Athi-Patra Ruga is a performance and studio artist. His work showcases marginalized experiences through mythical characters, making them identifiable, yet still maintaining their strangeness. Surprisingly Athi doesn’t have training in physical theatre or drama, but his interest in the corporeal as well as the origins and effects that images have on our everyday politics led him into using his body as a medium.
His first ever project was Miss Congo, a video piece he was commissioned to do in Kinshasa in 2006 – 2007. He says, “I still see some elements from those days (in my work) today, like costumes used in contrast to landscapes to accentuate materialistic motives.” Since then, his work has become increasingly politicized. He has also started delving deeper into objects that bolster nationalism, like his tapestry, stained glass, and mock of commemorative statues and processions.
At the moment he’s working on The Future White Woman of Azania (FWWOA) series. FWWOA brings alive new mythical characters set in the apartheid era’s fiction of Azania – a Southern African decolonialised arcadia. Athi’s Azania is a region of bold tropical colors populated with characters whose identities are in a state of transformation. The central figure is The Future White Woman, who is undergoing a racial metamorphosis amongst a cocoon of multi-colored balloons. This questions the concept of cultural assimilation.
Athi has always felt the need to create a narrative that involved the audience in the telling of the story. With FWWOA the goal was to create a character which he could go back to, one that serves as a discipline and a story, but still comes from a real place. Athi believes that “art should always come from a place”.
FWWOA started about two years ago when he was working on Ilulwane (Performa Bienalle 11) in 2010. “It started with a character that was made up of balloons, who executed the simple tool of procession as a lone gesture to nationalism, and as a result belonging and not belonging.” As with all his work, the leading character had to be taken out for a few performances first. From these performances he began building on the idea of creating a land that is part fantasy and part of a nationalist reality.
FWWOA is Athi’s favourite body of work thus far, especially because there’s a strong foundation in the form of its physical history and that of the real-time people, including himself. “I feel that background and history make good costumes, which in turn makes good choreography, which in turn make for an animated procession.”
In the future, Athi is looking at adding a new character who speaks of the spiritual backbone of Azania. He has just finished composing a new piece for the SFMOMA based on Debussy’s “l’apres midi d’un faun” and his socio-spiritual relations with the white goat, as both a sacrifice and of being an “unlocker of ages and stages of my life and that of the Azanians’.”
Athi says that his artistic philosophy is always in flux, but that’s exactly what his practice requires. “At the moment I am coming to realise how quality, superior concept and a good work ethic informs a sense of balance”, which is exactly what he strikes with his studio work and performances.
After the FWWOA show he will be going into production for fairs in New York and Basel continuing the FWWOA series, and the commissions for SFMOMA. He’s also working on a Zeitz Collection, which will be realised beginning 2014. Athi aims to “be one of the most formidable art studios on the continent, and finally take that holiday in the Cote d’ Azure.”
FWWOA runs at Whatiftheworld Gallery from 27 November – 8 February, 1 Argyle Street (Corner of Argyle & Albert Road) Woodstock.
Find Athi-Patra Ruga and Studio on Facebook or at 11 Hope Street, Gardens, Cape Town.
This content series is presented by the new and untamed Mercedes-Benz CLA.