November 23rd, 2011 · Lindsay C. Harris

Synchronized Swimming and the AIDS Crisis

Athi-Patra Ruga's Ilulwane

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Among faint smells of chlorine and harsh red lights, 12 women with minimal Day-of-the-Dead-like makeup floated in a circle around a large, bloated figure with a long white cape descending deep into the dark water. Low thuds and chants began to play, as the swimmers dipped and flipped their way to the center.

This ambitious performance, Ilulwane, by young South African artist Athi-Patra Ruga was influenced by photographs by Alvin Baltrop’s 1970s and '80s New York pier life, which was evident in the footage projected behind the pool of shots of wooden pegs, rippling water, and dead fish in the Hudson River. “Ilulwane,” the Xhosa word for bat, can also describe a young man who has forsaken the traditional rite of passage to manhood. Furthermore, this performance is said to reflect passage of time in New York and Xhosa culture, themes of Xhosa initiation ceremonies, the AIDS crisis and definitions of masculinity. Some of these themes, however, were far from obvious.

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All images above by Alvin Baltrop.

Generally characterized as a sport of cheer, grace and control, Ruga managed to make these synchronized swimmers look more like darkly beautiful, dying fish marked by erratic movements, floating bodies and limbs smacking the water. The ambiguous central figure, which under the costuming was the artist himself, had very little movement to add, and in between the few aquatic feats, the performance often dragged on.

   

The music – a collaboration with Spoek Mathambo – altered from low chants to lighter piano melodies, a contrast which, by the end, seemed to mock a certain gaiety of life in preference for a dark dance of the dead. Occasionally a male voice was heard, although barely audible, at one point saying, “I must not disgrace.” The culmination came when the central figure was hoisted high above the water, white cape stretching below, and red high heels visible. The figure slowly flailed its limbs, eventually falling backward in the harness in a final ceremonial act.

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