Athi-Patra Ruga is an artist who hardly requires an introduction. Partaking in exhibitions and performances at the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris, The Film Will Always Be You: ‘South African Artists on Screen’ at the Tate Modern in London and the 55th Venice Biennale to name a few; the reasons behind him being considered a ground breaking South African artist is clear. Athi returns to Cape Town with a new body of work ‘Queens in Exile’ currently showing at the WHAT- IFTHEWORLD/GALLERY.
Assuming the tropology of myth as a neoteric retort to the era of post-apartheid; Athi is a designer of non-conforming identities. Using his built-up avatars as both satire and critique on the current social and political social status quo. Alternative realities and myths are constructed in an effort to look at the traumas of colonial history over the last 200 years from a detached outlook. From this removed distance wounds of the past that still remain, can be reflected upon outside of personalized grief and defensiveness.
Central to his practice is the philosophical magnetism and allegoric value of utopia. This mythical metaverse ensuing from his practice, has been constructed with both ease and poise. The creation and depiction of characters inhabiting Athi’s mystical realm create a space of self-reflectivity within a political, social and cultural context in which criticism and parody can be expressed. Utopia acts as an optic through which to view and process colonial history in order to provide critique on the present and pose a humanist vision for the future.
‘Queens in Exile’ came about from a desire to tell more accurate stories. Not intended as an exercise of alteration to paint over gaping holes in history; Athi unearths exclusionary national myth and collective memory. In this act, he moulds a world in which the exiled reign. A land that belongs to queens that have been lost and forgotten from our memories.
The lives of anti-apartheid and gay rights activist Simon Nkoli, Senegalese dancer Feral Benga and Sylvia Rivera, a US transgender activist are the icons that Athi chooses to highlight. Asking his audience to question the canon with fresh eyes. His exhibition acts as a reminder of the need to enforce more accurate accounts of history inclusive of womxn and queer icons.
A project spanning over three years comes together in ‘Queens of Exile’ and functions simultaneously as a continuation on the critically acclaimed exhibition ‘The Future White woman of Azania Saga’ in 2014. Athi’s viewer is imbedded in an immersive exhibition. A large-scale projection of ‘Over the Rainbow’ leaves you mesmerized, electrified.
Hand embroidered tapestries completed with meticulous precision, elaborate foliage sets built up of flowers, flowers on flowers, golden leaves. These are the visual signifiers of an artist painstakingly unafraid of his boldness. Many of Athi’s works are works that live on past physical existence and traverse into mental existence.
After Athi’s return from the Foundation Louis Vuitton in Paris, local audiences have the opportunity to engage with the work of this internationally acclaimed artist who can only be deemed a master of his medium.