by Michael Smith (October 2008)
Athi-Patra Ruga is a hastily-ascending young artist whose work comfortably straddles the divides between fashion, performance and photography. Arguably picking up where Steven Cohen seems to have left off, Ruga's approach is one of willful confrontation, underpinned nonetheless by a finely-honed aesthetic sensibility.
Dressed in a dizzying array of costumes, most notably his 'Injibhabha outfit' (one Ruga himself has been known to call his 'Afro Womble' attire), Ruga inserts himself, or rather the characters he is playing, into challenging situations. This challenge operates in two directions: Ruga's presence in outlandish dress-up challenges social conventions of normal appearance, and asks tough questions of the arbiters of convention. However, with Ruga there is no default to the easy challenges favoured by much fine art: he is frequently challenged in reverse, having to defend himself from the ever-present threat of 'beat- downs', whether it's in the Cape Town township of Atlantis or in Bern in Switzerland.
Ruga's interest in fashion stems from a complex understanding of the body and the politics its dressing reveals. He speaks about body proportions and gender-based preconceptions informing clothing, which in turn render the body rather than simply covering it.
His shift into performance has seen him importing this concept of clothing into energised situations, informed by a razor-sharp sense of time and place. His sojourn through Switzerland in his Injibhabha costume was calculated to draw comparisons with a controversial poster by the Swiss People's Party (SVP), which depicted a black sheep being booted off the Swiss flag by three white sheep. Spotting a key opportunity to critique European xenophobia, Ruga appeared in the sanitised urban landscape of Berne in his aberrant attire for a series of performances collectively titled Even I Exist in Embo: Jaundiced tales of counterpenetration.
On his early work:
'Above all I believe that the work developed out a need to illustrate arguments about the body in the context of the post-industrial (even post-urban). By utilising the medium of fashion I wanted to explore disembodiment with regards to the result of one not being aware of how things are made... in the form of craft work as it is process-based - this requires discipline - and the body plays a big part in realising this discipline... A form of disembodiment befalls one's senses when they don't pay attention to the process of things, how things are done. One eats sushi without the full grasp of the process (of preparing it), people rob people without knowledge of how things are acquired... I feel that making, and being conscious of making is a discipline.'
On the topics of costume and performance:
'One has to be a mirage to tackle history and put it in another context to get to the point... The costume plays that role in performance.'
On the issue of contemporary 'hyper-masculinity':
'The trick I play with the "act" is to cast attention to the idea of hyper-masculinity... The blue boy is an icon of the Rococo movement as it is layered with the irreverence, a frivolity that characterizes the aesthetics of hip-hop and the spirit of the Rococo movement. I "pimped it out" by performing the act, forcing the two together. The use of the phallus is in direct reference to the groping of the balls, the auto-exotic visions of the black phallus etc. The Lamborghini Gallardo is featured in Akon's "Smack That" promo video. The lyrics play into the whole "body architecture" (concept) and the ownership of another individual as a "ride"'.
On his latest body of work, '...of bugchasers and watussi faghags':
'The latest work to incorporate tapestries is "...of bugchasers and watussi faghags". Here the tapestries will be presented in both the modes that have been used before, for example the "found objects" that are then changed into an "otherwise" narrative. I am interested in the movement of people... forced movement especially.
'The most famous displacement of people in my time is, without doubt, the 1994 Rwandan genocide. And with detail to the exodus of the Tutsi, I embarked on researching the imagery that could have led to the drama. With the knowledge, a series of paintings done in the 40s by acclaimed German-African painter Irma Stern of the Watussi (an error in spelling for the Tutsi people) (provided) the material for subversion. [Stern] is a feature in the judgements made by post-colonial art critics as being purely a vampire/anthropological in how she approached "her native subject"... The same "gaze" cast on the Watussi by Stern was apparent in the way the colonial Belgians treated the Tutsi more favorably than the Hutus, by using imagery and propaganda...'
'Ruga's lounge is lined with piles of fashion and design magazines, creating a rather haphazard library of catalogued images. [This is] appropriate as so much of Ruga's work is informed by images, people's reactions to them and his constant quest to subvert them. At the centre of both his art and his fashion lies "the body", and its constant juxtaposition with any kind of structure, ideology, politics or trendy dogma.' Lynley Donnelly, Mail & Guardian Online, August 31 2008.
'I find your tapestries compelling - both as residues or "aftermaths" of your performances and also as bitingly tragic-comic objects that embody "the clash between material and memory" to which you have often referred when discussing your work.
