Interior/Exterior / Dramatis Personae
2 July - 23 September 2020
WHATIFTHEWORLD is pleased to present Athi-Patra Ruga’s new exhibition Interior/Exterior ⁄ Dramatis Personae, a Saga in Two Parts.
Part One begins with the stained-glass series, Interior/Exterior where Ruga uses colour as a seduction technique to draw the viewer into his Fantasia: a treacly introduction into a more gritty conversation. Referencing the windows of chapels, textured and swirled cathedral glass rupture across space: a marker of the violence inflicted onto bodies and personhood as a result of Christianity and colonialism. Deep ambers, crimson, emerald green, and cobalt blue glow from refracted light, touching the skins of those standing before them. The poetry in this gesture, of light travelling through space and settling on skin, is Ruga’s offering of healing to his community. He undertakes an ongoing expansion of his Metaverse, highlighting his own black, queer, femme imaginaries often unrecorded, misrepresented, and forgotten.
In the series, Ruga reflects on the tradition of stained-glass artistry and its theological origin as a story-telling medium. His fixation with the medium began in 2013 when, as part of his The Future White Woman of Azania Saga, he included a large stained-glass rendering of his fictional Arcadia’s coat of arms. In his latest offering, he reverts to the subversion of biblical morality tales. Subjects considered to be taboo and sinful under the highly politicised state religion of Christianity are instead artified. He uses the weight of the medium’s prestige to glamorise characters extracted from his well-established pantheon, positioning them as saints and icons. This phase is an act of remembrance and memorialisation, an ongoing undertaking of the artist to reify figures erased from an historical archive and lost to public memory, as seen in his exhibition Queens in Exile 2014-2017 and his series The BEATification of Feral Benga.
Interior/Exterior appeals to the exaggerated sentimentality and melodrama of retro-kitsch. The Speller, The Killer, features a character informed by a 2008 performance at Rocklands Beach, Sea Point. The figure wears a mask, spandex leotard belted at the waist, and bowler hat, a reference to Liza Minelli in Cabaret and A Clockwork Orange. Violence, absurdity, sexuality, power, and politics conflate in both these films and this performance. These intersections are further explored in Swazi Youth After: a portrait of a gay Leatherman clad in a body harness. Here, Ruga represents BDSM, kink, and fetish subcultures in queer communities. Both The Speller, The Killer and Swazi Youth After portray alternative masculinities who engage in gender-play and binary eradication. Ruga explores masculinities as expressions, rather than confines. Here, power — asserted through pose and presence; the verticality of these frames; and their upward angle — co-exist with vulnerability, as the characters look out of frame.
Castrato as [the] Revolution, another study done in stained-glass, is an imagined self-portrait by the artist. By blackening out his eyes, Ruga as a draftsman performs a theatrical self-erasure or self-censorship as a poignant mimicry of the violence enforced by the state, religious and political stakeholders, historians, critics, and gate-keepers. Ruga further puts our obsessive attachment as a society under scrutiny by creating an absent portrait of the penis. He removes our potential to fixate on genitalia as a marker of sex and gender, or to further eroticise, exoticise and strip the figure of the choice to self-determine. Castrato as [the] Revolution is also Ruga’s ode to physique pictorial or beefcake magazines, which employed the guises of bodybuilding culture and classical figure studies to evade censorship laws between the 1940’s and 60’s. This allowed for gay, bisexual, and closeted men to purchase homoerotic material. The Golden Age of Porn, which succeeded the Gay Liberation movement, ushered in a new cultural nexus. The fantasies that now play out in mainstream gay pornography are disparate in the racial and gendered stereotypes used to attract. Hyper-masculinisation is exaggerated, pushed so far into dominant masculine tropes that it starts to read as queer. And, while white models are afforded named identities, like Neil and Brad, Black models are misrepresented as nameless caricatures, often including the words “Electric Black”, “Ebony”, “Chocolate”, or “Thug” in their descriptors.
