Reflecting on the vivid dystopia of Athi-Patra Ruga’s 6 year parade

In 14th century accounts of travel to the continent, Azania was the name given to Africa’s southernmost tip. Later, during the apartheid era, black activists made the name their own, using Azania to describe an African utopia.

When multimedia artist Athi-Patra Ruga performed the first episode of The Future White Women of Azania in 2010, he did so alone. The narrative began in response to the national archive he was raised with, which is continually betrayed by anti-womxn and anti-African acts. In the years that followed, The Future White Women of Azania saga unfolded as a series of parodies, and grew in scale until a final, extravagant,  24-person procession marked the project’s end in June 2016.

Athi’s performative parades are a visual spectacle – led by fantastical characters in elaborate and jovial costumes – and they emphasise a scratchy relationship between aesthetics and intent, or the way things seem vs actuality. Kaleidoscopic colours are used to entice and beguile the audience, while the characters symbolise lack, a dystopic state, and the shattering of the rainbow myth.

A scene from Ahti-Patra Ruga's 'The Elder Of Azania' Photo: Charles Harry Mackenzie
‘The Elder of Azania’ at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival (2015) / Photo by Charles Harry Mackenzie

There have been multiple themes and constructs at play in this saga including utopia, myth, marginalisation, femininity, spirituality, transformation and nationalism. What were your goals when embarking on the performative project in 2010?

Since the beginning of my performative practice I have always assumed avatars that reflect the issues you’ve mentioned. Somehow it seems easier for me to attack these issues in a disguised avatar rather than in civvies. This could be the psychology behind the Marvel superheroes – they all have some kind of trauma that is the genesis of them acquiring superpowers. Through the characters I create, I have the strength to explicitly communicate the meaty issues. For self-preservation, maybe.

My first avatar, Miss Congo, was created in Berea, Jozi and only got to visit Kinshasa three years after the character had been performing a parody of the Western arts primitivist gaze and our complicity as African artists to it. Injibhabha, the second, went for Swiss xenophobia as rationale. Beiruth (2008) was inspired by the humiliation of Nwabisa Ngcukana in an event that would be The Miniskirt Attacks. Then, for the first time I questioned my masculinity and privilege. The avatar was born from this national, existential trauma that would lead me to start a series of, say, parodies. Parodies of the feminine construct in the eyes and laws of men. Parodies of the superficial markers of nationhood. And so on. This led me to start parodying the national archive I was raised with…the same one that was betrayed in 2006 with the Khwezi rape trial…and in 2008 with the anti-women and anti-African xenophobic attacks. Enter The Future White Women of Azania.

In what ways does the Azania you’ve imagined resemble reality, and in what ways does it reject it?

It was not intended to resemble reality in the first place. What was reality for me after my “Simunye/Kwaito/Rainbow Nation” ideals were destroyed from the betrayals? That was the madness I wanted to unleash. The pantheon of avatars enacted a utopia. But now the thing with utopia is that it automatically shines light on the human condition…especially our dreams and wants.

A scene from 'A Decimation By Any Other' at the Bass Museum (2016)
‘A Decimation By Any Other’ at the Bass Museum (2016)

How did The Future White Women of Azania evolve over the years? Tell us about the various shapes and forms this project has taken throughout its duration…

Well, it started with just me wearing the costume, then 2 people, and it ended up with 24 performers at Roskilde Festival just now. This growth to me represents a growth of a population and how settler culture created and penetrates foreign spaces. The costumes inform the choreography and ultimately speak of movement and access to these spaces. Access – this is something that seems to categorise a lot of nations when they are negotiating the protection of whatever “core identity” they claim. It would be cool if we could multiply ourselves…

You’ve performed parts of The Future White Women of Azania around the world from Africa to the U.S. to Europe, having recently concluded the series at Roskilde Festival in Denmark. Did you find the meaning of the work shifted significantly in relation to where it was performed, and the audience it was performed to?

