THE BIG INTERVIEW: A unique spin on art
Standing in a winding queue outside the Long Street Baths in Cape Town, I now understand why we were told to come early for last Friday night's performance of Illulwaneby Athi-Patra Ruga, an artist who is experiencing a meteoric rise, both locally and internationally, at the speed of a rocket.
He performed his piece the previous Wednesday at the same venue after it had debuted in New York in November last year. Many people were turned away from Wednesday night's performance as the full-house signs went up, and those present on Friday night did not want to suffer the same fate.
Patrons, who were queuing up, enjoying the last of the summer breeze, spoke excitedly. Besides the rapidly growing reputation of the artist, interest is piqued by the medium and the message of Ruga's latest collaborative work.
Illulwane is an invented persona, says the programme. ''Literally translated from the Xhosa, it means 'one who floats at night'.
"It's a physical manifestation of the derogatory term for a Xhosa male who has been circumcised in a hospital rather than in the traditionally sanctioned initiation ceremony."
Doors open and we file into the dark, muggy pool area through tunnels eerily lit by unidentifiable, strange figures. Shortly after taking our seats , a group of synchronised swimmers, representing the amazibazana (mothers of the initiates) take up their positions in the pool, their costumes glowing red in the surrounding darkness.
Ruga appears in the centre, a bloated figure wrapped in lace and suspended by lace-covered buoys.
He lies there immobile until the end of the performance, while the swimmers circle him and images are projected on the screen on the side of the pool.
Musician Spoek Mathambo and Ruga composed the "operatic noise soundtrack", which echoes like a dispossessed spirit in the space.
Ruga, who grew up in Mthatha, discovered his love of art in the last years of his schooling.
He had long known about his passion for fashion, and, after school, enrolled at Gordon Flack Davison Academy of Design.
"My journey through learning different things led me to mix the mediums of fashion and art. The elaborate costumes help me get my messages across," he says.
Ruga is fascinated by themes of identity, belonging, acceptance and inclusion, and his performances always take place in live situations where he can confront these themes and get audience feedback.
At the end of Illulwane, Rugarises on a trapeze rail above the swimmers - "a lament and homage to the Castrati, the emasculated outsider, simultaneously admired and reviled".
"There's a fine line when looking at issues of identity between seeking approval, which I don't seek in any way, and being influenced by traditions, rites of passage, and personal history," he says.
"I open up in my performances to explore myself and in so doing grow a character in a certain way. Then I usually kill that character off, but I think this performance will continue. There's a lot to understand."
Illulwane draws on interlinking themes of Xhosa initiation and the "cruising" of some gay men.
Ruga drew on the photographs of Alvin Baltrop, who documented the effect of HIV/Aids in New York in the 1970s and '80s, on the practice of cruising.
"For some, cruising is also a rite of passage for homosexual men," says Ruga.
Ruga performs various poses, the pregnant-looking body covered in lace from head to toe and wearing red stilettos.
"After lying there in the water my back hurts and the shoes hurt (I wear them to explore 150 years of fashion history, where men design for women manipulating the image of the body in a painful way).
"There's a danger of the 8m train getting tangled with the swimmers, but I reach a place where I transcend and hopefully I take the audience with me as I balance really dark issues with some lighter ones."