This October, Somerset House and 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair will present new and rarely seen works from internationally-renowned South African artist – Athi-Patra Ruga. In his first major solo UK exhibition, Ruga will reveal a mythical world which challenges perceptions of cultural identity, and parodies the construction of the South African nation state in the post-apartheid era. The exhibition continues beyond 1-54 as a stand-alone show throughout Somerset House’s winter season.
For the first time, Ruga brings together 3 seminal bodies of work – The Future White Women of Azania (2012-15); Queens in Exile (2015-17); and The Beatification of the Feral Benga (2017 – present) – immersing visitors in his vibrant world filled with powerful and striking characters.
Through the exhibition, Ruga creates an allegorical vision of utopia to explore the post-apartheid political, cultural and social systems of South Africa, forming a critique of Desmond Tutu’s declaration of South Africa as a Rainbow Nation. Showcasing his diverse practice that spans film, photography, sculpture and beautiful, hand-crafted petit-point tapestry, Rugo creates a counter-narrative for those who have been forgotten or marginalised from South Africa’s national imagination.
Born in Umtato, South Africa, and now based in Cape Town, Ruga is the figurehead for a new generation of South-African artists, using myth and alternate realities as a contemporary response to the post-apartheid era. Throughout his career, Ruga has adopted avatars and created characters through whom he addresses ideologies, social and state structures, as well as the politics of gender inequality. By adopting these characters, Ruga has been empowered to confront the complex truths of his nation’s colonial history, post-colonial present, and his own personal experiences as a queer Xhosa man.
Ruga’s signature use of kaleidoscopic colour characterises his African utopia of Azania, as seen in the first body of work exhibited, The Future White Women of Azania. Addressing the place of queerness in society, the characters that inhabit this world are in a state of transformation, seen most strikingly in the figure of the Future White Woman whose cocoon of multi-coloured balloons challenges concepts of race and identity.
In Queens in Exile, Ruga further explores this land where the once-exiled now reign, their fate beautifully-stitched into his large-scale tapestry canvasses, and depicted in Over the Rainbow, a short film piece which will be screened in the exhibition.
New works in Of Gods, Rainbows and Omissions, will feature from Ruga’s ongoing project, The Beatification of Feral Benga, a tribute to the Senegalese dancer as a queer icon. To illustrate Ruga’s embodied knowledge of the subject, the series will debut an ornate sculpture, created using 3D scans of his own body memorialised in applique, artificial flowers and jewels.
A number of public events will accompany the exhibition, Ruga will be joined by Zoe Whitley, Curator (International Art of Tate Modern) and Co-Curator (Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power) for a forum-style talk, curated by writer/broadcaster Ekow Eshun Ruga’s new monograph will be published by Ruga’s gallery, WHATIFTHEWORLD, to coincide with the opening of this exhibition and will be exclusively available from Somerset House for one month. Somerset House Shop – in partnership with 1-54 – will also bring together a bespoke collection of products dedicated to contemporary art and culture from Africa and its diaspora, on sale throughout the fair and Ruga’s exhibition.
Of Gods, Rainbows and Omissions will be the next exhibition in the Charles Russell Speechlys Terrace Room Series – an ongoing partnership with the leading law firm to present a wide range of free exhibitions reflecting the broad interests of both organisations.
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[Credits: Feature image – The Future White Women of Azania by Athi-Patra Ruga (www.whatiftheworld.com); Somerset House Press Office; visi.co.za;]