Athi-Patra Ruga’s latest art shows ‘Azania’ without a purpose

It is a Saturday, July 4, at the National Arts Festival. The infamous wintry cold of Grahamstown is conceding to the lukewarm sunshine. We are on the mountaintop of the 1820 Settlers National Monument overlooking the town. Desolation lurks on the colourful but opaque edge of the city, where darkies are domiciled. And, today, black children with white painted faces, mamas in traditional clothing and others prowl and prance for a predominantly white audience. They are enchanted.

Throngs of curious cultured people pace around nervously. A friend jokingly says there’s nothing “national” about this festival — it is the settlers’ party.  We are waiting to see Athi-Patra Ruga’s new show, The Elder of Azania, a sequel to his acclaimed The White Woman of Azania Saga. Ruga’s work does not apologise for itself. It is. It’s bold and daring. It’s odd and often discomforting. 

Similar to his boisterous laughter, Ruga’s use of colour beckons our attention. And now he takes his grandiose palette to the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown as a 2015 Standard Bank Young Artist of the Year winner for performance art.  

Ruga is a trained fashion designer, and his fine art retains elements of fashion in his signature costumes and appearances. His work is an interesting meeting point between art and fashion, in ways that generally collapse disciplinary boundaries.  

Fans and contemporary art enthusiasts promise to fill the auditorium. We enter and hear a familiar voice speaking, accompanied by chirping and other obscure sounds that give it the ambience of the plains. 


Like God’s voice in the bush, a looping recitation informs us about the ruling matriarch, her Majesty the Versatile Queen Ivy. This is the mythical subject that grounds Ruga’s flirtations with Azania. On the phantasmagoric stage, partly nightmarish and partly enchanting, an anonymous figure appears, dressed eccentrically and seated on two others of her kind, twitching and fiddling. It is she, we presume – the elder.  

As the voice rages through the theatre, telling the story of this elder, figures buried in balloons idle with impatience on the left of the stage. Soon, in droves, they tip toe across the purplish stage,and start bursting each other’s balloons in a dramatic fashion. With each balloon pop a figure appears behind them. 

Performers walk on to the stage, tussle with each other, and more balloons pop. These minor bursts discharge various substances on to the floor — liquid, powder or little lights — adding to the mysterious aura of the already mesmerising colours, costumes and spectacle. This theatrical brawling invites giggles, and it is this comical element that has become a standard feature in Ruga’s work. 

The man sitting in front of me cannot restrain himself — he is in stitches throughout the show. Unlike at jazz concerts, for example, where the audience is socialised to clap at the “right” moments, the audience’s response to Ruga’s performance made it feel like an endless stand-up show.  

At best, it seemed, Ruga’s show remained suggestive. One had to grapple with this fantastical element and its meaninglessness, with no hope of substance. What one sees tends to stop at mere luminous exhibitionism, a spectacle of glare and glitter that blinds rather than unveils.  

The artist creates self-concocted histories and myths to feign a semblance of content, but his project seems more like a neo-avant-gardist catwalk display, at best an opening act for Lady Gaga.

In the classical reading of art, whether didactic or self-referential, art revolts against the shutting down of the senses. It opens possibilities, defies dogmas. Historically, colour, like light, served the relative purpose of being revelatory. But, today, especially in its kaleidoscopic parade, ironically colour serves as the veneer that traps us in obscurantism.  

Should we then wonder why Ruga chooses both colour and myth as his basis? Actually, there is nothing more valorised today than empty talking. In Ruga’s Elder of Azania, we seem to be sadistically led into an unfathomable jungle of pre-temporal fairytales, where even the term Azania is mere hypothesis without purpose. 

It is just an aesthetic prop used like a balloon to add zest to his hogwash. One can then imagine the interest generated by such work in the anti-black mainstream art world and among members of the general public. Often, when I encounter Ruga’s Azania, either as myth, construct or the fantasy of a bygone era, I am repelled by its tiring reduction. 

In a way that predominately locks the concept as some tabula rasa, outside the present, it is perhaps a form of denying its ability to renew itself in every historical moment. Azania is the name that defines a liberated Africa; it is not a myth but an undying yearning for freedom.  

Unlike Ruga’s colorful dissuasion that paints us a contrived fairytale made of beautiful things, the dream of Azania isn’t a fantasy about an ancient world but that of living in the present, free and human. Mayibuye!

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Athi Mongezeleli Joja
Athi Mongezeleli Joja
Athi Mongezeleli Joja is an art critic based in Johannesburg, South Africa. A member of the art collective Gugulective, he is currently studying toward his MFA at the University of the Witswatersrand on the critical practice of late critic Colin Richards. His writing has appeared in publications such as The Mail and Guardian, Art Throb, Contemporary And (C&), Chimurenga Chronic, and Africanah.

Related stories

Athi-Patra Ruga’s new exhibition: The stain at the end of rainbow

Athi-Patra Ruga’s latest exhibition, ‘Interior/Exterior/ Dramatis Personae’, takes his characters on transformative journeys

The art of the virtual experience

The live magic may be gone, but the National Arts Festival showcases some exhilarating work

A place called home: Jazz and the new normal at the National Arts Festival

Several jazz offerings at the virtual festival focus on journeys and identity

‘Lesedi’: A bright star alights on Lulu Mlangeni

On stage hers is the powerful body always rippling with refined movement quality. Thanks to the documentary film on the vNAF programme, we learn that off stage Lulu Mlangeni's as powerful a force.

Ramon’s music is reliable and relatable

Rooted in the Cape Town sound, Ramon Alexander celebrates it’s genealogy

Review: ‘Vukazithathe’, a portrait of the maskandi artist as a mentor and friend

Nthato Mokgata’s documentary ‘Vukazithate’, showing online at the National Arts Festival, tells an intimate story of his mentor and maskandi legend, Bhekisenzo “Vukazithathe” Cele
Advertising

Subscribers only

Toxic power struggle hits public works

With infighting and allegations of corruption and poor planning, the department’s top management looks like a scene from ‘Survivor’

Free State branches gun for Ace

Parts of the provincial ANC will target their former premier, Magashule, and the Free State PEC in a rolling mass action campaign

More top stories

Air pollution link in 15% of global Covid-19 deaths

Researchers have found that, because ambient fine particulate air pollution aggravates comorbidities, it could play a factor in coronavirus fatalities

Mboweni plans to freeze public sector wage increases for the...

The mid-term budget policy statement delivered by the finance minister proposes cutting all non-interest spending by R300-billion.

SAA to receive R10.5-billion government bailout after all

Several struggling state-owned entities received extra funds after the medium term budget policy speech

BMW X3 thrives in the M stable

The compact SUV is so at home with its new badge that’s it’s surprising it didn’t happen sooner
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday