Monday, June 25, 2012

Character Forming: Athi-Patra Ruga

The last time I had encountered Athi-Patra Ruga he was seated in front of a television set in a makeshift living space in a dark basement in a disused building in Hillbrow. It was hard to read his expression as his entire upper body was obscured by party balloons. For all intents and purposes Ruga was absent. He might revel in performance, but his all-encompassing costumes, which usually obscure his facial features, negate his presence, his identity. In this instance, he appeared like a stylised cartoon character, a kind of hybrid object/ subject being, which is not unexpected given that he relishes recycling popular culture in his work –  “I like inhaling it and hurling it.”

Later he danced inside a circle of candles before drawing us into an awkward striptease act. The performance was part of the Hillbrow leg of the X-Homes project in 2010 that was engineered to mediate and explore the baggage tied to this no-go suburb of Joburg’s inner city. The act of observing “others” in these settings; the kind of touristic form of voyeurism that such explorations into these suburbs tend to generate dominated.  An encounter with Ruga’s faceless character in the bowels of this neighbourhood fed quite neatly into this theme; as an anonymous, seemingly dehumanised but curiously seductive being he presented us with the apotheosis of otherness.

Seated behind a desk meditatively working on one of his so-called Irma Stern tapestries – he has been translating her paintings into needlepoint artworks – in his new studio in Cape Town’s city centre, is the other Ruga I met last month. Dressed in a Trenery cardigan and a pair of fashionable shorts, this Ruga appears quite conventional. But he’s still performing. In-between, or perhaps to counter, some of his more serious observations about his practice and his vexed personal history that he talks around, he makes jokes and laughs. Undoubtedly, while he may only have an audience of one – me – he is performing. Interviews are a performance but, as any of his friends on Facebook will attest, his drive to entertain is one that he sustains even when the record button isn’t on. The laborious labour that needlework requires pulls him into a different place and headspace.

It’s a solitary pursuit; there is no audience, there is no need to perform. It’s immersive and still physically demanding so you can understand why he sees the tapestry-making as an extension to his performance art rather than a peculiar adjunct to it. 
“Both are crazy disciplines. They are both physically intensive things. The craft is about wanting to discipline myself physically,” he observes. There is also the fact that he is interested in the performative nature of the subjects in Stern’s paintings, which he subverts in an effort to liberate them from her colonising gaze. By the way of a story about mentally disturbed patients who find stability through needlework, he suggests that the repetitive nature of the work is a necessary flip side to his performance art.
“I think it tames the crazy side of me,” he says, followed by his infectious laughter. There is a kind of hollowness to it, as if it is masking something else. Or maybe it’s the empty studio that creates the echo.

His attraction to the tapestry, needlework, is one of the many remnants of his seemingly short-lived career as a fashion designer. He trained at Gordon Flack Davidson, but wasn’t exactly a staple feature at SA Fashion Week, though he had a presence. But it was an uneasy fit. He arrived on the fashion scene at time when Afrochic was the dominant trend. He couldn’t conform and was always too aware of the politics of the body to keep his focus on the fleeting fashions that adorned it. However, it provided his route to art. Miss Congo, his first performance art character, was directly born from an ensemble he designed.
“I hated the way designers forced women to wear such impossible clothing. I decided that if a woman had to wear my clothing, I had to be able to wear it, too. So I put (some of my designs) on and that was the beginning of Miss Congo.”

Ruga has since assumed several characters. Though he isn’t comfortable positioning his performance art as a theatre-based practice, it is character driven. Following on from Miss Congo there was Injibhabha, another faceless being dominated by an exaggerated Afro hairdo adorned with an oversized bow. She/he/it turned heads in the streets of Bern in 2007 before being photographed in deserted icy landscapes in Europe. This wandering being whose identity was overdetermined by its appearance was like a lost entity, unable to locate itself. Beiruth (derived from the Lebanese capital, Beirut) was initially a sassy Joburg gal who arrived in the city in 2008 – before being relocated to Cape Town, when Ruga made the move down there. In a swimming costume and red boots this daring character seemed to challenge the invisible boundaries in the city. Wearing a lampshade over his head, fishnet stockings and red heels, Ruga surprised commuters at the North Street taxi rank. It was in response to the attacks on women wearing mini-skirts in that area in 2008. Ruga moved through the area unscathed. He suggests it was because a camera was shadowing him.
“The camera was like my talisman,” he says, laughing again. “There was no violence. I think the camera protects you from people’s emotions and you want to share, but not engage with the audience.”

It is likely that his unconventional attire is what also keeps him at an arm’s length; coupled with his altered demeanour in costume. The moment he takes on the performer role, distance is observed from both sides. Photographing and videoing his work was integral to it during the time of Beiruth and Injibhabha.
“I wanted to open the work up to lots of people, outside the white cube. It restricts my seduction (if it remains there). If you can take the idea and spread it around, then you create levels of stories, you are collaborating with the medium, the video. When I showed La Mamma Morta at Youngblackman, people could sit and have drinks at the Kimberley (hotel) while watching it. People who would not encounter this work in their lives could enjoy it without having to read the rationale.”

