The South African artist walks us through his show, Of Gods, Rainbows and Omissions at Somerset House

In his first major solo exhibition in London, Athi-Patra Ruga invites you to journey through the grand terrace rooms at Somerset House to encounter pieces from his most recent series, including Queens in Exile and The Future White Women of Azania, and immerse yourself in his surreal and colourful world. Of Gods, Rainbows and Omissions incorporates photography, film, sculpture, petit point tapestry and drawings that together paint an intoxicating picture of a seemingly far flung reality.

We meet the celebrated South African artist here during 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair, where he also shows with Cape Town’s WHATIFTHEWORLD gallery, and which marks the opening of the show. We stand in front of one of his most recognisable works, Night of the Long Knives I (2013). In this image, elegant pink legs and high-heeled feet extend from a body hidden in a huge cloud of balloons. This character sits side saddle on a sabre-tooth zebra. When observed alone, the picture is what he calls “cute”. But look past the the glossy surface and you begin to understand that the bright colours, the softness of the fabrics and the cheerfulness of the balloons are all “tricks” that he is using to lure the viewer into his delicious trap. With this show, we are being introduced to the characters, country and stories of Azania, the name that Ruga gives to this alternative “utopia”.

Unlike the characters he populates it with, the word Azania is not his invention – it’s Greek, centuries old and refers to Southern Africa. It was adopted in South Africa during the liberation struggle and came to represent the promise of a free world.

But as the title of the show alludes to, promises are often like balloons – full of air and likely to expire. Of Gods – the figureheads we put in power; of Rainbows – the false promises that they make; of Omissions – the everyday people who are left out of official histories – all come together here. Azania is really a tool with which Ruga explores and critiques post-apartheid South Africa and the colonial past it resulted from.

“Fuck everyone else’s sculptures… South Africa was freed by the youth and by the women. Where are the statues of them?”

The celebration of omitted peoples reveals the revolutionary in Ruga. As a young, black, gay, highly successful artist – he falls inevitably into a kind of an ambassadorial role for his generation. He accepts this position – probably the performer in him enjoys it, but he he’s more interested in his own truth than in being patriotic. And he’s interested in memorialising the people who are left out of the creation stories of new South Africa. Look no further than the embellished, three-breasted statue named The Beatification of Feral Benga, which stands in the final hall of the exhibition and forms part of Ruga’s latest work.

“Fuck everyone else’s sculptures,” he says. “There was another statue released of Mandela. Yet again! Why is it always one person? It can’t be one person! He was away, and he was old. There was also the youth on the street, people don’t talk so much about them. Why isn’t there a sculpture of the first person who threw a rock at something? The country was freed by the youth and by the women. Where are the statues of them?” This large, glistening effigy, which is surrounded by stained glass windows and tapestries – all rather formal, antique mediums for art – bring these peripheral peoples into the limelight. “I am lionising them. One medium is not enough for me. Reality is not enough for me… clearly,” he laughs.

In Azania, Ruga himself is a kind of god. His own face is the face of most of the characters and the embellished statue is modelled on his own body. This is a reminder that we are inside the artist’s fragmented dream, seeing his fragmented self, and experiencing his use of art to explore his different personas. Ruga’s background is in performance art and drag (public interventions have often included processions where he pops the balloons he wears, each filled with heavy liquids), so he is no stranger to assuming the costume and pain of another.

In creating a fictional country, Ruga deconstructions and makes fun of the symbols of nation making. The exhibition includes all of these tools: maps, a sovereign, a national crest, emblematic animals and flowers. There is even a Miss Azania and a mythical island to boot. “Map making is the first step of nationalism. I decided to create a map of this fantastical world of Azania and added countries around it in response to things that were really happening in the world. I stitched Sodom and New Sodom on there when Uganda was going crazy with homophobic stuff.”

So although Ruga’s Azania is adorable, its pretty rainbows are a reference to the things that seem beautiful, but remain unattainable. “God’s rainbow was a promise, the rainbow flag is promise and a contradiction, the rainbow nation… That was a contradiction too. The rainbow has no brown and no chocolate in it. It doesn’t really represent anyone… I like to create and then to pop these identities.”

The island of exile, which forms part of Azania’s complex narrative, is loosely inspired by Robben Island. “In South Africa our founding myth is that all these great men went to Robben Island. Are there any gay people there? If you’re gay, or a woman for that matter, you are not written into this myth – therefore you’ll always find a place where you’re not feeling as comfortable as the straight guys do. I always want to speak about a state of exile.” The Queen of Azania elects to go to the island, her choice of a kind of freedom which, when paralleled to Robben Island, is both ironic and true. If you resist subjugation you risk exile.

This show is just rewards for Ruga, whose career trajectory has been steady and true. Born in the Eastern Cape to a large family, he studied fashion in Johannesburg, where he first became immersed in performance in the mid 2000s. He joined WHATIFTHEWORLD in 2008 and was awarded a Standard Bank Young Artist Award 2015. He has participated in the Dakar Biennale, Venice Biennale and the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown. More recently was part of Art Afrique at the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris and Performa 17 in New York and had a solo show at Bass Museum of Art in Miami. His work forms part of collections at Zeitz MOCCA in Cape Town and Museion in Bolzano as well as the Pigozzi and Wedge collections. And he’s currently included in Ekow Eshun’s group show, Africa State of Mind at Nottingham’s New Art Exchange (on view until 16 December). So take your gaze away from his magical space at your certain peril.

Athi-Patra Ruga: Of Gods, Rainbows and Omissions is on view at Somerset House, London until 6 January 2019

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Published on 17/10/2018