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Athi Patra


by Dela Gwala / 19.12.2012

“I’m cerebral, I prefer the academic”, it’s a snatched statement I overhear while slathering hummus on a piece of toast. The tall man with his loud opinions and quaky wine glass is trying to justify his sceptical stance on performance art. He sounds like a man who’s been dead since 347 BC. For Plato, when it came to knowledge, poets and painters left you standing in an intellectually darkened corner, staring at a blank wall. For him, art toyed with the most squalid part of human nature: that intelligence-less lair of feelings and emotions. The towering man nattering by the Mezze platter thinks that he is making a distinction between what comfortably gets the label ‘art’ and what needs to be prodded at with theorised critiques. Instead, he is borrowing from the mouth of someone who accused art of being an irredeemable lie.

The opening address of the GIPCA (Gordon Institute for the Performing and Creative Arts) live art festival is undertaken by a bespectacled man with multitudes of blue paper. Standing in a corner on GIPCA’s take on the soapbox, he asks us to make up our mind. We need to decide whether what we will see for the next 4 days is art. The catch-all phrase for the event seems to be “inter-disciplinary”; an opportunity for all forms of contemporary art to share a space. After an auspicious three-peat of the word “sublime”, the opening speaker locates performance art’s formal beginnings in Europe but points back to its closer-to-home origin – African ritual and custom. He then acknowledges the dark-skinned men standing on either side of him, dressed in black and carrying the kind of brooms barely found away from a rural yard. These men are the ushers – their thatch brushes are to identify them.

The screens that hid the performance/exhibition space are removed for the performance of Highway to Heaven/ Paradise Road. What’s revealed is what seems to be a white runway with two rows of chairs facing it on either side. ‘Bring out the flashing cameras and Gavin Rajah.’ Giggles the man sitting next to me. There’s no sign of any highbrow Indian fashion but at the edge of the blank floor space is a pile of tyres – above them is a dangling microphone. When it goes dark and silent, a man in blackface, earmuffs and a suit that alternates between silk and velvet approaches the white block. Sdu Majola’s first words are the names of the colonial powers with a particularly special mention of Belgium. Majola then removes a tyre to partially release a wailing and floundering woman who’s wearing the same blackface.

Somewhere there’s the disembodied call of ‘Phesheya’. As Zulu words go, it’s one of my favourites – it could mean anything from ‘very far’ to ‘overseas’. In this context, it seems to point to a distance as far as heaven. The woman drowning in the tyres, Hlengiwe Lushaba Madlala, sings it as an echo that seeks the mountain of salvation. Images flicker onto the white block, then comes a chatter of indistinct voices and the two performers begin to frantically jive. “We need to tell our stories”, says a voice from above. It’s said matter-of-factly, but narrative is the prophet of power relations. It endows knowledge with the privilege of being deemed ‘true’ or getting the label of truth’s partner in fancy dress – ‘scientific’. By this point, Sdu has pushed Hlengiwe and her dress of tyres over and left her thrashing on the ground. They join hands at the end, each with a tyre around a part of their body. The information booklet tells me that I should have seen a contention between emotional and physical borders– all I saw was a simple tale of colonial exploitation.

We’re moved from one part of Hiddingh Hall to another – relocated to the Little Theatre. The men with brooms stand guard at the door, inside lies the setup for a piece called Imitation of life. “With every orgasm, I die a little more”, according to the voice on stage, sex is the difference between life and death. Like everything else, it’s a relationship of irony. There’s a screen lowered only a tenth of the way down for live subtitles – most of this performance is in German. The entire gag is an attempt to act but pass it off as not acting. It’s lecture theatre with pieces of autobiography and arb musical moments thrown in. It’s hard to tell which part of the story is true and which isn’t. Malte Sholz and Beatrice Fleischlin describe everything from their first acts of masturbation to previous jobs. I believe Sholz’s unlikely tales about military tours in the Middle East but struggle to latch onto Fleischlin’s testimonial about farming and fruit picking. It’s simply because one is better than the other. The conversations between them expose Fleischlin’s waning believability which screws with the overall concept of the piece – the mind game of trying to figure out if you’re being lied to.

Day 2 of the festival leaves me standing on a farm in Tamboerskloof. Two minutes from the lights of the CBD, a black pig toddles past me on a dirt road. The 7 minute walk it takes to get to the performance space yields the sight of disintegrating furniture, an abandoned Roman bath house and a mid-size tower of old shoes. When we reach Zink – a theatre made of corrugated iron – cushions are handed to us by giggling children. Judging from what had gone before, I should have known shit was about to get weird. The over-capacity room quietens down to watch Mama Papa Kaka (a leg to stand on). It’s a surrealist trip that begins with a man rolling toy cars through the front door of a dollhouse. It continues with a pregnant lady lying on a table of dirt and the man tracing her form with a dead fish. Somewhere along the line there’s a little ballerina girl strutting her stuff to a Japanese song about dogs and bombs. Towards the end, the man drags around an over-sized limb attached to his leg – the little bursts of laughter indicate that I’m supposed to find this funny.

