South African artists are exploring new forms of responding to the post-Apartheid realities of their country. Beverly Andrews met one of the most exciting of the new generation during an exhibition of his work in London.
South Africa has produced some of the world’s most seminal artists and London’s Somerset House is showcasing one of the newest arrivals on the international stage, Athi Patra Ruga.
His show, which will draw to a close end of this month, has been drawing crowds. The beautiful work captures a mythological world which challenges perceptions of cultural identity and in its own unique way comments on the new South Africa.
Athi Patra Ruga was in London briefly for the opening of his show and he spoke to New African magazine about the inspiration behind his dazzling work.
“It’s interesting when you examine the idea of creating a Utopia, because Utopia’s are always about who you exclude. Once you want to transplant that idea, it becomes colonisation.
“There is in fact a real Utopia and it’s in Australia – in an Aboriginal homeland in fact that has one of the poorest communities in the world and with one of the highest death rates in the world, largely due to the legacy of colonisation. That’s the reality of Utopia, as soon as it’s exported to someone else’s country, it becomes much more about who you choose to keep out.”
Ahti Patra Ruga’s work spans both paintings and films and on the surface appears to be a playful portrait of our mythologies along with quite an insightful look at the past.
Ruga offers an allegorical vision of utopia in order to explore the political, cultural and social systems of post-apartheid South Africa and acting as a stern critique to Desmond Tutu’s proclamation of South Africa as a ‘Rainbow nation’. Ruga’s work creates a very different narrative about those excluded, left behind or simply forgotten.
“When you think of the numbers of African soldiers who fought and often died in huge numbers during both global wars for an idea of Utopia and yet once they returned home, they found that they still faced injustice. The idea of Utopia is very much a joke.”
Ruga’s work becomes unforgettable when you’ve see it, given the sheer vibrancy of many of the pieces he has created. One of these is the colourful painting Night of the Long Knives. On the surface, it is a playful, magical scene of what seems to be a circus fantasy come to life with a mysterious hidden woman seated on top of a zebra, while other masked figures look on.
The painting looks enchanting until you remember its title and what it’s referencing. Night of the Long Knives refers to the event which saw Hitler’s SS carry out extrajudicial political murders to cement Hitler’s grip on power.
“To me it very much reflects the settlers’ mentality, a desire to wipe out those who in anyway got in the way of them creating their own Utopia.”
Ruga also likes to adapt characters or avatars in his work in order to comment on the complex issues of gender and in particular the inequality of women which still exists in the 21st century. “It’s astonishing that we are where we are and that in terms of women’s rights there is still so much further we have to go.”
Ruga was born in Umtata, South Africa and is now based in Cape Town. He is in many ways a figurehead for a new generation of South African artists reflecting alternate realities as a contemporary response to post-apartheid South Africa.
Ruga is also part of a generation of South African artists who are happy to create work which crosses all mediums such as film, painting, photography and hand-crafted petit point tapestry – whatever it takes to get their message out. And in Ruga’s case finding the right medium in which to comment on the new South Africa.
When I mentioned that international, contemporary collectors are now desperate to buy the work of African artists, Ruga laughs and says I think they have finally woken up to the fact that African artists are world class. “We have always been here it just took time for the rest of the world to catch up,” he says
Athi-Patra Ruga’s exhibition: Of Cods, Rainbows and Omissions ran at London’s famed Somerset House from October 2018- January 2019.