In Conversation with Athi-Patra Ruga

Athi-Patra Ruga was born in 1984 in the Transkei, growing up between the former, Umtata and East London, where in 1999 he attended the Belgravia Art College. In 2004, He was awarded a scholarship to study fashion design at the Gordon Flack Davidson Academy of Design in Johannesburg.

Ruga is one of the few artists working in South Africa today whose work has adopted the trope of myth as a contemporary response to the post-apartheid era. He creates alternative identities and uses these avatars as a way to parody and critique the existing political and social status quo. His artistic approach of creating myths and alternate realities is in some way an attempt to view the traumas of the last 200 years of colonial history from a place of detachment – at a farsighted distance where wounds can be contemplated outside of personalised grief and subjective defensiveness.

Currently living and working between Cape Town and Johannesburg, Ruga continues to integrate fashion design with art and performance. He is a mentor on the ‘Adult Contemporary Projects’, a series of exhibitions that support South Africa’s young unsigned art talent. Athi-Patra Ruga was featured in Younger Than Jesus, Phaidon (2009), a directory of over 500 of the world’s best artists under the age of 33 and many other publications such as The Routledge Companion to Art and Politics (2015) and Performa 11: Staging Ideas (2013). His works are included in many significant international private and public collections. In this interview with Omenka, he talks about his recent exhibition Queens in Exile at WHATIFTHEWORLD gallery, his creative process, and upcoming project.

Congratulations on your recent exhibition Queens in Exile at WHATIFTHEWORLD gallery. Please tell us more about the exhibition?

Queens in Exile is a series of morality tales in the form of utopian mythology. Apart from the variety of media, I was interested in exploring the triumphant historical arc of the Black performers or artists in the modernist experiment. Queens in Exile is about telling better stories. This isn’t simply a revisionist exercise to patch up inconvenient holes in the historical record. Instead, the studio excavated collective memory and exclusionary national myth to rebuild in wholly new shapes —to make a world where the exiled can reign. The result is a land of many queens, lost, found and forgotten.

“Ruga’s artistic approach of creating myths and alternate realities is in some way an attempt to view the traumas of the last 200 years of colonial history from a place of detachment – at a farsighted distance where wounds can be contemplated outside of personalised grief and subjective defensiveness”. What is your reaction to this well-publicised statement describing your work, and what impact would you say your exhibitions have had in helping the South Africans all over the world repress the horrific events of apartheid?

It would be a grave mistake to think the goal of the post-apartheid South African, more specifically my generation, is concerned with “repression”. We learned very soon in our democracy that this is not the way. However, we find ourselves having to negotiate our land with ghosts from the past. In Queens in Exile, I continue my use of maps to illustrate this by putting the exile cartographically between “The Ocean of Redress ” and “The Ocean of Forgiveness.” … These are waters we struggle globally to wade, whether it is gender or land.

You work with several media including performance and embroidered tapestries. Do any hold significance or a sense of history?

Not importantly, however, I am concerned with the technical and precision that accompany the media I concern myself with. I learned petit point tapestry in high school from an East German immigrant and kept it close to me until I started exhibiting in 2007. There’s something to be said about how textiles have a way of travelling with ideas about a place’s geopolitics that we are very aware of in how we work with utopian Azania or the exile metaphor.

Can you also share more on the relationship between the separate media, and how you have developed it over time?

Well, continuing from the petite point introduction, I also matriculated from Belgravia Art Centre in East London. In 2002 when I moved to Johannesburg, it was to get my post-graduate degree in fashion. I feel these elements materialised in Queens in Exile. This goes with the fact that I was a TV kid, and that becomes a valid art gallery for me, with music video directors like Hype Williams as one of my “art gods.”

What is your creative process like, given that you combine several elements in your performances, tapestries and videography?

From the beginning of my studio practice, I have never felt that I should limit myself to one discipline. The creative process entered is performance and the performative. The tyranny of live art sometimes, is that its transience can leave an audience out. In my case as a South African, it is the same people who are the inspiration and my influences. This is due to transport infrastructure, which is one of those ghosts I speak of. So cutting across media is about activating an audience even if there is distance. For example, the performances have roots in public spaces and that is a huge stage. Around 2005, I started documenting my performances as the blog phenomenon was kicking in and a vernacular audience could see them. Video in digital form can be sent at super speed. I also have a channel for education purposes on YouTube.

In your works, you create mythical worlds filled with characters aimed at critiquing the existing political, cultural and social status quo. Is this your way of dealing with the contrasting identities and influences, and have you cast yourself in any of these characters?

At the beginning, I perform all the characters. This helps in how my narratives continue as I get to be closer to the audience. That performative interaction is then documented in the various media and also expanded upon. Collaboration is extra special because of the function of expanding on concepts.

What upcoming project would you like to share with us?

As part of the Armory holding from March 8–11 at Piers 94, WHATIFTHEWORLD will present a new large-scale sculpture and tapestry works from my latest performance The BEATification of Feral Benga. It debuted at SAVVY Contemporary in November last year and it imagines in sculpture and tapestry, a ‘BEATification’ of the cabaret artist and dancer Feral Benga.

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