South African artist Athi-Patra Ruga creates flashy, dazzling spectacles that explore identity politics through engaging and colorful fashion-based performance art. Athi-Patra Ruga blends tropes and imagery from traditional South African tribal practice with campy aesthetics of contemporary drag culture, raising questions about self-definition in an increasingly networked and global community. This artist has gained a great deal of visibility and momentum over the last few years, lending to excitement surrounding his impending visit to several metro Detroit venues for three engagements sponsored by University of Michigan's Penny Stamps Speaker Series.
"I was in South Africa last February for a design conference and an art fair," says Chrisstina Hamilton, director of vistitors' programs, "and Athi-Patra Ruga was the name on everybody's lips. In May, I was out in San Francisco for the opening of the Museum of Modern Art, and I ran into Esa Nickle, who is the producer for Performa."
Nickle and Hamilton had a conversation on ways to potentially collaborate and discovered they had common a desire to bring Athi-Patra Ruga to the States. The artist will be performing a collaborative piece titled Over the Rainbow at the 2016 Performa Gala in New York in early November, and coming to Michigan for a series of speaking engagements directly afterwards.
Titled "Queens in Exile," Ruga's lecture will come first to the MOCAD, on Friday, Nov. 4, from 7-10 p.m. The following Thursday, Nov. 10, he'll be making his official Penny Stamps Speaker Series presentation at University of Michigan.
Like all Penny Stamps Speaker events, the program begins promptly at 5:10 p.m. at the historic Michigan Theater in downtown Ann Arbor. The final event will take place at 7 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 11 at Bona Sera. Each of these events will be the same presentation of work; the multiplicity of events is an effort to offer many opportunities for different audiences to connect with this fascinating artist. All events are free of charge and open to the public.
Although live performance is an integral aspect of Ruga's work, he also produces objects which are used within these performances, and images that capture scenes from them. Some examples of these were included in a recently-closed group show of South African artists, After the Thrill is Gone: Fashion, Politics, and Culture in Contemporary South African Art, which occupied several galleries in the Richmond Center for Visual Arts on the Western Michigan University campus.
Curator Andrew Hennlich came into contact with Ruga's work through multiple visits to South Africa during the research phase of his dissertation. As the title of the show suggests, Hennlich sees fashion as a crucial metaphor used by South African artists to dissect the tempestuous and often-changing politics of the country. Some of the featured artists in Hennlich's show use fashion for broad cultural commentary, and others as a vehicle for individuated self-expression; Athi-Patra Ruga borrows a bit from both categories.
"Athi's performance work is often these pieces that very much make reference to drag aesthetics and fashion," Hennlich says. "The performers here are covered in these balloons filled with dye and tempera paint and pigment. He refers to them as the burden of identity. When all those balloons are trussed up, Athi says, it is incredibly physically painful. So as you pop them, it not only sort of bleeds into the public sphere, but it releases someone from the burden of their identity."
Despite South Africa having very progressive policies about gay marriage, the queer community experiences intense pushback in the form of social censure and violent hate crimes — a dramatic cost to pay to own one's identity. Yet Athi-Patra Ruga's work is exultant, colorful, and even optimistic.
"I think Athi is holding hope out for beauty," Hennlich says. "The performance binds all these bits together." Though we in Michigan won't be afforded an opportunity to see Athi-Patra Ruga's work live, his presentation promises to uphold the Penny Stamps Speaker Series tradition of offering insight and perspective on some of the most dynamic artists working today. Athi-Patra Ruga has exhibited widely including recent exhibitions at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, the 55th Venice Biennale, the Brass Artscape in Brussels, SFMOMA, the Tate Modern, and the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. Also recently included in the Phaidon book Younger Than Jesus, a directory of over 500 of the world's best artists under the age of 33, Athi-Patra Ruga is certainly one to watch.
Athi-Patra Ruga's Penny Stamps Speaker Series are at 7 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 4 at Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, 4454 Woodward Ave. in Detroit; 5:10 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 10 at the Michigan Theater, 603 E. Liberty St. in Ann Arbor; and at 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 11 at Bona Sera, 200 W. Michigan Ave. in Ypsilanti.