and as a South African visiting the UK I've always felt like I was a second-class citizen.”

Now based in Berlin, Rhode surely ought to feel like a first-class citizen today: a show of his work is about to open at London's hip White Cube gallery and at the age of 32 he is the youngest artist to have been given a solo show at the Hayward. Curators the world over are at his beck and call.

Our meeting takes place in an hotel in New York. He has just flown in from New Orleans, where he has installed a fountain in a disused, flood-damaged lavatory for the city's new biennial. He has been invited to provide a stage set for a performance of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (it will have its premiere in New York next November, and will later come to the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London). And a curator from another glitzy museum awaits him in the hotel lobby.

But the curator will wait: Rhode wants to tell me that he has issues with Britain, and in his White Cube show he's going to settle them. “It's the Empire strikes back with this show,” he says, jabbing his finger in the air. He seems to be surprising himself: while Rhode's art is sharply sensitive to race, his interests have been shaped by the subtleties of identity and city life in post-apartheid South Africa. It was coming to the seat of an old empire that brought race, and the fate of non-white South Africans, to the forefront of his mind.

On the one hand, he feels anger over Britain's colonial involvement in South Africa, on the other he feels anger at its legacy. He feels that while the UK's doors were wide open to the many white South Africans who left at the time of the first democratic elections in 1994, those doors have been tighter to squeeze through for non-whites. “We've been overlooked for decades, for centuries,” he says. “Now I'm saying: ‘Enough'. Something just clicked inside me when I got the possibility to show at White Cube, and this is going to be one of my most aggressive shows. I don't think I could do this show anywhere in the world except in the UK.”

The new show is indeed his noisiest. Impis includes a sequence of 12 police riot helmets crafted from coloured glass and arranged in the bull's horn formation that Zulu fighters once used to encircle and defeat their enemies, including the British...

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