A New Conversation
THROUGH BOLD COSTUME, COLOURS, PAGEANTRY AND PERFORMANCE, RUGA'S WORKS ASK MEANINGFUL QUESTIONS ABOUT HOW TO DECOLONISE THE ART SECTOR.
Athi-Patra Ruga (b. 1984) is a South African visual artist who addresses the history of colonialism to offer a new, humanist vision for the future. Through bold and colourful compositions, each of Ruga's fantastical images explore sexuality, queer identities, cultural hybridity and postcolonial landscapes. Performance, photography, video, textiles and printmaking come together to present characters, or “avatars” that parody existing socio-political constructs. Ruga has exhibited at Sean Kelly Gallery, Seattle; Louis Vuitton Fondation, Paris; YBCA, San Francisco; Tate Modern, London; Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao; Somerset House, London; and most recently with Hayward Gallery for the Kiss My Genders exhibition (12 June - 8 September 2019). His work also appears in both private and public collections such as the Smithsonian Museum of African Art, Washington D.C.
A: Your images are Fantasia-like, tapping into ritual and procession. How do they create their own mythology? A-PR: It is through the act of looking. When I compose an image, I make a point to draw attention to certain elements that create a clash between reality and fantasy. The resulting works are a nod to the vernacular and the Occidental: staid ways of looking at and making things “beautiful.” I consider a range of ways in which western societies survey art through accepted means of communication, such as academia.
A: How do your images undermine utopias, building progressive worlds that question power structures? A-PR: Globally, we are living through a resurgence of nationalism and rising group mentalities. Unfortunately, we live in a sad state of consciousness, grounded on the principles of “us” and “them.” In spite of this, there’s an even stronger fightback from artists, humanists and lovers of individuality, who are combatting this false sense of evolution. In an “Imaginarium” of sorts, I present the fictional state of Azania – a name that is heavily associated with the hopes and dreams of struggles from pre-1994 black South Africans. It is a word that offered hope for the future – a geographic location that has been written about since 40 AD. I would even call my photographs a utopian exercise – redressing South Africa’s sense of loss from having its cultural identity interrupted by inhuman exercises like colonialism and segregation. Like Zion or Trump’s “Great America,” we tend to hark back to a golden age and layer it with imagery – as well as dangerous courses of action – to achieve the desired state of “societal purity.” What is this idea of America that needs to be great again? Utopias are a concept that need to be defended by their creators – utilising the polarised notions of “us” and “them” in order to maintain power and influence over people. Armies and border control are called in to reinforce these ideas. This rhetoric plays out in The Future White Women of Azania series (2010-2017), which displays an intersectional struggle. I had to carve and fight for a kind of safe space. The result is Azania.
A: Your background is in fashion; how has this informed the styling and use of material in the images? A-PR: First of all, I attended Belgravia Art College in East London to study painting and art history. This, coupled with