The future holds an exotic interest for artist Athi-Patra Ruga. Athi’s fate is one governed by classical forms of camp and the spirits of utopia; another dimension in which a Xhosa traditionalist and Della Reese can come together in a Sangoma catharsis to fuck with the binary of the past and future. In a nutshell; he creates prospects debunking the ideas of who we are and where we came from. Reconstituted foundations for a new history in which the lost ideas of utopia – Azania – become a medium for reality.
Athi-Patra Ruga in his studio, Cape Town, September 2013. Photo | Kope | Figgins.
Raised a traditionalist by educated people at home, Ruga was essentially an ancestor worshiper. In a framing of reality both concrete and unreal Ruga’s parents had chosen to worship their ancestors as a form of resistance against the Christian apartheid stronghold. Born in a ‘homeland’ on March 9th 1984 called the Transkei, a puppet state consisting of a huge corralled mass of black people denied the identity and system of the Republic. There being a lack of good schools for Xhosa traditionalists, Ruga had to commute between the homeland and the Republic to attend school. Homelands were essentially separate countries called Bantustans, formed alongside other Bantustans to further separateness in the same vein of the Stans in the then USSR. To attend school or visit Daddy, Athi-Patra would cross the Kei River, not fording it with bundles upon his head, but over a bridge to a checkpoint by car with his mother, Fleetwood Mac on the radio. Attending suburban english schools in the era of corporeal punishment and school songs, Athi would converge on the quadrangle to do the Lords Prayer, which was literally beaten into him. Crossing the boarder points of the Transkei, Ciskei and The Republic, Ruga did one religion at home then commuted to another space to do another religion there. Changing his behavior to please he learned to switch how he acted, he learned to perform.
Athi-Patra’s ongoing saga The Future White Women of Azania is the jurisdiction of themes on femininity and utopia and his obsession with Hollywood and pop’s portrayal of women. If Della Reese could powwow with God and the future in Touched By An Angel, then the capacity for a Xhosa traditionalist to obsess over Hollywood is a given. For the Xhosa, Sangomas are the healers and spiritual gateways for their people, and are most often women. In Ruga’s mind, and now mine, Della Reese’s character in Touched by an Angel may as well have been one. The title of the saga is something of a red herring in that is isn’t concerned with a racial future, but future none the less. For Athi, white women existed in another dimension of identity, separated from him economically, geographically and socially, alongside the euro-centric portrayal of women in fashion and magazines. The roots of The Future White Women of Azania cling to women working with the reality of having to be a woman, white or black, having to perform the television glamour of femininity even if they don’t want to. Athi-Patra Ruga could counter his trauma of having to navigate a border space just to get to school, but can The Future White Woman of Azania get enough beauty sleep?
All of Ruga’s character performances have been women, all of which he’s performed the brutal act of killing off. Except these giant ecstatically healthy alveoli who typify the future white women of Azania, women who’s narrative has a future free of olympian ownership. These women, characterized by dozens of multicolored balloons on heels, or champagne colored balloons on heels as in his recent performance in Paris, live in Azania! A real place that is what we today know as the Indian Ocean. Ancient Greek navigation scripts describe it as ending in the Aghuls. South Africa’s Cape Agulhas and being a land of riches, a type of free Atlantis portending utopia. The displaced promised land in which the blacks of the Bantustans could one day realize the prophecy alongside saber toothed zebras in a province called, Kuntistan.
Vivienne Westwood maintains it’s not possible to produce anything exotic except through something traditional. His reinvention of Azania, a concept as old as Pliny, redefines the ideals of what he terms ‘merry Africa,’ a promised land once embraced and reconstructed in the underground offices of the ANC and SWAPO, that could one day be claimed, much like Israel, by the people in the homelands. Pliny’s Azania reconstituted into a prophesy of freedom for black South Africa.
This age doesn’t believe in technique. Athi-Patra Ruga is primarily a performance artist, his exquisite, technical tapestries, held in collections like Jean Pigozzi’s Contemporary African Art Collection, came second. He recently described the arrival of his tapestries as having come about from a ‘continuous putting out with’ his body. Sustained physical output in which certain elements and story lines were lost that he was able to catch within his tapestries. He was able to intervene his performance into the 2D landscape, snatch the traces of his performance art within a technical, time-honoured 2D art form. Yet for me it is his performances which are the outline of this story,
it’s the tapestry which I can take home or view over and over again in an exhibition room that endure as an entity of Azania.
Ruga constructs in tapestry a mapping of the border zones of displacement and femininity, Hollywood and reality, trauma and belonging, masculinity and theatricality. None of which is ever really reconciled. It’s a camp exotic world based on our current fidelity and desire to escape it. Our desire to belong. Most people see history as static when really it depends on the story teller and his access to the medium which makes it a reality. We’re all always editing our own past, and Athi-Patra is in some ways reclaiming and rewriting ours. I too came of age in the time of corporeal punishment and like all children of pre-’94 South Africa endured the trauma of it. I recall walking home in my uniform, itself an ordeal I challenged, thinking of this promised Azania. Would new management rename the country my grandfather had built the roads in, Azania? I simultaneously craved and spurned it to be so. I could be an Azanian! Intuitively I knew I could throw my fathers friends in New York off balance when I reported to them that I was now Azanian, thank you very much. The dismay they would feel I could relish much like the giant question Athi-Patra poses, and then fuck off.
Athi-Patra Ruga is currently exhibiting F.W.W.O.A at Whatiftheworld, Cape Town until February 8th 2014
Exploring the border-zones between fashion, performance and contemporary art, Athi-Patra Ruga makes work that exposes and subverts the body in relation to structure, ideology and politics. Bursting with eclectic multicultural references, carnal sensuality and a dislocated undercurrent of humor, his performances, videos, costumes and photographic images create a world where cultural identity is no longer determined by geographical origins, ancestry or biological disposition, but is increasingly becoming a hybrid construct. A Utopian counter-proposal to the sad dogma of the division between mind and body, sensuality and intelligence, pop culture, craft and fine art, his works expresses the eroticism of knowledge and reconciles the dream with experience. He was recently included in the Phaidon book ‘Younger Than Jesus’, a directory of over 500 of the world’s best artists under the age of 33. He is represented by Whatiftheworld Gallery, Cape Town.
Written by Kyle Tregurtha.
All images courtesy of Kope | Figgins. All rights reserved.