Meet the South African artist whose kaleidoscopic art examines sexuality and dystopia.
At first glance, the work of South African artist Athi-Patra Ruga assails the eyes: a vibrant wonderland positively spilling out of its frames, with kaleidoscopic colours, rich verdant backgrounds and textured, poetic sculptures.
But if you think for a second it’s just pretty surface aesthetics, you’d be sorely mistaken. The artist explores poignant themes of sexuality, dystopia and queerness, often framed within post-apartheid South Africa.
Now the artist’s first UK solo exhibition has come to London at Somerset House, bringing together three series: Queens in Exile, The Future White Women of Azania and The Beatification of Feral Benga.
We caught up with Ruga below…
Can you describe your medium of art?
It is a practice that is born from performance and a nod to [German concept] gesamtkunstwerk. This ranges from tapestries in petit point, video, print photography and sculpture.
How did you start out?
I started making art for myself when my parents enrolled me at East London’s Belgravia Art Center in 1999. I moved to Johannesburg at 17, where I opened my studio in 2003. My first solo show “of bugchasers and watussi faghags” was in 2008. The rest got us here.
How do you want your art to make people feel?
I aspire to charm and give courage to people to celebrate their imagination.
What inspires you?
The drive to create stories and new myths with the highest craftsmanship and work ethic.
Your art is so incredibly visually rich – what made you explore this style?
I wanted to mock the idea of utopia and empty promises. The rich visuals mask truly disturbing experiences of mine.
Why the name “Of Gods, Rainbows and Omissions”?
I wanted to introduce to London a definitive body that speaks about men and the ideologies we put in power. My life’s work is then to create safe spaces (I’m getting bored of the word utopia), where me and my allies can pay tribute to those non-binary black modernists that history omitted out.
What’s your favourite piece from the exhibition?
“At the End of the Rainbow we look Back” from The Beatification of Feral Benga. It is a sculpture that is a continuation of my investigation into the genesis of modernism, the one where my black queer body comes in. It is a tribute to the muse, dancer, actor Francois Feral Benga, who was an immigrant from Senegal and lived and worked in Paris/Harlem in the 20s and 30s.
Can you speak about some of the symbolism present in the exhibition?
We have a national animal in the form of a saber-tooth zebra; a national flower; Miss Azania is a comment on nationalism and how it plays out on the female body; the procession is another symbol.
Do you think it’s important for an artist to consider the political/cultural climate in which they construct their art?
I feel like if you come from an environment and a culture that has witnessed and continues to witness oppression and exile, you must continue telling those stories for courage’s sake, to mobilise your community’s imagination against oppression. I also maintain that if you come from an environment that doesn’t acknowledge that, let it show through work. History judges and so do the children.
What’s the best piece of feedback you’ve ever had?
“Ancestral redress is what this queen here does.”
Athi-Patra Ruga: Of Gods, Rainbows and Omissions will run at Somerset House, River Rooms from 4 October – 6 January