By excavating collective memory, Athi-Patra Ruga’s work is an attempt to patch up inconvenient holes in the historical record of our national identity. The result is a land of many queens, lost, found and forgotten
Over a decade ago, at the age of 17, Athi-Patra Ruga found himself at Johannesburg’s Park Station, having recently moved from East London, after winning a scholarship to study fashion design at the Gordon Flack Davidson Academy of Design.
Born in the former Transkei in 1984 – during the final years of the apartheid regime – he was encouraged from an early age to pursue his love for art by his political journalist father and midwife mother. His father worked for Radio Transkei and his parents produced radio dramas together. ‘I used to do the sound effects in the studio, which is where I learnt about performance: how to be on cue and how to create a reality by just using a board to create thunder, for example. The theatre of the mind. Growing up literally in a radio station ignited my imagination,’ he says.
Ruga’s early days in Johannesburg saw him opening his own studio at the age of 18. He went on to establish a name for himself on the South African fashion scene when he was nominated for the ELLE New Talent Award in 2004, which led him to show a collection at SA Fashion Week the following year.
His designs have always involved performance art. ‘I’d wear my own clothes and go to places like the Noord St taxi rank and other urban hubs to which people attached specific stereotypes. It was an attempt to dispel such myths by telling a story through my body,’ he says.
Ruga is one of a generation of artists whose work engages with the trauma of seeing the principles of South Africa’s Constitution and the ideal of the ‘Rainbow Nation’, with which they grew up, disintegrating before their eyes. ‘We haven’t dealt with much, especially not redress, be it in relation to land, race or aesthetics. We were disposed of and made to feel that we could never do anything but craft. It’s still like that,’ he says. He deals with all these forms of trauma by creating characters (or avatars, as he prefers to call them) and tapestries that document their lives. The avatars have somehow become parodies of belonging, of nationalism and of community, while paying tribute to the avatars of queens, who are radical characters.
The first one, Miss Congo (embodied by Ruga himself), wove tapestries in different public locations around Johannesburg. This performance was extended in a film series shot in Kinshasa. His second queen avatar, Injibaba, made out of 250 Afro wigs, was a parody on xenophobia, specifically in response to a widely circulated poster depicting a white sheep kicking three black sheep out of the Swiss confederacy. ‘In this performance I wanted to be that black sheep, flying in the face of that discrimination and hypocrisy.’
Two events in 2008 – the widespread xenophobic attacks around the country and, specifically, the assault and public humiliation of mini-skirted Nwabisa Ngcukana at the Noord St taxi rank – led Ruga to create the avatar Beiruth. For this performance, he assumed hyper-feminine dress, walking to the rank to travel to Atlantis. ‘This was me working with the idea of Utopia, specifically in relation to the dystopic lives we live,’ he explains.
His work continued with Future White Women of Azania, in which he again engaged with the concept of Utopia, exploring its flipside. This included interrogating the experience of exile and the many ways it translates for him as a street performer and a South African citizen. The result of these initiatives is his current work, Queens in Exile, named after queer pioneer Sylvia Rivera’s eponymous essay.
One part of the series sees the memorialisation of LGBTIQ UDF cadre Simon Tseko Nkoli, whom Ruga describes as ‘a queen exiled from the hyper-masculine founding myth of the new South Africa’. Another part of the series has him renaming Robben Island Nongqawuse Island, in honour of 15-year-old Nongqawuse, who wasn’t a political prisoner on the island, but an exile from the ravaged Eastern Cape.
Other exiled queens in the series include Ruga’s maternal grandmother. The only image of her he’s ever seen was found in an apartheid-era pass book, or dompas; she was eventually exiled to the Ciskei after she’d stopped working in Port Elizabeth. ’She didn’t look happy in that dompas, her freedom bound between its two covers. I wanted to release her by taking her off the document, reproducing her image and putting her in a museum,’ says Ruga.
This is just part of the redress work he’s performing. Another element of it is his tapestries, recreated through a femme-based perspective and offering new ways of communicating queerness. On a creative level, the tapestries manifest with colour, intuition and craft, principles usually rejected by high art. ‘By kicking those things out of high art, you’re still creating a very masculine perception of what art should be made. That, for me, is very un-African. I believe in craft circles, telling stories and people imbuing their sweat in the threads,’ says Ruga.
Last year he won the Seydou Keïta Prize and his work is collected by various galleries and institutions around the world, including Paris’s Fondation Louis Vuitton and Cape Town’s Zeitz MOCAA.
Despite these achievements, Ruga declares that he’s still waiting for his ‘big break’. ‘In the meantime, I get the greatest pleasure out of knowing that through sophisticating my story and those of my allies, I’ve built a studio which expands my functions as an artist to those of master craftsmxn, diplomat, mentor and showmxn.’
Images: Courtesy of Athi-Patra Ruga/WHATIFTHEWORLD