4 October 2018 - 6 January 2019
Set against the clean white walls of Somerset House, Athi-Patra Ruga’s Of Gods, Rainbows and Omissions is a storm of colour. The colours, at once eccentric and natural to the imaginative landscape of the artist, stay with you long after the visit, like fresh paint drying into memory.
The exhibition marks the first solo display of the South African artist’s work in the United Kingdom. It brings together rare and fresh artwork from three celebrated series - The Future White Women of Azania, Queens in Exile and The BEATification of Feral Benga. The exhibit responds vividly to the challenges of African cultural identity and representation in the modern age. Ruga builds a world of magical realism using a mixture of petit point tapestry, photography, sculpture and film.
Spread across four rooms of varying size, the exhibition has been curated to be patiently devoured. There are five to six works displayed in each room, punctuated with space that allows the viewer to meditate on Ruga’s bold concepts. The selection of wool and thread tapestries weaves stories of an ultra-Africa on canvas. There are diverse and recurring images within the work - iconic zebras with riders layered in balloons, skies with throbbing colours, and intent eyes looking out into the distance. You will find rich characters here that give the work a sharp personality and build a shared world of myth, imagination and ideology. There are otherworldly details in the artwork - one photograph shows a leopard crawling towards ‘Miss Azania 2019’ adorned in a sparkling silver choker.
Upon entering the Terrace Rooms, one has an acute realisation of having stepped into another world. Ruga has attempted, quite successfully, to build a universe that is not only ornamental and self-aware but also equally seductive. The flowers in the photograph ‘The Night of the Long Knives I’ are plastic and any parts of body visible through avalanches of hats are covered in colour. The artist’s effort is to bring out the fabrication of his world. Its power lies in the dramatisation of its unreality - Ruga’s work presents an imaginative challenge to our images of God, rainbows and the world(s) beyond them.
Visitors are invited to look at the artwork first, from a distance, to absorb all its glory, and then, closely, to notice the details of the weaving, the meticulous staging behind the photographs, the molecules that make grand sculptures and the thoughts that compel Ruga’s complex fantasy. In the slight wind from the air conditioner, the tapestries sway forward and backward slowly, and for an instant, the women of Azania seem to breathe as if they have life. Curator Jonathan Powell recommends you spend time with the artwork, to really see the stories they tell.
A soft music playing in the background compliments the entire experience. It grows deeper as I walk further into the hall, rising and melting into lyrics. In the third room, one finds its source in a work of video titled ‘Over the Rainbow’. The installation is alive in colour and movement and yokes together powerful performances with fashion. It feels like a recreation of a lucid dream as the artist gradually transforms into a demigod. The film is immersive and overbearing - its sound shadowing the entire exhibition.
In the last room, Ruga’s final act is a sculpture of ‘uMabele-bele,’ "The many breasted one." A true show-stealer, the artwork is made entirely of flowers in a palette of gold, copper and red, little silver beads and tiny jewels of glass collected together like stars. The figure stands on heels of flowers, in a metaphor of empowerment. Placed on a pedestal of shining mirror, the structure feels entirely true. Spectacularly-detailed and intelligent, it completes Athi-Patra Ruga’s monograph with great spark.
Every bit of the exhibition is worth the visit. The impossibility of the artist’s vision and the simplicity of his angle present a fresh portrayal of humanity. It offers a sharp comment on the figures our histories, media and political systems seldom lionise - the black, female and queer. Ruga deliberately creates a distinguishable camouflage. Seemingly natural backgrounds are unsettled with abstract and bright elements to offer reflections of what it means to be human.
Early in the morning, Athi-Patra Ruga stands in a dramatic dress of black jacket and skirt against his vibrant artwork - smiling to be photographed. As I walk out of the gallery, the music breaks into a crescendo and I continue to think of Azania long after the day has set. Of Gods, Rainbows and Omissions is vividly imagined, brave and most importantly, incredibly memorable. It offers a successful introduction to contemporary African imaginations. The exhibition is on display at Somerset House South Wing until 6 January 2019.