Q&A with Roberta Rich

Roberta Rich is one of the four 2017 recipients of The Freedman Foundation Travelling Scholarship for Emerging Artists. Drawing on her diasporic African identity, Rich’s multidisciplinary practice probes into the notion of ‘authentic identity’ and problematises the way it has been constructed and represented in contemporary socio-political and cultural context.

Roberta Rich with her work 192 Denials in ‘78, Amendment Denial Act and Coloured, 2016. Framed serigraphs on paper. Photo by Zelé Angelides.

First of all, congratulations for receiving the Sainsbury Sculpture Grant through NAVA in 2015 and The Freedman Foundation Scholarship this year! Well done! What do you think this has meant to you as an early-career artist?

Thank you! I am very flattered to have been awarded both of these opportunities through NAVA. As an early career artist, it is extremely encouraging to this kind of support. The Sainsbury Sculpture Grant enabled my residency at Assemblage in Johannesburg, which has opened so many exciting avenues, networks and ambitions for future projects and my arts practice. I am extremely grateful, and acknowledge the importance of funding and opportunities for early career artists and their development.

With The Freedman Foundation Scholarship, I will travel to Cape Town and Johannesburg, South Africa to undertake a research project about The South African Institute of Race Relations and research slave history in the Cape. This project will contribute to my ongoing conceptual development as well as my personal reconnection to my African heritage in a contemporary context.

As a multidisciplinary artist, your practice spans a range of mediums such as tapestries, prints, and videos as shown in this year’s Freedman exhibition. Despite variations in medium, all your works seem to demonstrate a strong research-based approach to the historical, the socio-political, media and popular contemporary culture. What does research mean to your practice and how does travelling research inform your practice as a whole?

I regard research as essential. My research involves examining colonial histories, identity representation and language, and within this, its complex and very sensitive nature. Research is a priority, and to loosely quote Spivak, one should “do their homework”, especially when “speaking” or asserting a position, which I think can be applied to many things beyond arts practice.

The travelling research I engage in is often self-directed or guided by mentorship, contributing to a project of continuously learning, developing concepts and aesthetics, in order to initiate necessary and hopefully progressive dialogues through my art towards social change.

Apart from extensive research, personal experience appears to play a significant role across your works. As a young Australian with mixed heritage, how do you find your own identity, or should I say identities, influence your journey as an artist?

I use my personal experiences as a platform in my art to speak to wider social and political issues. From a young age I’ve always been aware of my African identity however simultaneously confused because of experiences of being questioned, examined and interrogated. These experiences have driven me as an artist to critique oppressive structures and challenge dominant notions of “authentic” identity in my work. In doing so, I intend to reclaim language and a right to self determine outside of constrictive binaries, and hopefully influence others to feel safe in doing so likewise.

Framed publication covers published by the South African Institute of Race Relations, found within the old abandoned site of the South African Institute of Race Relations, Braamfontein, Johannesburg, 2016. Image courtesy of the artist.

Framed publication covers published by the South African Institute of Race Relations, found within the old abandoned site of the South African Institute of Race Relations, Braamfontein, Johannesburg, 2016. Image courtesy of the artist.

Many of your works explore the notion of language through satire, puns, metaphors, and staged speech etc. Your way of approaching the concept can be both implicit and profound. What is it about language that intrigues you so much?

Language is such a complex institution; which I find overwhelming, frustrating and captivating at the same time. When I use Afrikaans in my work in an Australian context, there are deliberate strategies of re-positioning my viewer, as well as asserting elements of my identity. At other times I have been more ambiguous in order to shift the onus towards the viewer, and combining this with satire is kind of like healing and working through racial trauma in my work.

What drew you to The South African Institute of Race Relations, and what are you planning to do there?

I only stumbled upon the South African Institute of Race Relations last year. The old site that SAIRR occupied is soon to be demolished, so I feel a sense of urgency to research the historical significance of the initiatives that occurred at the site during the Apartheid regime. I plan to research my Cape slave ancestry, which is an overwhelming prospect as this will be a laborious and emotional task. I am excited for the outcomes of this project though, it will definitely influence the next direction of my practice.

How would you describe your relationship to Melbourne Australia and South Africa, two places that are both integral to your professional practice?

South Africa will always be a big part of my identity – it is my motherland.

The works I create in both contexts speak to differing issues however can also directly relate to one another because of similar colonial histories between South Africa and Australia. Working in Melbourne and more recently in South Africa has definitely influenced future projects and ambitions in both regions.

Work produced while on residency in Johannesburg will be shown in exhibition ‘Deny / Denial / Denied’ at Blak Dot Gallery in Melbourne 3 – 20 August 2017, and this year’s Freedman Foundation exhibition, which has not previously been exhibited in Australia, so I am very interested to gauge how the work is interpreted and received.

Roberta Rich, Specimen 1278086, 2016, video installation view. Duration: 3 min 34 sec, dimensions variable. Photo by Zelé Angelides.

Roberta Rich, Specimen 1278086, 2016, video installation view. Duration: 3 min 34 sec, dimensions variable. Photo by Zelé Angelides.

The Freedman Foundation Travelling Scholarship Exhibition is curated by Dara Wei, who received a Curatorial Scholarship from The Freedman Foundation through the Masters of Curating and Cultural Leadership program at UNSW Art & Design. The exhibition opens at UNSW Galleries on 11 August and runs through to 2 September 2017 showcasing works by the 2017 scholars: Alexandra Spence (NSW), Roberta Rich (Vic), Sara Retallick (Vic) and Spence Messih (NSW) and the returning scholars from 2015: Claudia Nicholson (NSW), George Egerton-Warburton (WA), Jason Phu (NSW) and Jorgen Doyle (Tas). Gallery hours: Tuesday - Saturday 10am-5pm.

The Freedman Foundation Travelling Scholarship and Curatorial Scholarship are administered by NAVA on behalf of The Freedman Foundation and assessed by Jacqueline Millner and Nick Vickers.