|Athi-Patra Ruga heading towards Grahamstown in Performa Obscura|
They have yet to wrap a string of balloons around their upper bodies and appear relaxed and at ease as onlookers, mostly children, observe their warm-up. Athi-Patra Ruga intended the preparations for his public procession to be transparent; his Facebook invitation encouraged an audience to observe this stage.
The journey will conclude at The Standard Bank art gallery on Frederick Street as part of the Making Way: Contemporary Art from SA and China exhibition. It’s tantamount to being privy to a rehearsal before watching a play, so it feels as if we are witnessing something we shouldn’t. This pre-performance ritual draws attention to the contrived nature of the performance and changes my relationship to it.
The balloon character that Ruga and his performers will become is now referred to as the “White Woman of Azania”. Its origin can be traced back to a nameless balloon character that Ruga initially conceived for an exhibition in The Netherlands in 2010, before showing it at X-Homes in Joburg that year.
The White Woman of Azania has grown in physical and conceptual dimensions. This Joburg performance boasts five “Azanians” and generates quite a different impact than the previous White Women of Azania installation/performance in Cape Town during Gipca’s Live Art Festival.
Like Ruga, I’ve become transfixed with this mutable character; each performance inspires new readings. It’s like chasing air in a way, which seems fitting given the costume consists of balloons. At the X-Homes performance, in a dark basement in Hillbrow, the character appeared to embody otherness. The Live Art performance/installation evoked a scene from Amsterdam’s red light district; as Ruga and Jade Paton tottered on heels in front of the window inside Ruga’s Cape Town studio. They were like guarded women whose identities had become over-determined by their contrived, temporary appearances. The performance was a drawn-out striptease that offered no pay-off: there was nothing to see behind the balloon façade when it was “popped”.
So perhaps it makes sense to start the next instalment seeing the performers unmasked, thus removing any expectation. Yet I can’t help feeling that something’s been lost; the mystery that props up the masquerade.
The multiple readings that this slippery White Woman of Azania character presents are dependent on the setting. In the context of Making Way: Contemporary Art from South Africa and China, curated by Ruth Simbao, the “journey” aspect to it is a predominant feature. The exhibition doesn’t simply present art from South Africa and China but, in an effort to create a link between the two, Simbao highlights a discourse around migration.