For the dazzling Athi-Patra Ruga, “performance” proves the most spacious umbrella for encompassing the many elements of a practice that otherwise defies conventional categorization. Through a whirlwind vernacular that draws on ballroom culture, modern dance, soap operas and fashion, the South African artist weaves the colorful performance of everyday queerness into a camp re-telling of political and social histories. His most recent Performa commission, for example, entitled Over the Rainbow, referenced the cultural re-branding of South Africa as the “rainbow nation” in 1994, sometimes in lieu of actual societal transformation of a still racially segregated society. In the performance, Ruga gestures to the multi-layered political history of the country, hails its icons such as late Afropop superstar Brenda Fassie, and the audience meets the “succubus” Versatile Queen Ivy, one of Ruga’s many mythic avatars that appear throughout his oeuvre in various forms of drag and disguise. In their naïvite, Ruga describes his characters acting as a kind of “Trojan Horse,” an entry point for the often contentious identity-politics for a post-Apartheid generation of young South Africans.
Trained as a fashion designer, Ruga’s Dada-esque use of costume is a central strategy for bringing his imagined utopias to life. Born through networks of consumerism, fashion reflects histories of communication and exchange across geographies. And while dress signals identity, it also serves as a subversive medium for drag and dress-up, a tool for transgression against cultural narratives and (self-)imposed ethnographies, particularly in the African continent, whose rich textile histories exist in a continuous process of international appropriation. Ruga plays with images of Southern Africa as he constructs lavish costumes and vibrant tapestries, often depicting one of his myth-like characters. As props in a performance, these tapestries take on an almost regal quality, forming a coats of arms for a utopian future in that is irreverent, queer, and always echoing the cultural hybridity of the Global South. With an insistence on such a materiality in his art practice, he simultaneously challenges the dominant lingua franca of the supposedly global art world, one still so colored by the legacy of Western modernity
Ruga and I spoke a few days prior to Over the Rainbow, at the costume fitting for Over the Rainbow, in the pleasantly frenzied studios of vanguard fashion label threeAsFour, somewhere in New York’s Chinatown. With him are Dope Saint Jude and Angel_H0, artists, friends and fellow instigators of Cape Town’s flourishing queer scene, trying on and posing in various outfits. As the doyen of it all, Ruga tells me enthusiastically about the vestiary foundations of his practice.
Jeppe Ugelvig: Rather than training as an artist, you studied fashion design. How come?
Athi-Patra Ruga: I got a scholarship to study haute couture. My parents could not afford, or even fathom, the idea that I could make a living as an artist. I love and appreciate the fact that every time I said that I wanted to be an artist, my folks would say: “Ok, go to an arts high school, that will somehow empower you to make your own decisions.” It was at art high school that I first discovered the multidisciplinary nature of the arts. It all started with Hugo Ball—he was the first I ever saw to take fashion and fabric, dematerializing it for subversion and opening up a range of possibilities. I’ve always fallen in love with art movements that work across disciplines. Dada, for example, involved a whole dimension of costumery. You could even argue that primitivism had a very large emphasis on dress-up, as well as orientalism. From Diaghelev’ Ballet Russes, to Yves St. Laurent and his use of Mondrian, moving onto the post-apartheid afro-chic and the kwaito music scene I experienced in Jozi, clothes are literally now becoming the dream that Hugo Ball had.
What did you take from the methodologies of fashion practice?
With haute couture, you make one mistake, and you have to pick the whole jacket up and do it again—for me, this hard disciplining led me to know that I could conquer dance and all of the other arts. I think that once you discipline yourself it can fit into any other discipline. I started working on tapestries, and they became a way I could document my avatars; I would literally sit and weave that fate of a character onto Mount Olympus. That was a lot to do with utopia and agency within utopia. There’s an agency in using costume because you aren’t defining yourself, but rather, you’ve aligned yourself with a variety of things, and with that comes a great deal of responsibility. I like the power part —I love weaponized clothes.
When was your first intersection with performance, if you were predominately a fashion designer?
The toy aisle at Pick n Pay with my mother when I was a child! [laughs]. I’m always performing, I guess. But my entrance into performing for an audience, whether it’s made up, or intervened upon, was when I moved to Johannesburg from a very small city called East London.
Bringing these elements of design and image-making into the realm of performance, you position them in a time-based medium. What kind of story-telling do you engage with?
