Street artist illuminates the city centre, changes perceptions


Johannesburg-based visual artist, known publicly by his pseudonym r1., is getting the city talking with his street art, which is unique in its composition, layout and placement.

His art is easily recognisable because of the use of chevron street sign material, reflective vinyl, hazard tape and compact discs.

Colour, lighting, intensive labour, surprise and the heart of the Johannesburg CBD is what underpins r1.’s artistic work.

During the course of his 15-year journey as a street artist, r1. – who prefers to remain anonymous because he believes his work is more important than his identity – says that his craft has developed consistently over the years.

“It developed not just as mere street art pieces, but has transformed into permanent public artwork. I’ve been focusing on that for the last three years now,” he says in an interview with City Press.

His latest art installation adorns the August House art building in Doornfontein, Johannesburg. The conspicuous design on the corner of the art building was carefully planned and meticulously designed.

Video filmed and edited by r1.

“My whole concept was based around a chevron street sign. So I took a chevron street sign and I cut it in half and I used those patterns to create it into a more permanent public artwork.”

The placement of this work is what makes it one of the artist’s favourites because of the “surprise element” it has.

“If you’re standing underneath it from the side you can’t really embrace the full work unless you walk around the building and you stand 45 degrees looking up towards the artwork.

“You might not see it when on the opposite side of the building, but if you come around and you see it then the whole work comes to life and all those plates come together in one cohesive artwork.

“Another element that I love about the artwork is that on the corner of the building it creates a 3D-like effect ... it almost becomes sculpture-like, the work is almost popping out of the building.”

r1.’s street art is a combination of permanent and temporary artwork. He says his permanent public works are usually commissioned works but the temporary ones are more playful.

“It’s either I install it and then take it off afterwards, or I install it and leave it there and I see how the public interacts with it.”

He says people respond to his work differently, sometimes physically interacting with it and other times just questioning it. He says these critiques interests him as the work develops a life of its own, “and I become the viewer again”.

“Another interesting thing about doing work in the city, in the street specifically, is that I put the work out and then when I walk away from the work I don’t own it anymore – it belongs to the street and it belongs to the viewers and the people who walk on those streets.”

Video filmed by Maxime Thaysen / Edited by r1. 

He uses various materials, including recycled materials, and combines them in a creative way to create site-specific works in an attempt to find a visual conversation, “to portray the city in different way”.

“My visual language is sort of taking things and combining it, documenting it and then giving the viewer a different perspective on how we see our day to day environment.

“We’re living in a city where you think everything is so rigid and confined, that when we see a traffic sign that it can only be like that. Well my question is what if you take a traffic sign and change? It means that you change your perception, you change the way that you can see and perceive the environment around you.”

r1. artwork based on the yield street sign. Picture: r1.

“An important part of my work is documentation, so if I install a work and the light in the day is not good then it means that I’m not going to get a good photo. I always have to play according to the weather, according to the light, according to the time of the day.”

Hidden Trophy picture artwork in New Doornfontein, Johannesburg. Picture: r1.

Hidden Trophy is one of r1.’s public works that has a strong relationship with light. He said he made this work from chevron street signs and the design on the plates was applied with reflective vinyl, similar to street signs. He placed the artwork close to a T-junction in Maboneng.

“So in the evening when cars drive towards it with their headlights on, then this artwork also illuminates and reflects. So in the day it’s a different type of design, very colourful and bright, but in the evening those reflectives placed can be illuminated by the car if you put your headlights on.”

This work also features a kind of a surprise element. If you look closer you will see a hidden pattern of a wildebeest head along the blue colours.

The Hidden Trophy artwork illuminated by car headlights. Picture: r1.

Natural light also plays a big role in some of r1’s art. One notable piece was the Sound of Light installation on a farm house in Randfontein.

“That was very much based on how the sun interacts with the work because I was experimenting with CDs and I saw that if you put CDs together and the sun catches the light of the CDs it illuminates. The relationship of the sun with the work itself was very important for me.

“That was a very carefully planned work because I knew that I had to implement that artwork in winter. In winter there are no clouds so you have pure sunny skies. I knew the sun would catch the CDs from a specific angle so if I’m on the opposite side I can catch that documentation with my camera.”

Sound of Light installation in Randfontein. Picture: r1.

“I see projects as a phase that I go through and I always try to see every project as an opportunity to advance myself.

“I think it’s important for every artist to develop a variety of skills, and I’m not talking about how to drill something into a wall. I think you need to be able to weld, you to be able to take things apart, to find a technical side within your creative abilities to find ways to advance your creative output.”

For r1., having a variety of technical abilities opens up an artist’s creative field and possibilities.

In a collaborative community project r1. partnered with a digital company and installed 7000 recycled plastic bottles on a 20-metre iThemba tower with LED lights as the light source. This project involved schools and waste collectors and raised awareness about the importance of recycling. Picture: r1.

The notable thing about his art, because he isn’t associated with any gallery, is that he has taken full ownership of his work and then transferred that ownership to the people. His work gathers more meaning as more people interact with it and as the artwork connects with the city of Johannesburg.

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