Athi-Patra Ruga’s displaced characters
and unsettling narratives mark him apart
in South Africa’s art scene
“I’m here to bare witness to the times we live in. I’m here to write the greatest story ever told. That’s what wakes me up in the morning.” So says Athi-Patra Ruga of his artistic practice. And what a glorious morning it is. We’re at his gallery, What If The World in Cape Town, and the blue sky above us is a blinding blue. The gallery, housed in a former synagogue now significant white cube, has nurtured many manifestations of his story telling, which includes performance, photography, painting, textiles, video and sculpture. But at the heart of his narrative is always a thwarted utopia where hybrid identities and carnal humour reign.
Ruga was born in 1984 in Umtata, Eastern Cape, the last of 10 children. His was a loving home but his parents lived apart because his father was a key figure in Transkei, a Xhosa Bantustan that asserted itself as a black democracy autonomous of South Africa. This meant he needed his passport to visit his father. “It was constantly crossing that border post as a young boy that made me realised I could perform, that I could change my behaviour and become someone else,” he recalls. He came out as gay at 11 and was bullied at school, where he also suffered at the hands of a strict Anglican educational system. “We had our lessons beaten into us with a stick, which has influenced how I now want to disrupt, to unlearn how things are taught. During these years of trauma I’d make up stories in my head as an escape.”
He eventually accessed an art class at another school and won a scholarship to study fashion in Johannesburg. Inspired as much by the extreme fashions of Alexander McQueen and Hussein Chalayan as by Dadaism and transvestite costumes, he began to combine art with fashion through performance. His stomping ground was Braamfontein, then the city’s gay clubbing heartland, where he’d don drag and take to the streets to act out a parade or sit and hand stitch tapestries. “As a craft it’s seen as very docile and feminine so I’d go out in my costume and start stitching. I put myself in spaces I didn’t belong to see how my audiences reacted. Bemusement is the first thing. Then laughter. I’m this fantastical character but for all my tights and latex, I’ve never been beaten up. There’s a depth to the characters that are in cohorts with the audience. Those times taught me a lot.”
These lone acts of guerrilla interventionism, often recorded as per Miss Congo (2006-7), were his means of commenting on gender politics, racism and the rise in xenophobic attacks in South Africa at that time. He joined What If The World in 2008, which allowed him to develop the choreography of his spectacles in alternative environments – from taxi ranks to swimming pools, from shop windows to bedrooms - as well as garner attention from the international art world.
He begun his most significant and on-going body of work, The Future White Woman of Azania (FWWOA) in 2010. During Apartheid the concept of Azania, a pre-colonial Southern African arcadia, was utilised in nationalist ideology to promise a perfect future. This propaganda fuelled Transkei and influenced the artist deeply growing up. “Azania was used as an dream to encourage us to keep on this struggle,” he says. “My generation was spoon-fed the rainbow nation and now we’re disillusioned.”
“I’m here to bare witness to the
times we live in. I’m here to write
the greatest story ever told”
In his re-imagining, the Kingdom of Azania is a matriarchy under the absolute authority of the Versatile Queen Ivy, who has green hair and rides a zebra. She has survived exile, a storm at sea, and made her come back to rule forever. Other characters to have emerged from her court include her consort and The Elder, who was stolen from the old Azania. By creating quasi-historical artifacts and acts – maps, portraits, tapestries, statues, texts, marches – Ruga is forming his own nationhood, a revolutionary purging of socio-political myth-making.
His core expression is to wear a leotard and high heels and cover himself in 250 balloons filled with coloured liquid, which he proceeds to pop through various states of hysteria and procession. “I’m re-writing the pomp and ceremony of how nations are founded as a feminine character. I’m an animist and believe the land is a feminine thing,” he says. “Identity is a mind fuck. You’re not white enough, you’re not black enough, you’re not gay enough. So when I wear the balloons, it brings me to tears because not only is it physically painful but I’m weighed down by identify. As the balloons pop, I’m deflating all of these constructed ideas and revealing the true person.” But Ruga denies his audience the money shot. In his tropical Azania there are no happy endings. We’re left confronting our own reality wondering what the next chapter of FWWOA might hold.
Ruga has exhibited worldwide including the Dakar Biennale, Venice Biennale and the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, where he was recently awarded a Standard Bank Young Artist Award 2015. But What If The World remains his breeding ground. It first opened in 2008 with a mission to foster young local talent and outgrew three smaller locations before moving to this spot in 2012. It was the first gallery to come to Woodstock, now Cape Town’s thriving art district. We go upstairs to take a closer look at one of Ruga’s sculptures. Three larger than life figures form a human pyramid, which is densely covered in applique fabric flowers. It’s horrifyingly beautiful. “The queen has a magical power, when she touches a man he becomes a bed of flowers,” Ruga grins.
“As Athi’s interior world has flowered, there’s been a need for a broader way of displaying his dynamic,” says gallery curator, Ashleigh McLean, referring to Ruga’s ever-expanding oeuvre. Sculpture is the latest medium he has embraced but his body work will always be hard to beat. “When he performs he elicits a mixture of wonder and curiosity. People want to reach out and touch him,” she says. “And quite often, they do.”