In my live performances, I try to not have any form of linear narrative. I love disruption, I love transgression! It’s not theater – I wish I did theatre! For me, I think that the narratives, the linear narratives, happen in the pictorial form, in the petit point embroidery. They happen in how I distil these performances because this one is the first in many episodes. I’m a big fan of soap operas, cliffhangers, and all that. My performances are introductions that ask us “who these people are and where they come from,” and I express that through costume and in tapestry, as well as video and photography.
There’s an incredible freedom in such a full-blown multidisciplinarity, jumping from one thing to another and appropriating elements for one’s own advantage.
I like how you used the word freedom for it. It’s the most nerve-wracking thing. Nerve-wracking because I find freedom in disciplining myself and allowing myself to rise to a performance.
Even today, each discipline possesses its own formalism and rules. Are you concerned with the status of the different arts, of art versus fashion versus performance? These critical hierarchies obviously reflect cultural ones.
Well for me, having had a history of not belonging, and traumatically being told that I don’t belong on many levels, has taught me that the only way to deal with the norm it is to either subvert it, or to make it a tool to make sense of the world and empower myself. When I felt the push away from establishments—society’s too—was the first time I actually felt validated, which is different than being accepted. I like a bit of resistance, that validates me, you know? I wouldn’t push so hard if no one was pushing back—I’d just be all happy without structures test yourself against, which makes for the most boring art. I think this is maybe why African art is capturing and rocking the world at the moment, because themes of belonging and not belonging are so recurring. Even going to the art industry, we have to ask ourselves: how do we actually speak of our aesthetics in a way that is not slavishly accessible? Instead of a language, it becomes a vernacular, you know—a vernacular that could be understood everywhere. So that’s my thing with art, with fashion; in my generation, we always link fashion with cultural identity, which is great. It’s a great way to “celebrate” different cultures, but there is something limiting about it too.
I would argue that cultural identity and its politics are always read most poignantly outside the confines of the traditional arts such as classical painting and theatre. How do you read the rise of a disciplinary ‘South African cultural vernacular’ through the political histories of your country?
It’s been a long time on its way—a very long time. In 1994, you have kwaito music, which is basically a deep house slowed down to a minimum and always accompanied by a dress code. 1994 marks the opening up of the borders of South Africa, whereby everyone could fly in because sanctions were gone. And boom, suddenly we had the Internet, and boom, AIDS at the same time. I come from those three things, a multicultural mixing of diaspora and people, which I don’t believe had been freely enjoyed in generations before us. We were the first generation of the Internet, the second of AIDS, and for me, I truly feel like that’s where my queer politics come from.
How is fashion political to you?
Fashion politics come from ideas of constructing the body-icon to better access whatever it is you desire inside and out and it is about how you ally yourself with political ideologies, all because of wanting to dissolve borders. By saying “West African fabric,” for example, am I referencing the Dutch? There’s movement in fashion, it becomes a kind of clusterfuck. I live in it. I live and breathe in this world of contradictions. I think that’s why I tend not to be angry much at political things, because I know that my job is to express and bear witness to it. But…is it really?
What was the impetus of Over the Rainbow, which you will be premiering with Performa?
The project basically started with my rational for Cry, The Beloved Country (by novelist Alan Paton). I remember reading it as set work in high school, and you always read it in retrospect, as we’re a generation that was not from the ‘80s, or of the apartheid struggle. There was always a certain distance from it, which I think is also because the cultural trauma still very apparent. For me, it was about balancing the trauma and the memories that come with the book and its context. The title of the performance came because we were always called the Rainbow Nation, a reconciliatory exercise that had to happen post-apartheid. 20 years later, we are jettisoned to that utopia, while trying to find our way back now to some kind of sanity.
The performance will take place in a very particular performative space; it’s a party first and foremost, but it also serves as a kind of institutional gathering, and the audience is not a regular one. Does this come into play in your work?
For me, the beautiful thing is that there’s no “cute” way of presenting my practice. It took a very long, hard time for me, with our aesthetic, to be accepted in the art world, both locally and internationally – until I became a part of some vogue. I’m quite unhinged. The audience needs to just suspend whatever status, whatever level of education and prejudice they have. They will just have to experience art in a vernacular that appeals to the most diverse of human beings. There will be victims, but there will always be collateral slayage in the greater art practice, you know?
Jeppe Ugelvig is a critic and curator based in New York. He is currently a graduate student at the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, and contributes frequently to publications such as Flash Art, DIS Magazine, and i-D.