Athi-Patra Ruga calls himself a fashion illustrator. But let us be clear, he does not define himself as one.
Definition is something that Ruga, whether through his fashion or his art, routinely defies.
“Fashion illustrator” may sound confusing and it elicits images of a badly dressed comic-book artist, but after meeting Ruga in his Troyeville home, it becomes less so. It is instead an appropriate term to describe a man who deftly and sometimes quite literally weaves craft and puts art back into his fashion.
Ruga’s lounge is lined with piles of fashion and design magazines, creating a rather haphazard library of catalogued images. Appropriate as so much of Ruga’s work is informed by images, people’s reactions to them and his constant quest to subvert them. At the centre of both his art and his fashion lies “the body” and its constant juxtaposition with any kind of structure, ideology, politics or trendy dogma.
When we meet, Ruga is preparing for his new exhibition at Art Extra, a gallery in Johannesburg.
The show entitled — of bugchasers and watussi faghags will run concurrently with Ruga’s retrospective collection of his clothing label JustNje for Sanlam South African Fashion Week, held in Sandton this week.
But despite a seemingly schizophrenic existence lurching from art to fashion, Ruga says his work in one discipline influences his work in the other. An element of performance is always included in Ruga’s artwork, requiring costume. And fashion plays a pivotal role in dressing the characters Ruga takes on.
“One melds into the other one,” he says. “How will I know about the body if I don’t explore the body in its technical form? Because fashion is basically breaking down the body into lines — it’s all geometric and technical, but art is — something intuitive. It’s performance but the clothes dictate it and the element of fashion is in it.”
Take for instance Beiruth, the sexless, if feminine, alien that weaves its way through — of bugchasers and watussi faghags.
Dressed in red heels, spandex and a crash helmet Beiruth is put against historical imagery and the architecture of the state. The exhibition contains three elements: “pixilated arcadia”, which includes a series of tapestries or “craft mediations”, interrogating colonial imagery embodied in Irma Stern’s paintings of the Watussi, a mispronunciation of the Tutsi clan; a series of pictures; and a video installation documenting Beiruth’s attempts at assimilation into South Africa.
Ruga’s vision or art is also clearly expressed in his vision of fashion.
“I think that everything that comes out of fashion, how we express it and how we manifest it, is valid because it is a manifestation of the collective consciousness, of the zeitgeist,” says Ruga. “Everyone performs when you’re wearing clothes, they allow you that. It’s all about body politics. You dress to be sexy, you dress to look clever, you dress to look modest — And I think that is why the costume element in my performances — is very big. Because that is the closest thing that can narrate what’s happening on this body, on this individual, on this architecture.”
Fashion trends, such as Afro-chic for example, are as constraining for Ruga as any political ideology. The pressure on young designers to conform to a politically correct notion of fashion is little more than a “dictate” to Ruga.
“I just feel that when you start being fundamentalist about aesthetics, about beauty, you remove the beauty from [something],” he argues.
Ruga grew up in the Transkei, with his parents, sister and brother. Ruga loves words and plays with them, using them to frame his art. He attributes this to both his father being a journalist and his love for reading.
Subversion, Ruga explains, in all its forms is what guides his work and he is inspired by pitting the body against structure—whether it is the structure of a garment or the structure of an image.
This includes the subversion of his roots and the spirituality that comes with being a Xhosa man.
Athi Patra Ruga appears at Sanlam South African Fashion Week, details above. The exhibition runs at Art Extra, 373 Jan Smuts Avenue, until September 20