Athi-Patra Ruga: SBYAA for Performance Art Award

The National Arts Festival’s 2015 Standard Bank Young Artist for Performance Art, 30 year old Athi-Patra Ruga, explores and pushes boundaries between fashion, performance and contemporary art by creating works that reveal the body in relation to structure, ideology and politics.

Born in 1984 in the Transkei, and growing up between Umtata and being schooled in East London, Ruga was influenced by the global metropolitan mix of people who had moved to the area at the time. Growing up in a creatively-aware family, his mother worked in radio dramas and his father was a presenter on Radio Transkei, Ruga’s influence on performance was prevalent. He recalls being taken to the station and creating the sound effects on radio dramas as a little boy “My father used to take me to the studios and I’d be the guy that made the sounds. They used to send me to make the walking on gravel sound, or the shutting of the door, and I think at that point I realised one could use tools to create an alternative reality, which was great for my life as well, because I created alternative personas to be able to fit in, to be able to validate my difference from the populace.”

The sense of globalism in his hometown was the platform for which Ruga used in his art form to reach across people of all colours and levels of social classes and breakdown their stereotypical views on race, sexuality and gender identity. Through his work, Ruga created characters that could combat these challenges, he says “I think because I would be seen as being a victim of people’s non acceptance of my identity- being a gay man, being a black man, being a gay non- Christian- I felt that I had this need to remedy this resistance and so I created characters that are a cure to these challenges because they are always changing and their objectives are in flux.”

In 1999 he went to the Belgravia Art College in East London for art classes which is where he first used his body as a tool to communicate in art. Following his creative process, the notion of costume through history and the body of a woman in art history became his means of communicating his views on integration and acceptance. After school, Ruga moved to Johannesburg and was awarded a scholarship to study fashion design at the Gordon Flack Davidson Academy of Design, “Fashion with its performativity could actually join in with the history of art, and the history of fashion and just how clothes make one behave within society, how one changes their behaviour when they wear a certain thing or how they show their behaviour sometimes, and this became such a beautiful union.” Says Ruga on integrating his passion for fashion design with art.

Ruga’s large scale works are a combination of performance through processions and interventions, he finds the procession is a way in which one can communicate with the audience on an extended level. The Future White Woman of Azania- an ongoing series of performances engaging new definitions of nationhood in relation to the autonomous body- is predominant in these processions. Other themes in Ruga’s works are the disillusioned utopia, racial ideologies and the body as a communicative tool. His tapestries represent a counter proposal to ideas of nationhood and belonging, he elaborates on the artistic process when creating both processions and tapestries “The first step I take is to cultivate my visual language, the influence in what I am making and a means of creation is also collaboration and building a sense of creative community. What’s been important to me has been showing my work and not sitting on it because this always puts an onus on me to always step up the quality of my work, the craftsmanship and criticality.”

Ruga was featured in the Phaidon book Younger Than Jesus, a directory of over 500 of the world’s best artists under the age of 33 and his works form part of private, public and museum collections nationally and internationally. In July 2014 Ruga was commissioned by French fashion label Louis Vuitton to create a large-scale tapestry in their flagship store on the Champs-Elysees in Paris. Among these moments Ruga’s most memorable is being invited to Performa, being part of Imaginary Fact at the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013.

Recently, at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, Ruga reflects on one of the highlights in his career. He worked with photographer Michael Subotsky on a performance in the township and reminisces “It was a highlight because of the nature of collaboration itself and the walk I took through this small township outside Grahamstown which was cathartic because I was able to confront my history of walking the township as someone who doesn’t fit in. I, of course, walked it as the The Future White Women of Azania because my characters are more robust than I am.”

Ruga is currently working on his critically acclaimed The FWWOA Saga. He will be taking part in the 1.54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London concurrently with the presentation of his latest Exile Series of tapestries at the Foire Internationale d’Art Contemporain (FIAC) in Paris. Apart from entering a production for his 2015 National Arts Festival debut, Ruga is working on his ninth and tenth solo show to open in Paris and Cape Town respectively. As a mentor he is working on the Adult Contemporary projects which is a series of exhibitions that bring to the fore the country’s young unsigned art talent.

“It means I am joining a pantheon of South African icons that I have always looked up to, people who subsequently would go on to be part of the south African visual arts landscape,” says Ruga on winning the award.

The recipients of the 2015 Standard Bank Young Artist Award are Christiaan Olwagen (Theatre), Luyanda Sidiya (Dance), Musa Ngqunqwana (Music), Athi- Patra Ruga (Performance Art), Kemang Wa Lehulere (Visual Art) and Nduduzo Makhathini (Jazz).