This fetishisation spreads across film, art, and media culture and is addressed in various performance and video works by Ruga. A Site/Sight for Contemplation, a rapturous femme wrapped in a plume boa, pays tribute to the largely forgotten legacy of Francois “Feral” Benga, a Senegalese cabaret dancer who often performed at the Folies Bergère in Paris alongside Josephine Baker in the 1920’s. This forms part of a four-year long exchange, which began in 2016 with The BEATification of Feral Benga. Ruga’s conversation with Feral Benga concerns the consumption and commodification inherent within “cultural exchange”. Similarly, Swazi Youth After and Yellow Bone form part of a sustained conversation on the life and work of Modernist painter, Irma Stern. He creates a cross-cultural fantasy, informed by the mise-en-scène constructed by Stern in her attempt to echo the primitivism of ‘the native’. The distinct difference between Stern and Ruga being, of course, that Ruga’s portraits emulate familiarity; they are portraits taken from his own community. He interacts with ethnographic portraiture as having subversive potential. The poses in Swazi Youth After and Yellow Bone reflect a comfortable stillness, even though the characters still perform a particular persona or cine stance in front of the camera. For Ruga, the holes and contradictions in anthropological framing of black communities allow for a truly reformed vernacular visual language.
Similarly, Ruga sees stained-glass’s theological grounding as hosting potential for reclamation. In particular, he recalls the stained glass windows in St Philip’s Anglican Church in Gompo, East London, depicting a revision of the Divine Annunciation scene, whereby Archangel Gabriel and Virgin Mary reflect a more localised black, brown and African representative community. This revision not only allows for a more context-specific story, but even pushes this example closer to a kitsch iconoclastic sentiment. Interior/Exterior inspires the stained glass milieu of the tapestry Ukutsiba uMgubasi, which includes Ruga’s rendition of an African-representative St. George slaying the serpent: an indication of a shift in history and power. This tapestry is a component of Dramatis Personae, the second cycle in Ruga’s two-part saga.
In this tapestry series, Ruga introduces the audience to a new cast of characters from The Lunar Songbook Cycle, a trans-media body of work informed by Southern African astronomy and a more ecological way of recounting time. For Ruga, this way of interacting with geography and seasonal change is through Iinyanga Zonyaka, a vernacular alternative to the Gregorian calendar. In The Lunar Songbook Cycle, Ruga represents the beauty and integrity of the rural Eastern Cape, and considers how he navigates between this landscape and urban Cape Town. Nomalizo Khwezi and Nestra Brink are the two protagonists in Ruga’s tale. Both femmes are informed by literary characters presented in the Lovedale Press collection: a printing press in Alice, in the Eastern Cape, that was established in 1823 to promote African literature. The character of Nomalizo Khwezi is a child prodigy who, at the young age of thirteen, relocates from rural Tsomo to Azania City where she works at Brink Publishing. She is mentored by Memnus Brink, an inheritor of a 200-year old publishing house responsible for printing the country’s textbooks. The events of The Lunar Songbook begin to unfold when Brink Publishing regresses into a propagandist machine in service of a nationalist Azanian agenda.
In Ukutsiba uMgubasi, we see a portrait of Nomalizo Khwezi at the beginning of her journey. Glowing Pentecostal orbs gathering in the forefront are tantamount to the calling of a ‘purpose’. In this church scene, Nomalizo is seen contemplating a life of devotion, as she moves between Tsomo and Azania City. In Ruga’s story, Nomalizo is called to the order of Saint Augustine by an Anglican women’s guild whose presence dates back to 1848 in South Africa. In the background, a stained glass window depicts St. George slaying the serpent — A foreshadowing of a time when Nomalizo must face the publication company and all that it comes to represent. Her story mimics the classic structure of the Heroes Journey: of a character being catapulted from the ordinary world into a fantastical epic; being met with adversity, conflict and support by enemies and allies; undergoing internal dilemmas at the face of a disastrous event; and then ultimately overcoming and triumphing.
