Queens in Exile, artist Athi-Patra Ruga’s latest body of work, is an expansion of the layered pantheon the multidisciplinary artist creates to address issues of belonging and identity. This time The Versatile Queen Ivy, an avatar who took four years to form, is the latest protagonist to join his fictional utopia, which turns its focus towards the topic of exile.
The resplendent body of work, comprising film, photography and tapestry, delves into themes of disembodiment and speaks to sidelined chapters and forgotten icons glossed-over in history books.
Drawing on the lives and work of three main icons; Senegalese dancer Feral Benga, anti-apartheid and gay rights activist Simon Nkoli and Sylvia Rivera, a US transgender activist, it encourages viewers to interrogate the canon with renewed vigour. It subtly pokes at the holes in South African history and reminds us of the need for a cohesive account inclusive of queer icons and womxn, who too built this country.
Since performing his first avatar, Miss Congo, in 2005, the Mthatha-born and Cape Town-based artist has steadily built a reputation here and abroad for making work that traverses fashion, art and performance.
Some of his many career highlights include exhibiting at the Venice Biennale in 2013, creating a giant tapestry cycle for Fondation Louis Vuitton in 2014 and presenting at the Performa Biennial in New York earlier this year.
Athi invited us into his studio to talk about The Versatile Queen Ivy, the notion of exile and reinvestigating the archive. Photographs by Jody Brand.
In the shoot, you’re wearing a skirt designed by Missibaba, can you tell us a bit about that?
It’s inspired by Feral Benga and Josephine Baker. Feral Benga moved to Paris after World War 1 and danced in gay cabarets at the Folies Bergère music hall. There’s archival footage of Josephine doing The Banana Dance, and he’s in the background beating drums. He used to do drag performances of Josephine. I love that there’s this queer character paying tribute to the greatest star of his time. And probably the reason [we have] forgotten him is because it’s tough to sexualise a sexually confident gay man. How did we let go of someone like that, and hang onto primitivism and human zoos, when there’s this triumphant character?
Exile has played a huge role in South Africa’s history and your current work. Can you tell us why you chose to explore this?
Disembodiment is what I started with. We can be exiled from ourselves. We can be exiled from the monuments we see in the city. There’s also archival exile whereby we forget things. Education, women’s rights and queer identity issues – I feel if we looked back into the history that we have as queer black people, we would see that we’ve played such a big role in the culture that forced politics to change.
You reference Robben Island in Queens in Exile. Why?
I’ve imagined the island in Queens in Exile as a place for new manifestos to come up. It’s also a place of waiting because sometimes it’s good to just wait and see things unravel before one mobilises.
Robben Island has a history as a place for prisoners who were revolting against apartheid. Out of all 22 laureates who were awarded the Isitwalandwe Medal [the highest award given by the ANC] only four were women. I feel it’s a high betrayal.
Once again, this form of monument or prize, almost makes it seem that women weren’t moulding the destiny of this rainbow nation. Even researching, it was difficult to track women prisoners. There was 15-year-old Xhosa [prophetess] Nongqawuse, who is said to have been responsible for a cattle killing. Then I discovered a real queen who was imprisoned at Robben Island called Katyi wamaRharhabe Maqoma [during the 1800s]. That’s why I say that people can be exiled from the archive.
Describe this body of work as your favourite designer.
It would have to be the Ballets Russes’s costume designer, Léon Bakst. He made these costumes that would shape the dancers’ movements. When I collaborate with designers, we have to make something that causes my movement to change, so the avatar becomes fully realised.
In your film Over the Rainbow, we hear the national anthem. Can you tell us about its arrangement?
The national anthem is a monument. If you don’t relate to the national anthem, you don’t relate to land you walk on. I do not like the national anthem because Mr Mzilikazi Khumalo – who is my favourite, favourite Zulu composer – removed the last part, which is basically, Ma kube njalo! Ma kube njalo! Kude kube ngunaphakade! Kude kube ngunaphakade!
It’s such an empowering part as it’s basically a song of atonement. I want to claim my power and Ma kube njalo! gives me the power to do that. I feel that black people of this country who knew the power of that song, who revolutionised this country, were not given the monument with that verse. It was removed to accommodate the rainbow, and I am bringing it back from the archive.
How is The Versatile Queen Ivy — who first made an appearance in your Future White Women of Azania Saga  — different from those who have come before?
The Versatile Queen Ivy is very embodied. That comes as a healing because [in the past] I’ve used all of these characters to get to a place where I could reveal my face. I always said that I didn’t want to show my face because it becomes problematic. I don’t want to do drag as female impersonation; I want to do drag as a parody and ‘fuck you’ to how men create femininity, which is very flawed. I think The Versatile Queen Ivy can reveal, through drag, many contradictions and hypocrisies about what we call The Rainbow Nation, what we call belonging and nationalism.
Procession is a big part of your work. What role does it play?
Processions raise the idea that life is a constant walking, walking, walking. There’s a cathartic thing that happens, but also there’s this dream that people have of a procession acting as a field of change. Think of people marching to Luthuli House with a memorandum. They think that fees will fall once they’ve handed over the memorandum – but will they? We must never think we’ve arrived at things. I want the audience to know that freedom is a process.
Queens in Exile opens at WHATIFTHEWORLD in Woodstock, Cape Town on 29 November 2017.
This interview has been edited. Look out for full conversation out on podcast.
Photographer: Jody Brand
Producer: Stefanie Jason
Creative director: Lee-Ann Orton
Designer: Tiger Maremela
Styling: Unathi Mkonto
MUA: Angelo Valerio
Photography assistant: Elijah Ndoumbe