Athi-Patra Ruga’s work involves a communal process of weaving together personal and shared histories, moving towards the formation of a new universe or perhaps a new understanding of this old one.
In his new solo show, Queens in Exile, at the WhatifTheWorld Gallery in Cape Town, Ruga’s tapestries recall the collective practice of the Rorke’s Drift women, headed by Allina Ndebele and Jessie Dlamini, who created the large-scale, intricately woven artworks that kept the KwaZulu-Natal art centre afloat until the 1980s.
Ruga’s work demands the nuanced attention, imagination and knowledge brought to it by its audience, and refuses to offer easily consumable representations that flatten identities into subjects whose sum total is only defined through predetermined gender and race constructs. The layers of mapping in his tapestries and videos weave together a mixture of stories and critical perspectives, forming glorious monuments to people, ideas, and actions written out of mainstream history books.
In Queens in Exile, Ruga moves us through a well-researched, fun, queer and sometimes heartbreaking landscape of an unexplored dimension of history.
I was interested in his thoughts on the idea of exile as not only a political ban from one’s native country but also as a metaphorical state of exclusion that somehow sometimes offers protected access to the unfolding of imagination not possible in conventional spaces.
Referencing figures from a long trajectory of South African history such as Sarah Baartman (or “the Venus Hottentot”), the Xhosa prophetess Nongqawuse, reverend and composer Tiyo Soga, singer Brenda Fassie and Ruga’s maternal grandmother among others, he highlights stories and characters who are often exiled from public memory. These stories give rich content to the large, brightly coloured tapestries on display.
The definition of exile does not deal with all of its baggage, and neither does it open itself up to many of its possibilities. Exile within the idea of a nation does not take into account that national belonging is itself an imperially constructed identity. National borders form one kind of boundary that has come to be understood as legitimate, but less visible “borders” exist in every spectrum of society and form equally tangible restrictions that can lead one into a state of exile.
The queens to which Ruga refers in his title are those finding themselves in exile in almost every space, seeking refuge, space to create, act and fight, space in an offshore place — in Azania perhaps? This exile of queens moves between fact and fiction to explore new ways to mark, memorialise and monumentalise history, as well as with the present and its possible futures.
“Our statues are an indictment of our poor imagination” — Athi-Patra Ruga
Describing his own movement from East London to Johannesburg and Cape Town, Ruga talks about the kind of exile forced on him by monuments and statues whose only particularity was the brand of settler colonialism and warfare celebrated in each area. These figures, short of being eyesores, strategically erase the histories that existed parallel to central power structures — whiteness, patriarchy — and their cisgendered and heterosexual lack of imagination.
Their power is the ability to enforce exile on those of us who are queered, gendered and racialised out of the narrative. This consciousness pushes Ruga to create brightly coloured, intricate monuments and memorials of his own, which commemorate the glory of queer, matriarchal histories and lineages.
But these queens are not simply figureheads who fill the gaps in the historical archive. Rather, the artist presents a new narrative where women such as his grandmother become memorialised and praised as the royalty of utopian universes with their own trajectories.
“I use colour to disarm the viewer’’ — Athi-Patra Ruga
Much of his textile work involves a process of map-making, in which loose reference is given to Western map constructs of time and space, but instead colourful montages re-shape places in relation to one another, rename islands and oceans, in effect reviewing history and highlighting the oppressive impulse of colonial segregationist government of land.
One recurring example is the Oceanus Paenitentiae (Ocean of Repentance), that appears on a number of Ruga’s maps, referencing the histories of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the construction of the new South Africa. This white-washed reconciliation escaped the urgency of the redistribution of resources and tangible justice for its violence. So Ruga uses ocean water, which functions in many African spiritual traditions as a substance of cleansing, to protect and surround his islands, making it impossible to reach land before immersing oneself in a repentant sea.
The maps provide historical context for the presentation of the people Ruga chooses to pay tribute to. His maternal grandmother occupies the central position in the grandest of these portraits, titled Lizalis Idinga Lakho /Autistik Imperium, where she is surrounded by historical figures and symbols woven in colourful remembrance, as well as a menagerie of leopards, recalling the grandeur of Emperor Haile Selassie.
Another portrait shows the artist holding a baby amid the chaos of a violent scene (Imini yomJojo: Ingqumbo Yeminyanya). The baby rests peacefully in Ruga’s arms and, as Madonna and child, they assume a powerful beauty amid the chaos of the streets in the background, where there is an upturned police van.
The work references again the fierceness of Ruga’s familial and collective origin, as well as a future of continued resistance, love and the passing down of stories.
The artist pays homage to many others in Queens in Exile. His video Over the Rainbow ties together much of the imagery, with Fassie’s 1986 lyrics making an appearance via a disembodied robotic voice that serves as backing track to the moving piece. The words to her 1986 hit, Weekend Special, lack their accompanying electronic music and upbeat feeling, pulling us quickly into the lonely encounter.
“African shows (in the West) are always ‘weekend specials’” — Athi-Patra Ruga
The video is a deep contemplation of the poetic exile experienced often by the African performer. It offers a trace of what it means to carry history — the bodily weight of both personal and collective memory — into a moment of spectacle where African art practice rarely transcends the status of the “weekend special” for European art economies.
The lonely performer, Ruga, dressed in a silky, royal, neoclassical style dress adorned with crystals, mulls over personal memorials to exile — among these, a single, sad protea marking the new South African mirage, and his maternal grandmother’s dompas in stark contrast. Ruga sits in front of a backstage dressing mirror, lit dramatically in a sea of dark. Strange figures, harmonies and isiXhosa meditation songs composed by Reverend Tiyo Soga (1829-1871) meet Ruga’s character, “the walking wound”, whose face becomes a canvas on to which others are projected and remembered in their pain and transcendence.
“The generational schism is a big part of why we are in the troubles we are in now” — Athi-Patra Ruga
He describes a generational silence, which has perhaps provided reason for needing so desperately to remember. He characterises this “generational schism” in relation to the rarely mentioned experiences of apartheid and the pain of colonialism in black families. Perhaps one can understand his work as a way to communicate, relay and fill this silence, or “schism”, with questions and ideas that hint at the depth of rich material we rest upon and come after, and therefore the depth of what is possible.
Ruga’s concern is inviting an audience whose modes of engagement vary depending on the history they bring to the work. The space of exile becomes collective — where we get a sense of the practice as just one visible moment of a laborious process of research, communal making, the telling of stories and remembering.
Although exile is painful and forces excluded people to become the outsider, it can also allow an existence in a new inside, a new space, and new scope for imagination. This is the exile to which Ruga invites us and, as he says, “the real work is to create the audience”. All artists should echo this.