The metaphor of “slaying the serpent” continues in the next portrait of Nomalizo, uNobantu noMajola. Here, Nomalizo Khwezi assumes the form of literary character Thembeka kaKhalipha, who upon marrying Chief Zwelinzima becomes known as Nobantu, Queen of the amaMpondomise: as depicted in a Lovedale classic, AC Jordan’s 1940 novel Ingqumbo yemiNyanya (*the Wrath of the Ancestors). In the novel, Nobantu, an Anglicised and Fort Hare-educated black elite woman, is exiled after killing the revered snake, uMajola. Throughout the tale, this snake stands as a sacred totem for the amaMpondomise as its appearance is understood to be a good omen, particularly when at the side of male heirs of the court. The elders believed that when Nobantu killed uMajola, her disrespect of customary tradition unfurled a wrath from the ancestors that lead to her eventual suicide. Her portrait is an archetype made life; she is a woman who goes against ancestral whim and is forever relegated into history as a ‘bad woman’.
Nomalizo Khwezi’s life mimics that of Nobantu’s, as her journey also hinders her from enacting both traditional and modern ideals of “womanhood”. In Inyanga yekhala (*The month of the Aloe), Nomalizo takes on a solemn pose, as if meditating; calculating her next step; or even reflecting on choices already made. To the left of her shoulder, are two figures — that of the pious ‘Church Lady’ and dutiful Makoti (a newly married bride). These recurring tropes haunt Nomalizo’s consciousness as she navigates the only two ways of ‘being’ presented to her. The votiveness of this portrait lays in Nomalizo herself as an offering, her name alone means “she who brings reward”, and for Ruga, is also a reference to the Classic South African ballad sung by Letta Mbulu. Khwezi (meaning “morning star” ) is both a reference to the planet Venus and to the human rights activist Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo or “Khwezi”, caught in the history of the 2005 Zuma Rape Trial. For Ruga, this marked the end of South Africa’s post-1995 Azanian ‘rainbow’ fallacy and disclosed a fraught government and nationalist myth, becoming a pertinent time for his practice.
The aloes that enclave Nomalizo in the portrait, Inyanga yekhala, are the seasonal flora of July. They are both a representative of ‘home’ and a promise of futurity. This hint of potential is recurring in The Lunar Songbook Cycle. The entirety of the story plays out in the vespertine: an active time for celestial happenings and “things that come out at night”. Ruga refers to nocturnal movement both in nature’s orbit and in the city — cruising, BDSM play parties, and clubbing. In this tapestry, there is a tension drawn between hiding and emerging secrets; alluded to by an omnipresent moon that hovers to the right of Nomalizo.
In Clytemnestra, the last tapestry of this series, Ruga offers a cinematic introduction to Nestra Brink. The Lunar Songbook Cycle’s nightscape is disrupted by a painterly dusk backdrop, signalling a shift in the narrative. When Nestra Brink and Nomalizo Khwezi meet, they are two ships passing at night. Their partnership sparks an intense reformation of the status quo. In Clytemnestra, the audience acts as a voyeur to Nestra on a phonecall to Nomalizo, confiding in her about a recurring nightmare where she gives birth to a snake, swaddles it as a baby, and offers it her breast for feeding. Instead of bearing milk, however, she bleeds. In the work, the phone cord slithers past her breasts up to her ear as a premonition of her demise: a consequence of her son’s revenge against her for murdering his father, Memnus Brink. The work functions as a narrative play, a time-lapse into the future of this saga. Furthermore, it draws on the parallels between Nobantu, Nomalizo, and Nestra — three femmes bound by the imagery of a serpent, a token used to dismiss them as villainous renegades. This historical trope trickles down from Snake charmers to Eve and the serpent. It is used as a device to disempower femmes as mad, erratic, illogical and reactionary sorcerers. When in fact, the burdensome choices made by each of them, were made to relinquish themselves from subjugation and forge a space for self-determination.
