Like many Capetonians who run along the promenade in Sea Point, Athi-Patra Ruga often pauses to look out to Robben Island.
This young artist, who is showing at the new Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art and is the focus of an art crawl in the city this weekend, is not focused on the expected political history tied to this infamous island regarding Nelson Mandela and other well-known stalwarts.
Instead, he reflects on Nongqawuse, the seemingly unruly Xhosa prophetess who was imprisoned there in the late 1800s.
This female figure shaped and caused friction within the Xhosa
nation, pitting those who believed in her prophecies against those who didn’t - a rift that divided Ruga’s ancestors.
His fixation with her is also linked to the way women have been excluded from their rightful place in historical or political narratives.
“Nongqawuse’s story was part of a morality tale don’t be a troublesome girl,” observes Ruga from his Woodstock studio, where he has been working on new intricate tapestries relaying political narratives of his own design for his upcoming exhibition, Queens in Exile.
Ruga’s decade-long career as an artist has relied on him enacting rebellious, or “troublesome” female figures. His early performances and staged photography featured Ruga dressed as female characters pushing against establishment.
As Beiruth, he scaled the walls of a police station in Joburg’s inner-city. He paraded in a mini-skirt at a taxi rank soon after attacks on women in short hems made headlines. As a man, he perhaps felt more able to take on these battles.
“You come out of drag and enjoy this other privilege. It is a conflict, as you never experience in full (what it is to be a woman),” he says.
Nevertheless, it was always risky for Ruga to perform in public spaces dressed in women’s clothing.
Performing on this tenuous edge informed the bright balloon costume that defined the Future White Women of Azania processions, which concluded with the balloon being popped, exploding coloured paint.
It referred to a kind of metaphorical confrontation
with the Rainbow Nation, the catharsis involved in the dream it presented.
Ruga’s likeness features prominently in his new tapestries such as Selfie the Walking Wound. Pictures: Supplied
This will form one of the main threads of an art crawl dubbed Chasing Rainbows with Athi-Patra Ruga, which will take place in
Cape Town this weekend.
The crawl begins at the City Hall in Darling Street, a site where Ruga will discuss a live performance he never got to make and his desire to make art in public spaces, outside the white cube.
From here, guests will follow Ruga to a taxi rank, where he will talk through challenging “narratives” in the kinds of spaces where gender and sexual discrimination is prevalent.
Ruga’s Future White Women of Azania characters, along with other fictitious ones, were transposed in his imagined Azania - a tropical idyll populated by lush vegetation and zebras - via tapestry works, staged photographs and sculptures.
In these works he appeared to be summoning our nation’s most excessive notions of not only a Rainbow Nation but a sort of pre-colonial Africa. Both were rendered as artificial constructs. Yet he still hankers for that euphoric early post-apartheid period.
“We must not forget the Kwaito nation, the joy and celebration. The youth were finding themselves again,” he recalls.
The crawl will move to his studio in Woodstock where his tapestries await viewing in his Queens in Exile exhibition, due to open at Whatiftheworld gallery at the end of November.
As the title implies, he has turned his attention to the mythology around “exile” that has haunted the Rainbow Nation and struggle narratives.
Not that he tackles any well-known ones directly; characteristically he has invented his own, placing himself at the centre of the action. And why not?
He believes it is up to the artist to rewrite history, the future and retrieve people who have never rightfully assumed their place in society, like his grandmother, who is “crowned” in a large tapestry.
People of indeterminate gender or sexual orientation also have secured positions in his fictional societies. They are rulers, gods, honoured and deified in the form of his intricate tapestries that read like historical artefacts of a long-forgotten age. Ruga is constantly remaking reality.
“In my head, Robben Island has become Nongqawuse island.”
Chasing Rainbows with Athi-Patra Ruga takes place on Saturday. It is led and curated by art commentator and consultant Mary Corrigall and concludes with champagne and light snacks at the gallery.
Tickets must be booked in advance at Quicket: www.qkt.io/ruga