'In Miss Congo we see you re-working a found-object tapestry; a later tapestry, Blue Boy offers us another cutting moment of re-narration - Gainsborough's sublimely detached young boy is re-stitched as a massively (black-) phallused, skull-faced presence, replete with gaudy yellow Lamborghini in the background. In these works, we are forced to recognize the undeclared power relations that hover below the surface of famous images. From an unpublished interview with David Brodie, curator of Art Extra gallery in Johannesburg, 2008.
Ruga's exhibition '...of bugchasers and watussi faghags' at Art Extra ended in late September 2008. His first solo in Johannesburg, the show dealt with the fictional composite character Beiruth and his 'tales of counterpenetration'. Said Ruga: 'This body of work is an interrogation of my interest in the history of image-making, and of displacement - both of people and images. The title of the show is double-edged: it refers to the sexual practice of "bug-chasing" (the act of contracting the HI virus intentionally) - with its seemingly altruistic motivation; while also referring to the history of the "Watussi", a colonial mis-pronunciation of the Tutsi people of the Burundi-Ruanda nation.
'Beiruth's name is derived from a pun around the middle-eastern city of Beirut - a play on the theme of Orientalism; but more importantly he is the illusive figure that qualifies the autonomous body against that of the sovereign state.'
In July 2007 Ruga presented She is Dancing for the Rain with her Hand in the Toaster at Michael Stevenson in Cape Town. The show was a multi-disciplinary affair, featuring garments made by the artist, a text piece and a three-channel video work.
The garments, suspended from butcher's hooks in the centre of the gallery, were drenched in Rapeseed (canola) oil, a fact which, when combined with garment titles such as Get in the car, I am your mother's friend suggested what the gallery called 'an undercurrent of abuse'. The text piece was a reworking of I Apologise a narrative in which child pornography is being directed by a bionic hostess who has magical healing powers.
The three-channel video entitled Miss Congo was to become most indicative of Ruga's future direction: here, Ruga performs on location in Kinshasa, his use of costume and outré gesture challenging the norms of the social spaces he inserts himself into.
A series of performances in 2007 took place in and around Bern, Switzerland. Entitled Inj'ibhabha Series, Jaundiced Arcadia - Tales of counterpenetration, for the Progr- zentrum fur kulturproduction, the series resulted in a number of stills that in 2008 formed a large part of Ruga's show at Art Extra.
The series features Ruga in his so-called 'Afro Womble' attire, a costume that foregrounds blackness and hairiness. Although the costume had been created before his residency in Switzerland, while there he realised its similarity to a racist political poster produced by the rightwing Swiss People's Party (SVP), in which three snow white sheep are seen kicking a black sheep off the Swiss flag. Ruga's use of the costume as a basis for a series of performances in Bern aggressively asserted his presence as 'Other' to the sanitised landscape and populace of Switzerland, with its stringent immigration laws and palpable xenophobia.
Born Umtata, 1984. Lives and works in Johannesburg
2004 Honors Diploma in Fashion History and Design, Gordon Flack Davison Design Academy, Johannesburg
2008 '...of bugchasers and watusi faghags'. Solo show, Art Extra, Johannesburg, South Africa
'Disguise: The art of attracting and deflecting attention', Michael Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town
'Upstairs/Downstairs', Association of Visual Arts, Cape Town
'The Trickster', Art Extra, Johannesburg
2007 'Impossible Monsters', Art Extra, Johannesburg
'Miss Congo/TinTin's aHo', Performance in collaboration with Christopher Martin, Confluence 4.2, DesignIndaba 10
'She is dancing in the Rain with her hand in the toaster',performance in collaboration with Christopher Martin, Michael Stevenson Contemporary, Cape Town
'Inj'ibhabha Series, Jaundiced Arcadia - tales of counterpenetration', Progr- zentrum fur kulturproduction, Bern, Switzerland
2006 'Doc. no3, Die Naai Masjien - Miss Congo'. Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo
2005 'Doc. no2, Die Naai Masjien - The Revenge of the 9ft Ma-Benz and her Toothless Taxi Kings', Elle New Talent Awards / South African Fashion Week>br>
2004 'Doc. no1, Die Naai Masjien - Familie Fortuin', Elle New Talent Awards / South African Fashion Week
2007 Progr- Zentrum fur Kulturproduction. Bern, Switzerland
Kin Be Jozi, August House, Johannesburg, South Africa
2006 Scenographies Urbaines. Lingwala, Kinshasa, DRC
Lectures and workshops
2007 '...in memory of craft (sic)', Confluence 3 Bag Factory Artist Studios, Johannesburg, in collaboration with Nontsikelelo Veleko, Kudzanai Chiurai and George Mahashe
'...in memory of craft [redux]', Bern, Switzerland
'when all architecture fails ,your bling is your best friend, Centre for African Studies, Basel , Switzerland
2006 'Meditations Artesanal (Craft Meditations)', Academie des Beaux Art, Lingwala, Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo