Maverick Life


Robert Rorich’s ‘Transcendence’ exhibition is a heartfelt commentary on the plight of the pangolin

Robert Rorich’s ‘Transcendence’ exhibition is a heartfelt commentary on the plight of the pangolin
"Pangolin and Boy" by Robert Rorich. Image: Robert Rorich / Supplied

Cape Town-based artist Robert Rorich’s latest exhibition, ‘Transcendence’, is a reflection on the connections between humankind and wildlife, and is a call to action to conserve the Earth we share with nature.

The story behind sculptor Robert Rorich’s latest exhibition, Transcendence, begins on a drive through the Kruger Park, where Rorich and his mother had a rare sighting of a pangolin slowly making its way across the road.

“In the moment it felt natural, but in hindsight, you realise it’s one of the most special encounters,” Rorich remembers. “It was unreal; I had a really clear sighting of it, which many people never see in their lives. It’s been a journey since then of awakening into what nature might be teaching us.”

A few months later, back from his trip and making art again, Rorich started drawing what he saw. The result is Transcendence, a collection of pieces that centre on the plight of the pangolin in southern Africa and the call to honour nature.

Robert Rorich works on a sculpture.

Robert Rorich works on a sculpture. Image: Robert Rorich / Supplied

The artist behind ‘Transcendence’

Rorich (26) grew up with a love for both art and nature. His first pieces were drawings of Pokémon creatures that covered the walls of his bedroom. 

Transcendence is a lifelong process. I grew up near the bush, and often over weekends, and for weeks even, I would be with wild animals,” he remembers. 

It was only in high school that he discovered sculpting. “I was 16 and I touched the clay my art teacher had given me and I was completely in love with it, from that first moment.” 

A sculpture by Robert Rorich in progress.

A sculpture by Robert Rorich in progress. Image: Robert Rorich / Supplied

Sketches by Robert Rorich.

Sketches by Robert Rorich. Image: Robert Rorich / Supplied

After school, Rorich studied engineering at the University of Cape Town, and graduated in 2018 after taking a year off in 2016 to focus on his art for a while. “I studied engineering because I have this love of physical creation and understanding of balance and materials. Making the armatures is also quite an engineering thing, putting things in the position you want in a way that looks like they are moving,” says Rorich.

“Also, I really just love maths,” he laughs.

His knowledge of engineering is not the only thing that can be seen in Rorich’s work today. Even his childhood drawings have come full circle with Transcendence. “I realised the first thing I ever drew as a child was a Pokémon version of a pangolin… it was really interesting to me that it connected like that.” 

Sandshrew Pokémon.

Sandshrew Pokémon. Image: Supplied / Pokémon

Connected to nature and wildlife

Rorich’s pieces are inspired by the deep connection he feels to nature and wildlife, and by the idea that “we are all on this one planet together”. 

“For a long time I was just making art; I would get inspiration and make it. But more recently I’ve been feeling the power of these animals and people I’ve been making actually flowing through me. I’m realising I’m just facilitating this art to be made, it’s not just me, and that’s a beautiful feeling.” 

His pieces have put this connection into physical form, as he sculpts intimate relationships between humans and wildlife. A previous piece, She Down There, shows a diver swimming next to a dugong, head turned to gaze at the creature. Another, The Walking Octopus was inspired by My Octopus Teacher, and shows the precarious lope of a mollusc, balancing on its tentacles.

"She Down There" bronze sculpture.

“She Down There” bronze sculpture. Image: Robert Rorich / Supplied

"The Walking Octopus" bronze sculpture.

“The Walking Octopus” bronze sculpture by Robert Rorich. Image: Robert Rorich / Supplied


These connections are not meant to be viewed in a vacuum. Rather, the exhibition is a call to action over the crisis many animals face. 

The pangolin, the star feature of the Transcendence exhibition, is the world’s most trafficked animal. Their scales are believed to have curative properties and their meat is considered a delicacy, and poaching is driving them to extinction.

"Pangolin Boy" sculpture by Robert Rorich in progress.

“Pangolin and Boy” sculpture by Robert Rorich in progress. Image: Robert Rorich / Supplied

And so, within each artwork, the viewer can imagine a different world; one of beautiful coexistence of nature with humankind, yet one must reflect on the battles that must be overcome for a peaceful, protected future to be realised. 

“That appreciation of the Earth leads us to a really great place of looking after the Earth and looking after each other… I hope whoever walks into the exhibition space can really feel their connection to wildlife through the art in a space where people can connect to the life of these animals. We are all so interconnected,” Rorich says.  

“I also hope people will realise the true heart connection we have with each other and with the wild – an experience that transcends the physical… I want to honour the animals that are in the works and honour the life and the nature in this exhibit and bring people to that experience.”

A pangolin captured by hunters in the Ituri rainforest, in Mambasa territory, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 19 October 2020.

A pangolin captured by hunters in the Ituri rainforest, in Mambasa territory, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 19 October 2020. EPA-EFE/Hugh Kinsella Cunningham

A friend of Rorich, Natalie De Chassart, wrote the following poem after viewing the collection:

I see you, friend
Just a step apart
But I feel you,
Like red earth beneath my feet.
Like the orange sun across my body.
I hear you, friend
Our language is different
But I understand you,
Like the hymns of the river;
Like the war-cries of thunder.
I recognise you, friend
Though we’ve never met
I know you
Like I know the stars and moon
Not by name.
And here, now,
When I look at you,
I see myself, too.
Different and the same
All at once
Collided sequels;
– Equals. DM/ML

Robert Rorich’s exhibition, Transcendence, can be viewed at Victoria Yards in Johannesburg on 7 and 8 May. 

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