Indeed. The series takes on a soapie-style narrative. With new avatars dying, rising and dying again. So as I was performing these characters I wanted people to be aware of their creation, and I wanted to invoke characters that the current times do not acknowledge. In Grahamstown I played out a nonsensical public service announcement that completely erases the existence of men in the nationalistic Azania. Every character is invented to speak about the lack of utopia. That’s universal in how it exists in all of our memories and reactions to performances like this.

A scene from 'The Elder of Azania' at the MOMA (2014)
‘The Elder of Azania’ at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (2014)

Colour plays a signigicant role in your work. Why have you chosen to use such vibrant means to convey serious socio-political matters?

It’s a pacifier, and it disarms for those exact reasons. I wanted to make the work easy on the heart sometimes. Yet there is something fishy about too much colour as well…I find this in adults mostly, they don’t trust it. This vulnerability then becomes a Trojan horse I use to show the dystopic and the lack. I must admit I got fewer smack downs from the public since assuming this avatar. That is also another thing…art that is sponsored by the state is an opiate. Azania was a parody of a nation state and its many contradictions.

Outwardly and at the start, there’s a sense of parade conveyed through your performances. But, as things progress, the balloons droop and pop, and the character dissolves to reveal a performer. Tell us more about the symbolism in this transition?

From the beginning the avatar has been compromised. There is a perceived fragility that inspires men to foolishly want to own, protect, and fight for that they transfer upon the feminine body. This to me is the spirit of the costume. The processions refer to what I believe is the most powerful, democratic way of performing your desires as one people/body. The balloons, which on the outside bring to mind feelings of coziness, fragility and jovialness, are all weighed down by a liquid filling that weighs up to 4kg’s!

It’s a cathartic act that is based on the marching from a place to a destination, and while this happens the identity and costume choreography gets lighter…shrugging off its initially factory-made identity to reveal what the performers decide to be seen as, after all the balloons have popped.

A scene from 'The Elder of Azania' at the Grahamstown National Arts Festical (2013)
‘The Elder of Azania’ at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival (2015) / Photo by Charles Harry Mackenzie

To accompany and perhaps contrast the ephemeral performance pieces, you’ve created meticulously staged photographs, bedazzled sculptures, intricate large-scale tapestries and video works. Was this always the intention? 

The art must travel. Apart from the joys of being able to work across these mediums, I am grounded in this idea that new interpretations and audiences are vital to the message of art. That’s if you don’t wanna waste anyone’s time, of course.

In the beginning of my performances back in Jozi in 2005 I didn’t have cameras (coz cash), but later on I started flirting with photography. First as a performance tool, but then I realised the magic of what it does…not only do I get to perform, the audience performs with me. Instead of anatagonising you, they become spellbound. Or maybe it’s all in my head, lol. But I think videos and photographs humanise the avatars and they prolong the said “ephemeral” nature of performance art. My first love are still the public interventions as they take place in front of a less constructed audience than the academic/commercial ilk. Then video…you can catch mine on YouTube.

Now that this saga has drawn to a close, what are you working on?

The Queens in Exile series will be debuting in November in New York and at the Michigan Theatre. It’s centered on a new avatar called The Versatile Queen Ivy, who is performing imaginary resurrections and conversations with three historical figures: Senegalese dancer Feral Benga, Delmas treason trialist Simon Nkoli, and queer rights pioneer Sylvia Rivera (who the title is attributed to). It will show in Cape Town in February in its entirety at WHATIFTHEWORLD gallery, and will move on for a European cycle in autumn.

A scene from 'A Decimation By Any Other' at the Bass Museum (2016)
‘A Decimation By Any Other’ at the Bass Museum (2016)
'The Elder of Azania' at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (2014)
‘The Elder of Azania’ at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (2014)
'The Elder of Azania' at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival (2013)
‘The Elder of Azania’ at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival (2015) / Photo by Charles Harry Mackenzie

All images courtesy of Athi-Patra Ruga and WHATIFTHEWORLD.

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