Tuesday, December 17, 2013

When the Party is Over: Athi-Patra Ruga

In the wake of Madiba’s passing it is probably a good time to meditate on that paranoid right-wing myth dubbed The Night of the Long Knives. The phrase is appropriated from the name given to a deadly (did any of their initiatives not involve death?) Nazi programme, which involved murdering over 80 political opponents. It was a bloody purge, and one that some right-wing whites have long believed would occur in this country after Mandela’s death. This fear is rooted in the idea that this magnanimous man’s reconciliatory stance towards whites would be eschewed and replaced by a violent programme to kill off all powerful whites. In this myth Mandela is positioned as the glue that held South Africa’s peaceful transition to democracy together. In other words, the miracle, this supposed peaceful rainbow nation will die with him.

Athi-Patra Ruga’s rendition of the Night of the Long Knives doesn’t quite involve a bloody purge. There is lots of red about, but it’s the tone of all the faux flora that colonise the image. In fact this series presents photographs featuring quite an idyllic scenario. His infamous ballooned character titled the white woman of Azania rides sidesaddle on a zebra through a tropical idyll, flanked by two characters that have been informally nicknamed the Abu-Dhabis due to the gold speckled hijab-like costume that conceals their bodies. Is this the (idyllic) world after the whites have been purged? If so perhaps their annihilation has seen the white figure take on mythic proportions, or maybe in such a scenario whiteness fittingly becomes an abstract idea rather than referring to skin colour. The white woman of Azania propped up by a decorated zebra isn’t any specific colour; she is the metaphorical rainbow nation with her multicoloured balloon outfit. In these photographs and other images at Ruga’s new solo exhibition, the White Woman of Azania Saga, her existence and the dream of the nation she perhaps embodies remains quite intact.

In Ruga’s performances she doesn’t enjoy much of a lifespan; after parading along the streets in the manner of a cavalcade of sorts he violently annihilates the façade and the socio-political ideologies it communicates – Azania, the rainbow nation dream – by bursting the balloons and streaking the streets with the coloured paint inside them. It’s a violent purge for sure, but of a fantasy rather than of people opposing some kind of twisted one.

These performances leave spectators in a precarious place; desiring the fantasy, while taking pleasure in observing it being dismantled and discovering what lies beneath it – Ruga and other performers (usually men) parade as  women. Maintaining a fantasy is about sustaining a pretence. However, as with drag, the form of pretence that Ruga enacts is one that sets out embracing artificiality.

Precariousness has been a hallmark of Ruga’s performance art practice, so, it is interesting to observe how this state can manifest or be sustained in a gallery show, where the works are not only solid permanent objects, are rendered in mediums that further articulate a sense of longevity, such as tapestry and stained glass design, but also appear to sustain the euphoric fantasy of which the balloon outfit had became a signature motif.

An attempt to reconcile his performance art with his artworks at this show, isn’t unexpected; the title connects them and the vast array of artworks (the show occupies both floors of the Whatiftheworld gallery) that expand on his performance art while feeding off it. This level of integration in Ruga’s practice is a new and rich development; there was always a disconnect in terms of subject-matter between the tapestries and his performance art.

Importantly, this show recontextualises Ruga’s performance art; the tapestries and photographs make his take on Azania tangible. Like the balloon façade, Ruga’s Azania is an artificial hyper-fantasyland; populated by zebras – apparently the main form of transport – and defined by a lush tropical vegetation – Durban on steroids – acid bright flowers, and with beautiful women adorned in leopard print coats it is an overstated African dream (read stereotype).