His training in fashion has made him acutely aware or attuned to his (multiple) audiences.
“It is all about them. I think the art world forgot about the audience. The things I have seen, darling… what are you doing it for, darling…?” Predictably, we both erupt in laughter.
Almost as quickly as Ruga invents characters and their mythologies (this is integral to their creation and life) he kills them off.
“Miss Congo died at the Design Indaba. It was the final spectacle. I don’t want to sit with a character for a decade, polishing its mythology.”
This impulse to keep recycling stage personas is tied to his fashion sensibility. “This season we are doing slave earrings in Vogue and then we are moving on to the next most irresponsible binary…” He roars with laughter.

At the centre of Ilulwane, his most recent work, which showed at Performa in New York before its SA debut in Cape Town’s Long Street Baths during the Infecting the City festival his year, is another character with an incongruent all-encompassing ensemble consisting of a full white lace bodysuit, a white blanket with red stripes (evoking the Xhosa initiation ceremony) and a bit of sartorial borrowings from Dracula – it wouldn’t be a Ruga invention without some irreverent popular cultural twist.

Like the other characters that Ruga has dreamt up, this one was conceived through violence: they are products of a violent society. This fact sheds light on their incongruent nature and their anonymity, that they are “born” faceless. The dress is the protective barrier, a necessity for survival, while at the same time it’s a kind of deformity that evokes ridicule, attracts violence. The outfits exude a twisted glamour or sense of carefree fun – balloons are associated with children’s parties – that somehow works at also perpetuating the dysfunctionality that has shaped them, because it functions as a form of misdirection. These ideas express Ruga’s frustration and anger about the culture of violence and intolerance in the country.
“What the fuck is happening around us? Beiruth was how I got conscientised (to the violent nature of our society.) I feel like my generation has just been dumped here.”
He laughs again; but it seems like an inappropriate response. But this is precisely how Ruga navigates through heavy material that seems to weigh him down not only ideologically, through his practice, but personally, too: the humour, the corruption of an innocent notion of glamour all work to lighten the load, while turning the malaise inward, into an obsessive form of reinvention and misdirection.

Ruga alludes to being personally implicated by violence. “A big part of what happens to my characters is understanding this violence that happens to the body. A disembodiment, displacement (takes place). Those are the deeper, bigger issues. I need to talk about stories I know of. My experience. I see a lot here right in through the window,” he says, looking out into the street that his glass-fronted studio faces.

Ilulwane is a Xhosa word for bat (hence the Dracula influence) as well as a young man who has forsaken the traditional rite of passage to manhood, preferring part of his initiation to take place under the guidance of Western medicine.
“When I was growing up, I was the ninth of 10 kids. One of my first memories is of my brother who got stabbed because he was called that name when he came out of the bush. It refers to a man who has not gone to the mountain to be initiated. It’s a catch-22 situation – you either are castrated and you have no future as a heterosexual or you are seen to be neither bird or mouse, yet again you are going to a grey area. I am attracted to those areas,” he observes.

Ilulwane was the most elaborate performance piece he has created. A troupe of synchronised swimmers were part of the spectacle, in what essentially was conceived as an alternative ritual. Undoubtedly, this work marks his move into new territory; it’s much more theatrical in nature – Ruga now understands that he needs to pay attention to theatre as a craft – but it also seems to have presented him with a space for catharsis. In engineering a ritual of his own making, he is not simply unwriting cultural rules around masculinity and how it is expressed and negotiated, but rewriting them.
“It has become a tool for me to heal. I am starting to work out now and talk about private issues in a public space with a thing like the body, there is a twist that happens. I have created an intervention that exists in a space that I am now realising is an inclusionary and exclusionary one.
“I want more accessibility, maybe I was bitten by a theatre bug. I wanted to turn the space into this thing.”
Ilulwane might have taken centre stage, but we have not seen the last of the balloon character – he has resisted giving it a name – I encountered in Hillbrow. It is being summoned back to life when Ruga performs at the National Arts festival in Grahamstown next week.
“He is like a long-lost friend. I can’t see a thing through that costume, but it gives me so much freedom. I like going back to this character that doesn’t have the restrictions of an identity,” he laughs.
“Really, he doesn’t have much of an identity, I just want to perform without any limits.”

Ruga is performing two new site-specific works at the National Arts Festival that link up with two visual arts exhibitions; Making Way and Mikhael Subotzkys’s Retinal Shift. The Provost and the Observatory Museum pieces will be performed on July 6. The image above is Ruga posing as Ilulwane in that titular work that he performed at Performa in New York and at Infecting the City in Cape Town

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