Athi-Patra Ruga’s queens are finding freedom through art


Athi-Patra Ruga’s imagination is saturated with colour, lush imagery, exotic animals and costumed characters. His vision makes his art a visual delight, leaping straight out of playful fantasy. But its subject matter – that of gender, sexuality and race politics – alludes to a far more sombre reality. “My work is raising questions around the idea of what it is to be a person living in the rainbow nation,” he says. Ruga’s mythical characters have been exhibited at the Venice Biennale, the Tate Modern and the recently-opened Zeitz MOCAA in Cape Town. Beyond galleries, he has taken his performances to the streets, responding to South Africa’s history in a way that is contemporary and accessible.

Fashion, theatre and performance are hugely influential in Ruga’s art. The neon-stockinged, multicoloured-balloon-carrying character who populates The Future White Women of Azania series is perhaps his most widely recognised. The kaleidoscopic spectacle is a caricature of the rainbow nation dream, which Ruga interrogates by popping balloons. He uses his own body as a performance site – the same body that was once bullied for its effeminate nature. Now, he doesn’t want people just to look at what he has created. He wants them to walk away empowered. “I believe that the idea of giving courage to an audience is greater than wanting to change someone. The courage lasts with them forever,” he says.

Ruga’s latest series, Queens in Exile, features lost and forgotten historical figures who were persecuted. His performances give them voice and free them. “I believe that it is up to us as artists, people who are supposed to be bearing witness to our country, its changes, its ups and downs. It is our responsibility to tell those stories,” he says. In the process, Ruga offers us new ways of dealing with old problems. He states his mission simply – he wants to leave the world a better and prettier place. Through his ongoing contribution to the South African art scene, Ruga is proving that the greatest restrictions can inspire unlimited creative freedom.