S/he who must be surveyed


No tee, no shade honey but … all this talk about satire, apartheid and looking back at the state of South African art is making my head hurt. Lucky for all of us who are in a state of perpetual limbo, the drag mamas of the universe have consulted the Tinder for eggs and ferociously swiped right to find the sperm that would help birth a fresh heir in the form of versatile queen of Azania herself, Athi Patra Ruga.

The 2015 Standard Bank Young Artist Award winner for Performance Art triumphantly revisits his home province of the Eastern Cape with The Elder of Azania, a sequel from Ruga’s ongoing performance series The Future Women of Azania. For many who cling to stereotypical gender norms, this could get a little confusing so let me put it to you like this: artists like Ruga don’t care about gender beyond interrogating it. So for the purposes of this exploration, we will introduce The Elder of Azania as a she, understood? Okay, let’s move on.

Listen to Athi-Patra Ruga talking about his new performance, The Elder of Azania :

The Elder, much like her predecessors, is a spiritual figure who straddles two identities that seem to be at loggerheads with their own meanings and roles. She is both King and Queen in her world of Azania.

Athi-Patra Ruga's "The Elder of Azania" took place at the Thomas Pringle Hall, Monument, Grahamstown, on the 03 July 2015, at the 2015 National Arts Festival. Photo: Cue Pix/ Charles Harry MacKenzie
Athi-Patra Ruga’s “The Elder of Azania” took place at the Thomas Pringle Hall, Monument, Grahamstown, on the 03 July 2015, at the 2015 National Arts Festival. Photo: Cue Pix/ Charles Harry MacKenzie

As reluctant audiences enter into the world of Azania, they are greeted by a backdrop splashed with colours representing every spectrum of the rainbow. The floor is laid out in a radiant grid of yellows, greens and pinks. A video projection fills the back wall with luminous animations of butterflies, trees, indigenous animals, and the general fauna and flora of this magical place. Ruga’s voiceover has already begun. It is authoritative and emulates the Leslie Nielsens of the world – it has sass, and is biting, never cavalier. The delicate nature soundscapes by Nicholas Van Reenen permeate the room.

At the centre of the stage sits The Elder herself, on her throne, which is made up of two people with really strong backs. They’re crouching on all fours donning flower body suits made by Unati Mkhonto. The Elder sits there judging you for even stepping into her world. Her face is covered with what looks like real human weave – it is long and lush and looks like Beyoncé gave it to her as a Christmas gift. For the next 10 minutes, this visual feast stands like a moving artwork slightly varying but very repetitive.

Angela Harkis and Ciko Sidzumo perform in ‘The Elder of Azania’ at the Thomas Pringla Hall, Monument, Grahamstown, on the 03 July 2015, at the 2015 National Arts Festival. Photo: Cue Pix/ Charles Harry MacKenzie
Angela Harkis and Ciko Sidzumo perform in ‘The Elder of Azania’ at the Thomas Pringla Hall, Monument, Grahamstown, on the 03 July 2015, at the 2015 National Arts Festival. Photo: Cue Pix/ Charles Harry MacKenzie

Some sour audience members walk out. Good riddance. If you don’t have the decency to at least pretend like you know what’s going on then you don’t deserve to be in Azania – move to Australia. The rest of us just sit there nervously wallowing in her majesty’s fierceness. Some of us are hoping she’ll burst into song and dance, but most are wondering what she’s seeing or thinking as she tugs at her high ponytail. Will anything happen in the next few minutes?

The test of audience endurance heightens, people start shifting uneasily, the coughing noises begin and I’m pretty sure The Elder is eyerolling by this point. Nothing has changed since the beginning. Just when you’re at the point of giving up, a clutch of balloons falls midway from the ceiling accompanied by musical crescendo. Three figures wearing balloon costumes walk onto the stage, bow, and begin popping their balloons.

Two more balloon-costumed figures walk onto the stage, bow, and begin to engage in a ceremonial battle. The Elder watches, eventually stands up and leaves the stage with her entourage. Patra wants to burst your little art bubble and announce his arrival. He did just that with this piece, which gives a glorious middle finger to the old guard. Interpret that as you want.

Thomas Pringle Hall, Monument
Today, 2pm and 6pm

By Siya Ngcobo 

Q&A with Athi-Patra

Athi-Patra Ruga is this year’s Standard Bank Young Artist award winner for performance art. Cue spoke with this flamboyant personality shortly before he premiered his new work, The Elders of Azania.

1. What came first, your ability to communicate your ideas or your ability to express your ideas through art? 

Athi-Patra Ruga surveys those who enter her kingdom when they come to watch her show. Photo: Cue Pix/ Charles Harry MacKenzie

I’m the last of 10 kids so I had to find very shiesty ways to find my voice at home. You find nuance, you find how to work with suggestion, sarcasm, with shade. I’ve mastered shade and that is the pinnacle of articulation as far as I’m concerned.

2. At what point in your life did you realise that you were an adult? 

When I came out as gay at the age of 11 in 1995. That’s when I knew my existence was political because that’s when that resistance to my gayness at that age validated me. It happens every time and I think that could actually be something that influences my going out into town in heels and doing all of that. Because the moment someone comes and spits in my face while I’m doing a performance I’m like, “Yeah, I am here”. I live for homophobia; I eat it for breakfast, and I really do. Like, resistance makes me whole – without that resistance who am I? How do I then fight for my identity, how do I assert my identity?

3. Do you think Rhodes Must Fall? 

The last time I was here I did a performance with me doing an intervention on a statue dedicated to the Anglo-Boer War. This was a way in which the previous dispensation used art to wipe away people’s contributions – that is not a democracy. Rhodes Must Fall, but let’s not replace it with crap statues. At the moment the people who are getting commissions for statues are crap. There hasn’t been a change and in probably 20 years’ time there will be a Biko Must Fall or something like that again. We must always be aware of the power of art, especially if it is in the powerful hands of government. So yes Rhodes Must Fall, but we must also be ready for all consequences both when it comes to historical inclusion and the redress of apartheid and colonialism.

4. Who or what has had the most influence on your current work? 

Our story, our generation. I keep doing this because I really want to create a new story of a generation. And the preamble for it is the fact that there was apartheid, but there weren’t many stories that came out, so there is this white noise that I want to try and fill up with as many real stories [as possible]. Me and my generation have fallen into a space whereby the African dream has betrayed us and we have to use whatever is in our power to redress things and put those responsible under the spotlight and heal.

5. What are the balloons about? 

The first time I ever performed with balloons, I used 250 and they had water in them so they were heavy. I felt that at the end of popping them that there was such an artistic catharsis because you are being weighed down and the only way to free yourself is to pop this identity that is covering your true self and that’s what the balloons are.

Thomas Pringle Hall,
Monument, 4 July,
2pm and 6pm.