Cape Town

Athi-Patra Ruga, Lizalis Indinga Lakho/Autistik Imperium (Manifest Destiny/Autistic Empire), 2017, wool and thread on canvas, 16' 4 3/4“ x 13' 1 1/2”.

Athi-Patra Ruga, Lizalis Indinga Lakho/Autistik Imperium (Manifest Destiny/Autistic Empire), 2017, wool and thread on canvas, 16' 4 3/4“ x 13' 1 1/2”.

Athi-Patra Ruga

WHATIFTHEWORLD

Athi-Patra Ruga, Lizalis Indinga Lakho/Autistik Imperium (Manifest Destiny/Autistic Empire), 2017, wool and thread on canvas, 16' 4 3/4“ x 13' 1 1/2”.

Athi-Patra Ruga’s sculpture in the collection of Cape Town’s Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, Proposed Model for Tseko Simon Nkoli Memorial, 2017, portrays a reclining gold figure embellished with fabric roses and baubles. It exemplifies an opulent—almost baroque—strand of figuration that has taken hold in South Africa of late, but also, in its honoring of the anti-apartheid and gay-rights activist of its title, bears out the interlinked focus on racial and gender struggle in this artist’s flamboyant work.

Comprising seventeen wool-and-thread tapestries and a single-channel film, Ruga’s exhibition “Queens in Exile 2014–2017” at the Whatiftheworld / Gallery elaborated his fictional cosmology of Azania, an alternate South Africa ruled by a dynasty of matriarchs. A Roman toponym for southeast coastal Africa, “Azania” became a rallying cry among South African black activists during the struggle for liberation. Its currency in Ruga’s imaginary milieu gestures to the ongoing activism around dispossession, particularly of land; ultimately, though, the name signifies a feminist territory that is an idealized Neverland, a refuge from South Africa’s homophobic present.

The centerpiece of Ruga’s exhibition was Lizalis Indinga Lakho/Autistik Imperium (Manifest Destiny/Autistic Empire), 2017, a roughly sixteen-and-a-half-by-thirteen-foot tapestry depicting four people flanked by two cheetahs, a blue crane, and various tropical plants. Based on a cartoon drawn in pastel on canvas by Ruga and collaboratively embroidered with three assistants, the work is a vivid collage of autobiography, history, and camp imagination. Seated at the center, on a peacock chair that references a 1967 photo of Huey P. Newton, is Her Majesty the Versatile Queen Ivy; her face is based on the only photograph Ruga possesses of his maternal grandmother, Nompuku Millie Ngalonkulu. Ivy holds the decapitated head of The Elder, a character enacted by Ruga in an earlier cycle of exhibitions and performances, “The Future White Woman of Azania Saga,” 2010–14. Next to Ivy stands an unnamed woman with feathered crown, and, on bended knees, swaddled in bandages, is a comic-book mummy, the Walking Wound, a recurring avatar of corporeal trauma.

History is a malleable resource in Ruga’s hands, but he nonetheless respects the legacy of black dispossession and struggle in his embroidered portraits and maps. Iphupha, Ikhamanga Nobulungu Bolwandle (A Dream, Strelitzia and White Ocean Foam), 2017, refers to the Xhosa cattle-killing movement and famine of 1856–57. A quartet of rectangular maps, each titled Homelands as Ubhaco, 2017, describes the political territory and flags of Bophuthatswana, Ciskei, Transkei, and Venda, nominally independent black nations created by the apartheid state. Ruga is not an orthodox cartographer; rather, in the manner of Moshekwa Langa, he associatively records fact and impression: His map of Bophuthatswana, for instance, references an infamous police raid on a private home in Forest Town, Johannesburg, in 1966, in which nine men were arrested for “masquerading as women.”

That’s what Ruga does in his nine-minute film Over the Rainbow, 2016–17. Donning a costume worthy of RuPaul’s Drag Race, he is equal parts Norma Desmond, Shiva, and Josephine Baker. The use of pop icon Brenda Fassie’s 1983 song “Weekend Special” on the soundtrack speaks to the transitory roles black performers such as Baker and Ruga assume on Western stages. Less concerned with coherent narrative than poise and affect, Ruga’s film is at once gloriously camp and heartfelt: Its props include a copy of Jacqueline Susann’s novel Valley of the Dolls (1966) and an apartheid-era identity document depicting the artist’s grandmother—the one he drew from for his portrait of Queen Ivy in Lizalis Indinga Lakho/Autistik Imperium. The film optimistically ends with the artist stripped of his white bandages: not a butterfly, but free of his wounds.

Sean O’Toole