Review – Performance Obscura

Testing the limits of liberty

At 10 o’clock this morning an extraordinary creature emerges on the street in Grahamstown. She wears pink tights and red shoes with impossibly high heels. She has on a dramatic frock of balloons covering her head and body.

With shaky steps and an ominous squeaking sound of rubber-on-rubber, she feels her way down the road. Onlookers frown, puzzled. “This is art?” asks a man with disdain. Then, spontaneously, a balloon bursts, bleeding red paint into the road – and the man jumps backwards, alarmed. Hearts are racing.

The monster woman is South African performance artist Athi-Patra Ruga, well-known for his radically fashioned, highly conceptual characters that materialise in public as society’s worst nightmares.

The creature’s route was to be tracked by the camera obscura in the Observatory Museum by fellow-artist Mikhael Subotzky.

Eight privileged spectators would watch the performance from there. I decided, however, to stick with Ruga. A gasp goes up as he stumbles from a kerb and is almost taken out by a taxi. He soldiers on.

In the tradition of Steven Cohen, danger, endurance and the threat of arrest are what define the pedigree of this kind of guerilla public intervention.

Into the informal trading spaces the creature struts, finally taking time to stop and wave at the museum’s camera.Young members of the public start to engage.

Children gleefully gather dropped balloons and play with them. Young men cockily film her with their phone cameras. She pulls out binoculars and returns their scrutiny. They back off, laughing.

Theorists like to discuss Ruga’s role as a radical gay monster 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!” he has told me. Similarly, the gallery with its white walls is, to him, a Western capitalist structure.

African art happens in the street. It is Ruga’s gallery.

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.

Into the township the mythic scapegoat labours with staggering elegance, street music versioning a score. As bursting balloons infect the dusty street next to an infected river, tears start to roll down his cheeks.

Raised in an Eastern Cape township and severely bullied for being gay, I am guessing that the tears are of emotion as he reclaims his dignity and his public space – as much as they are about his physical pain.

Back in town, he approaches the angel statue on High Street – “a memorial to the brave men of Albany who died for the empire during the Anglo Boer War”.

Rubbing himself against it, he bursts his final balloons, revealing his peroxide blonde hair and bodysuit and spraying the statue with colour.
People stare. Cars stop. Is this person allowed to do these things?

Patra’s answer would be that he is questioning the democracy of public space.

If he may not be here, then what about lesbians and drag queens, street children, migrant labourers and African immigrants?

The single most heart-stoppingly meaningful and dangerous piece of work at the festival this year, Performance Obscura succeeded on many levels. The most powerful, for me, was its testing of the limits of our hard-won liberty.

» Follow our coverage of the National Arts Festival: www.citypress.co.za/arts-festival
» Follow Charl on Twitter: @sa_poptart
Follow City Press: @City_Press

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