Athi-Patra Ruga
Athi-Patra Ruga
Image: Supplied

Long before the #rhodesmustfall protests Athi-Patra Ruga was desecrating colonial-era statues. Not that the angel statue in Grahamstown, commemorating soldiers who fought in the South African War, might have immediately provoked such a vehement outcry as the one of Cecil Rhodes on the University of Cape Town’s campus.

Nevertheless, in 2012 during the National Arts Festival, Ruga concluded one of his characteristic performance processions at the aforementioned statue by popping his balloon outfit and leaving a residue of black paint smeared on the plinth and exterior. It was a mix of public protest and catharsis, release.

Several years later, in a solo exhibition at the Whatiftheworld gallery, he appeared to be doing an about-turn when he delivered a stunning series of pseudo-cultural artefacts (maps, portraits and photographic records) belonging to the fictional, utopian nation of Azania. In the Future White Women of Azania Saga it appeared as if he were more intent on the production of “monuments” rather than focusing his energy on destroying them. It was a much more pragmatic approach, given it is difficult making a living from chipping away at outdated artworks.

Miss Azania 2019, 2015
Miss Azania 2019, 2015
Image: Athi-Patra Ruga

“I decided to help the losing team,” observes the artist in his Woodstock studio in Cape Town, ahead of his long-awaited latest solo exhibition, Queens in Exile, due to open at the Whatiftheworld gallery.

“What do we do with these statues? I thought about it a lot. What is not making me feel part of this land?” asks the 33-year-old artist. Ultimately, he concluded that “adding to culture, rather than destroying it” made more sense, and was perhaps more satisfying.

This approach also helped to put Ruga on the artworld map: he has shown his art and performed in Miami, San Francisco, the Venice Biennale, Performa in New York, and, most recently, at the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris. He is known for his large-scale tapestries and staged photographs of the utopian Azania with its ballooned “White women”, who ride through a tropical idyll on the backs of zebras. In charting a hyperartificial “nation” in which he interweaved and collapsed the fantasies of Rainbow Nationalism, as well as the precolonial Azania, Ruga was able to chip away at the falsehoods underpinning all nationalistic leanings, rather than just their commemorative manifestations — statues.

“I wanted to go to the absurdity of nationalism as this hyper-masculine and subjugatory device,” he says. As he puts it, in adding to the national narrative, rather than detracting from it, he “proposed” additional monuments of real-life people who had been excluded from the established struggle narrative. One such person is Tseko Simon Nkoli, a United Democratic Front cadre, who was sidelined because he was a homosexual. Ruga’s Proposed Model for Tseko Simon Nkoli Memorial (2017), which honours the deceased activist, is a seemingly fleeting “statue”, fashioned from artificial flowers. It is currently being shown at the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa’s inaugural exhibition, All Things Being Equal, curated by Mark Coetzee.

As the title of Ruga’s new exhibition suggests, he is concerned with enacting the return and celebration of “exiled queens”, referring not only to gay men who have been excluded from struggle or political narratives, but women too. As such, the Xhosa prophetess Nongqawuse serves as inspiration for a number of tapestry works.

She famously caused a rift in the Xhosa nation, pitting believers and non-believers against each other, and her tale of imprisonment and (exile) on Robben Island in the late 1800s served as warning to young women of the perils of being outspoken. In one tapestry, titled, The Pledge she functions as the guiding spirit for a group of schoolchildren.

It is via a coronation scene depicted in Lizalis’ Idinga Lakho/Autistic Imperium, a large-scale (5m²) petit-point tapestry, featuring a likeness of Ruga’s maternal grandmother, that he retrieves and reinstates another figure from “exile”, here meaning history, a state of oppression. As Ruga has only a photograph of his grandmother from a “dompas” document from the apartheid era, the imagery enables him to remember her differently and rewrite her history. “I evolve into her.

I turn this genocidal document into something that is glorious,” he says. “It is healing and brings about redress and forgiveness. You can do this in your own life through success. I sophisticate it through art,” he says.

The autobiographical aspect of his art has become more prominent, with Ruga’s likeness appearing in the guise of the various characters he invents, such as the Versatile Queen, the young school child in The Pledge, and the Walking Wound, a character he embodies in his new filmic work, Queens in Exile. In it, he transforms from being a drag performer into the Walking Wound figure. A group of women surround him, remove his bandages, and the artist emerges. “I am using art to make sense of things. I always have, but now it is a conscious decision to use it as therapy. There is all this trauma in our society. You have a choice: to scream or go inside (yourself). Going inside is more beneficial. I think I have made peace with society,” he says.

Queens in Exile will show at the Whatiftheworld gallery in Cape Town from November 29.

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