The dramatic rise of Athi-Patra Ruga

2012-03-16 10:24

In Athi-Patra Ruga’s Cape Town studio, Azange and Shado laze about among the art supplies grooming themselves.

The pair of long-haired cats got their names from pioneering radio deejay Shado Twala and TV bad girl Vinoliah Mashego, whose war cry on Jam Alley was “Azange, bangane, iyho!”

“Those girls, screwing with gender roles and power ... When I was growing up in an East London township, I was the youngest of 10 children and I was a bundle of trauma. They made me feel I belong.”

I mention that Brenda Fassie once named her dogs Yvonne and Chicco, and Ruga breaks out a bellow of a laugh, peroxide-blond head thrown back. “Lebo Mathosa,” he quips when I ask about his hair colour and bursts out laughing again.

Ruga laughs like a whore and that’s the truth of it. Of course, he has plenty of reason to be happy. Last year, at 27, his darkly kitsch tapestries earned him one of three finalist spots at the inaugural FNB Art Prize, the country’s richest.

It added further equity and today, I’m told, a Ruga tapestry sells for up to R70 000.

A few weeks later, he was on a plane to New York to present his newest piece, Ilulwane, at the prestigious Performa biennial. A fortnight ago it headlined Cape Town’s Infecting the City festival.

“Ilulwane” is the Xhosa word for bat. Ruga draws on the caped spirit of Dracula to create a bodysuited night creature that flies above a swimming pool where two dozen synchronised swimmers perform his choreography against a video backdrop.

But ilulwane is often also used as an insult to question the masculinity of men who avoid the traditional initiation ceremony and instead opt to be circumcised in a hospital, if at all.

“God damn you if you are not from the bush! Then you are not a man, you are ilulwane.”
He created this performance, he says, as a kind of alternative ritual for amalulwane (plural of ilulwane). It’s a term that reflects Ruga’s sense of isolation growing up gay.

For him it also references botched surgeries, the threat of Aids, and a history of castration and slavery in sub-Saharan Africa.

Yet Ruga’s own experience of being initiated in 2003 is an enduringly positive one.

“For the first time ever, my father and I actually went heart to heart. You spill that blood and it’s like a covenant that you make with your father and your father’s father. For me it was also seeing yourself heal without any help from Western medicine.”

Of course, engagement with ancestors and circumcision rites are common themes in contemporary South African art. But Ruga has a curious ability to blend pop culture, personal trauma, African belief systems and high fashion to create his visually arresting mythology.

Ilulwane taps ancient traditions to project an Afro-futurist aesthetic. Its 40-minute soundtrack is a radical, glitchy, dubstep opera composed by Spoek Mathambo. Ruga sings the vocal on it.

“He’s got a divine voice and I suspect he has done a lot of singing in his time,” says Mathambo, who describes Ruga as one of his idols.

“His work takes art out of the hands of the old gatekeepers.”

Mathambo himself has launched an impressive career in the past year. His second album has just been released by important US label Subpop to strong reviews across the globe.
In 2012, Ruga and Mathambo are the vanguard of South African culture. They launched themselves on the street and in the clubs, on YouTube and social networks.

They offer edginess alongside beauty. The work challenges outmoded cultural ideas by showing how Western forms have infected and shaped African ones before being sold back to the world as the next big thing.

In a sense, Ruga’s characters reflect society’s worst nightmares. Before Ilulwane, there was Miss Congo and then Inj’ibhabha, the black sheep.

Then came Beiruth. Jolted into action by the miniskirt taxi rank attack, she is a hairy, angry, promiscuous, hyperfeminist monster – the bigamist’s greatest fear. Like renowned South African performance artist Steven Cohen, Ruga takes these characters out into the street to confront society. In the process, he questions the democracy of public space.

Is this creature allowed to be here? If not, what about migrant labourers and African immigrants?

“I don’t think Africans define art as being inside a space. Art is in the street. The gallery is a Western construct.”

He has been known to wear a black bodysuit covered in charcoal and then run inside and throw himself at gallery walls, leaving a stain behind as art.

“But the gallery system is the way artists make money,” he concedes. So he has embarked on a series of revisionist tapestries. These, for him, are about the discipline of form and the pleasure of working with fabric, skills honed from studying fashion design after school.

Ruga is no fan of the highbrow, academic language that the art establishment uses to sell an artist.

Theorists like to discuss his role in terms of “the gaze of the other” and that sort of thing.

“Are they talking to me with this art-world-convoluted-blah-blah? It is an exclusionist, elitist language!

“A zee snap is a zee snap, not a theory. As for the gaze, well, let’s just say I am returning it to wherever the hell it came from.”

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