Artist's work focuses on the 'erasure of womxn & queers' from history

Performance artist Athi-Patra Ruga's new monuments will create a new history that hopefully cures collective amnesia

19 November 2017 - 00:00 By Sandiso Ngubane

To call Athi-Patra Ruga a "young" artist feels inappropriate, considering that at 33 he is already one of South Africa's brightest art stars; the connotation that he is only just emerging seems wrong, given the importance of his body of work in performance art, costume, photography and video.
Ruga has exhibited in Paris, for starters, at the Louis Vuitton Foundation's Art Afrique show, alongside the likes of William Kentridge and Zanele Muholi.Other cities where he has exhibited or performed include New York (Over the Rainbow at Performa 17; Boston (Queer Threads: Crafting Identity and Community at the Boston Centre for the Arts); London (South African Artists on Screen at the Tate Modern); and Bilbao (Making Africa at the Guggenheim Museum).
His works are part of private and public collections both at home and abroad, namely the Zeitz MOCAA, the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Bolzano, Italy, and Iziko South African National Gallery.
When I speak to him over Skype, Ruga is in Berlin where he, alongside fellow artist Angel-Ho, premiered a work titled The BEATification of Feral Benga."How do we create new monuments?" Ruga asks during our conversation.
It's something he has sought to address in his work, notably with the creation of his Proposed Model for Tseko Simon Nkoli, now on display at the Zeitz MOCAA in Cape Town.
"It's been really amazing to see school kids coming to the Zeitz MOCAA to be told about this slice of history without sugar-coating it," he says. It's amazing because no one learns about Nkoli in school.
"We need to ask ourselves what has changed between then and now," Ruga says.
There's no denying that the internet, and social media, have contributed much to the visibility of queer bodies, bringing into the mainstream narratives that in the past have often been papered over or ignored altogether.
While Ruga acknowledges this, he questions the proliferation of new pronouns to describe those who identify outside of the gender binary, something he views as highlighting the idea of "exile" in our own bodies.
"In Nguni there's only one pronoun, there's no 'he' or 'she'. Anyone who says in our culture no queer or femme bodies existed in the past is wrong," says Ruga, who was born in Mthatha.
With regards to social media itself, the artist says he sees the unintended danger of creating an elite within the queer community, and the exclusion, for example, of "my poor queer friend in the Eastern Cape". He adds: "When the queer revolution is manifested, we'll still be niggers."On November 29 Ruga's solo exhibition Queens in Exile opens at WhatiftheWorld in Woodstock, Cape Town.
"It is a considered and researched piece that joins the dots between art works and the artist-in-exile's need to place themself within a progressive conversation about his place in queer, black modernist history."
It is within that context that Ruga will seek to expose our collective amnesia with regards to womxn and queer figures.
Is there a risk of the work being seen as revising history?
Ruga replies that it's not necessarily revisionism, but rather seeking to tell better stories by rewriting history and addressing the glaring absence of queer and womxn figures from the archive and perhaps memory.
"There were womxn on Robben Island, but their stories are not archived," he says. "There were women and femmes there, and by using my body to reinsert them in that context, I want people to question where my own body has been and to ask, 'What has changed, what stories are we telling?'"
Ruga's past work, The Future White Women of Azania Saga and the sequel The Elder of Azania, used mythical characters to interrogate the myth of Azania and the fantasy of a southern African decolonialised utopia, as well as the promise of a rainbow nation.

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