BODY OF WORK
Athi-Patra Ruga on his extraordinary creative process
The creative process begins with a lot of drawing and writing. From then onwards I edit so as to augment the intended storyline for a presentation. Life is pixellated to me, so that makes it easier to transpose my sitting subjects. This process can range from three months to four years.
Like my partner’s kiss and my friends’ successes, receiving the invitation to represent South Africa at the 55th Venice Biennale made me weak in the knees. I was only 27 years old and it was a life-changing moment for the studio. Seeing schoolchildren engage with and react to my sculpture tribute to Simon Nkoli (currently at the Zeitz MOCAA) brings energy to my legs – movement – as I wish someone had been telling those stories to me as a kid.
My hands are a testament to the many people who have influenced me in this direction: from learning petit point embroidery from my German home economics teacher Mrs Frauenstein to my three years at Gordon Flack Davison Academy that presented me with a very meticulous handwork-orientated course – I learnt many technical rules about the warp and weft of fabric. With my hands, I managed to restore a medium that was waning in popularity and originally perceived as feminine, preindustrial and docile. I was able to articulate my personal and generational story while employing the highest level of technique, one that I am also passing down to future artists.
I consider myself a storyteller – or a disrupter of stories. I feel we are in a country that can still learn much from that universal medium, as it bridges so many common threads of mythologies and principles. In my work I employ the Nguni tradition of
intsomi, and I shake their ancient stories so as to relate them to my contemporary community. I am finishing up my first kids’ storybook that reintroduces children to the months of the year – not the Gregorian calendar, but that of the Nguni/Sotho nations.
My mind is obsessed with how I can render the most empowering, sophisticated and vernacular stories about the history and existence of my respective communities. This occupies my conscience as it requires a lot of integrity towards the subject matter and technique.
I listen to a lot of music that expresses the divine in African culture, including classical Xhosa composer Tiyo Soga and gospel group Oomama Base Wesile. Another favourite artist of mine is harpist and cosmologist Alice Coltrane – her work is pure genius.
My mother, an Eastern Cape midwife, used to wear Aramis, which is traditionally a male fragrance. Every time I pass a man wearing the scent, I smile as I am affirmed in the long line of firebrand women who influenced my adult outlook, from aesthetics to civil rights. I wear L’Après-Midi d’un Faune by Etat Libre d’Orange as a tribute to the Ballets Russes and Claude Debussy’s ‘Afternoon of a Faun’, a collaboration that has had a priceless effect on my work ethic, in memoriam. Collaboration is important as it opens your original story and themes to a democratic process of sorts. athipatra