Gallery walls come down

2012-06-02 14:44

‘I am thoroughly interested in performing in the Eastern Cape after having culturally boycotted the region for so long,” says Athi-Patra Ruga with trademark wit.  

“You know how it is when you grow up as a young queer in a place like East London. You are traumatised. I was highly bullied.”

One of the nation’s emerging art stars, the flamboyant Ruga combines public performance with radical fashion and hardcore politics.

He will take to the streets of Grahamstown as a creature made of balloons. These will bleed black paint as they burst and, in so doing, reveal the body. The performance will be captured by the camera obscura at the town’s Observatory Museum in a collaboration with artist Mikhael Subotzky.

“I guess all South Africans have this history of quiet personal violence and, in many respects, my work is about trying to work through that. Also, Grahamstown is an interesting space because of its violent colonial history. We’re using the observatory to counter that ugly building on the hill (the 1820 Settlers National Monument). It offers its own kind of surveillance, watching the town with its colonial gaze.”

The 28-year-old will also perform a controversial piece at the town’s Provost Prison. It will reference the soldiers held captive there as a way of exploring male sexuality. “South African men and their egos need to get in touch with their body issues,” he says.

It’s a clear reference to this week’s The Spear drama, even though he quips: “The only spear I’m getting involved in is Britney Spears and you can quote me on that.”

Although Ruga, like his performative fairy godmother Steven Cohen, relies on the art gallery to sell his diffusion works, he also works in the public
arena to counter the crude money-making of art marketing.

The gallery system, with its chugged-back Chardonnay, its white walls and colourful price tags, is seen by many as an elitist, Western, capitalist construct.

This week, Joburg’s Goodman Gallery became the centre of an astonishing storm when thousands marched and a national leader called for the destruction of a piece of art.

It had little to do with art and a lot to do with politics.

But what was made clear was that the gallery’s walls had been kicked down by the internet. The viral image of the state president had moved into cyberspace and onto a potential six million South African cellphones.

It was a painful chapter in the diffusion of our art and it brought with it new problems – of context, interpretation and art education.

But it’s part of the changing face of art production in South Africa and it’s something that Cohen has long preached. He believes that the street is a gallery and a place to engage with the true audience, even through an element of shock.

It’s a way to place ritual spectacle – the ancient origins of art – in a modern context.

Yet, it was the stage – and dance festivals – that first offered Cohen an international career. One of South Africa’s best-known artists, he was in Cuba last week, on the Havana Biennial exhibition (and leading a gay pride march with President Raúl Castro’s activist daughter, Mariela Castro Espín) and this week at the prestigious Avignon dance and performance festival in France.

Like Bailey, also on the performance art line-up, Cohen will bring to Grahamstown a piece created in Europe and shown at home for the first time.

The Cradle of Humankind is a quiet and harrowing work performed with the 91-year-old Nomsa Dhlamini, the nanny who all but raised him when he was growing up in a fractured white apartheid household.

It echoes themes in Bailey’s Exhibit A, which has just returned from Brussels, Belgium. It’s a quietly shocking installation performance that offers a human zoo of characters to be ogled – as the likes of Saartjie Baartman were when shipped to Europe and put on display, marketed as savages.

Except Bailey’s performers challenge colonialist exploitation by “returning the gaze”. The characters stand frozen like in a museum, he says, “but their eyes make contact, following you”. All this is set to live music from an indigenous choir.

“Drama with a capital D is not interesting to me any more,” says Bailey of why he is moving away from conventional theatre.

“Classic straight narratives have been saturated on TV. We want more layers and more meaning today.”

Says Ruga: “When you take art to the public, people have no option but to be engaged and start asking questions. They feel an urgency to talk about art and to interrogate what it means.”

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