Nestra’s development is informed by the mythological Greek character, Queen Clytemnestra, who plots the demise of her husband, Agamemnon. This is a reference to the Oresteia trilogy, a playwright by ancient Greek tragedian, Aeschylus. Nestra exists at the helm of literary drama, and is borne as another member of Ruga’s ‘Bad women’ league: she procures a lover and accomplice in Nomalizo when both mothers guild together when their sons are sent to the front-line of the Azanian war. Memnus acts as an influencer in this decision, and Nestra’s loss and betrayal propels her into the vengeful prototype of the Black Widow. Her and Nomalizo seek justice and equity by claiming ownership of Brink Publishing in Lady Macbeth-esque fashion. At this point in the story, Nestra finds her power in defiant hyper-femininity. She becomes a libidinous femme-fatale, who uses her sensuality and allure to devastating affect. Her femininity, previously used to disarm her, now becomes her ammunition.
When Nestra and Nomalizo join in fighting the common enemy — Memnus Brink — they are in fact killing the invisible enemy. Ruga turns the narrative of ‘the vengeful woman’ on its head, providing them with a depth of vengeance beyond merely a loveless marriage or domestic desire and rage. Memnus Brink stands as a representative for Neo-liberalism: of the exploitation of human capital for economic value; of mass-consumption and excess; privatisation; and ecological ruin. He is described by Ruga as a “grey suited, grey shoes, paisley tied, big spectacled, Mad Man type with a signet ring.” He is a corrupt and benevolent industrialist whose actions aid only his own gain — and it is from this that Nomalizo and Nestra untangle themselves from and rebel against.
In Dramatis Personae, Ruga delights us not only with the introduction to two complex characters, but he also takes the viewer on an educational journey of the many literary references that motivate his practice and the importance these hold to Ruga as an artist.
Text by Lindsey Raymond in collaboration with Athi-Patra Ruga
Athi-Patra Ruga is one of the few artists working in South Africa today whose work has adopted the trope of myth as a contemporary response to the post-apartheid era. Ruga creates alternative identities and uses these avatars as a way to parody and critique the existing political and social status quo. Ruga’s artistic approach of creating myths and alternate realities is in some way an attempt to view the traumas of the last 200 years of colonial history from a place of detachment – at a farsighted distance where wounds can be contemplated outside of personalized grief and subjective defensiveness.
The philosophical allure and allegorical value of utopia has been central to Ruga’s practice. His construction of a mythical metaverse populated by characters which he has created and depicted in his work have allowed Ruga to create an interesting space of self reflexivity in which political, cultural and social systems can be critiqued and parodied. Ruga has used his utopia as a lens to process the fraught history of a colonial past, to critique the present and propose a possible humanist vision for the future.
Significant exhibitions and performances include: Kiss My Genders, Haywood Gallery, London; Ravelled Threads, Sean Kelly Gallery, Seattle; Art Afrique, Louis Vuitton Foundation, Paris; Over the Rainbow, Performa 17, New York; An Age of Our Own Making, Holbaek, Denmark; Queer Threads: Crafting Identity and Community, Boston Centre for the Arts, Boston; AFRICA: Architecture, Culture and Identity at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art; Imaginary Fact at the South African Pavilion, 55th Venice Biennale; African Odysseys at The Brass Artscape in Brussels; Public Intimacy at the SFMOMA, San Francisco; The Film Will Always Be You: South African Artists on Screen at the Tate Modern in London; and Making Africa at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. Recent projects include Ruga’s collaboration with Christian Dior on designing two handbags for the fourth edition of the Lady Dior Art Bag.
His works form part of Private, Public and Museum Collections in South Africa and abroad, namely: the Smithsonian Museum of African Art, Washington DC; The Zeitz MOCCA; Museion – Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Bolzano Italy; CAAC – Pigozzi Collection; The Wedge Collection; and the IZIKO South African National Gallery.