Mama Papa Kaka’s claims to Dadaist/ Surrealist influences compels me to call on my own personal phantasm of Freud to confer with the irrationality and fucked-up-ness of the human psyche – and by extension this piece. On the bus transporting us from one venue to another, a woman loudly identifies herself as a curator at the Iziko gallery. She turns to the people seated behind her to gab about the fact that she’d seen this piece in the 80s. They nod their heads in affirmation but call this recent version “contrived”. As we pass the stables of the police force’s horses, she turns to me to ask for help with a shot of ginseng. I poke a hole in the little green coloured bottle for her with a pen. She knocks it back and then starts raving about Athi- Patra Ruga – the next stop for the bus labelled ‘UCT field trip’.

‘I hope I didn’t come all this way to watch gay porn.’ The statement originates from a woman with coiffed hair and high heels standing in the shadows of a shop front in Hope Street. I echo this sentiment with a sigh – knowing that I will be bitterly disappointed if this ends with a penis. The shades covering the shop window are pulled up. The backdrop is a wall covered with the words “Purge your elders” and luminescent sketches that include evil-looking school children, zebra carpets and anal sex. The foreground showcases two pairs of netted legs topped with a tree of balloons filled with highlighter-coloured paint. The high-heeled legs stand up to move around and one by the one the balloons are popped. And then, one of the human pieces comes tumbling down but uses the wall for leverage. This fall is reminiscent of a close call that Athi-Patra Ruga had when he was showing The Future White Woman of Azania at the Grahamstown Arts festival. That time, in his ballooned regalia, he took a misstep into the street and was nearly run over by a taxi.

The oft-called ‘dregs’ of the CBD infected Patra Ruga’s performance with comic value and fortuitous relevance. A drunkard stumbled out of a nearby bar to ask half-finished questions about the reasons for this inexplicable gathering. A man selling metal and wire flowers peered into the window in confusion. Athi-Patra Ruga has accused the white walls of exhibition spaces of being a form of alienation – another triumph for Western values and its little helper capitalism. This performance happens behind two panes of glass but still seems to do its job. It holds a little protest sign against those cheerless drones who build a fort of impenetrable academic babble around art.

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  1. Anonymous says:

    the black and white photograph should have been credited to Ruphin Coudyzer .

    Ruphin Coudyzer came to South Africa in 1971 and got a job in a stockbroking company.

    In 1973 he took up photography and got the job of darkroom operator with the Argus Africa News Service.
    During this time he compiled a documentary on Kliptown, a coloured township next to Soweto, an exhibition of which was held at The Photographers Gallery in London in 1977.
    He also started an ongoing series ”Focus on People”, a candid reportage on people in their everyday doings, exhibiting some of this work at the Market Theatre and the Carlton Centre.

    In 1977 he joined The Star Newspaper’s news photographers team for two years, both years winning The Star-Picture-of-the-Year award, as well as being highly commended in the News Picture Category of the Shell Press Pictures of the Year Awards of 1978 and ’79.
    During 1978 he was commissioned to provide the slides for the Audio-Visual of The Star’s ”Newspapers in Education” project headed by William Smith.

    In 1979 he became The Star Tonight! magazine photographer.
    In the same year he held an exhibition at the Market Theatre Photo Gallery entitled ”Le Plat Pays” of documentaries done during various visits to his home country Belgium.
    In 1982 he won a World Press Photo Contest Award in the art section (see Photo Categories page: Dance).
    In that same year he also got six entries in the book ”A Day in the Life of South Africa”.
    In 1984 he furnished the picture of Santarama Miniland for the front cover of the Johannesburg Telephone Directory.
    In the same year a documentary on him and his work was screened on SABC TV as part of a series on top photographers in the country.
    In 1986 forty-eight of his prints on people were selected to form part of an exhibition entitled ”The Soul of Johannesburg” and presented at the Total Gallery by the South African Institute of Photographers.

    In 1981 he became a Licentiate member of the SAIP (South African Institute Of Photographers) – later to be renamed PPSA (Professional Photographers Of Southern Africa) and was awarded the rank of Associate in November 1986. He was to receive the rank of Fellow later in 1989 (see further on).

    In November 1986 Ruphin Coudyzer held an exhibition of some of his Theatre Production Photographs at the Market Theatre Art Gallery.
    During most of 1987 he worked on the color photography for the Argus Company’s book ”Like it was – The Star 100 years in Johannesburg”, for which he also provided the front cover photograph.
    In November 1987 he took part in the highly acclaimed ”The Star Photographers Off-Beat” exhibition at the Shell Gallery.

    In February 1988 he was appointed Pictures and Graphics Editor of The Star newspaper. Under his editorship The Star produced, for the first time in six years, the Press Photographer Of The Year in the Illford Press Photo Awards (the late Ken Oosterbroek).
    During 1988 The Market Theatre’s book ”Best of Company” appeared, for which Ruphin did the front cover and most of the photography in it.

    In February 1989 he resigned from the Argus Company in order to devote himself on a self-empoyed basis to various photographic projects and some eminent clients at the time, including The Market Theatre, Sun International, Pieter Toerien Productions, The Civic Theatre, The Sibikwa Players, The People’s Theatre, Pieter-Dirk Uys, The Adele Blank Dance Company Freeflight, The Johannesburg Dance Foundation, The Moving into Dance Company, The Johannesburg Youth Theatre, Radio 702, Hello Johannesburg Magazine, The Goodman Gallery, Adele Lucas Promotions…
    In the 1989 Profoto Awards Ruphin Coudyzer won the category Portraiture with a Silver Award and the category Editorial People also with a Silver Award. In the latter category he was also runner up with a Highly Commended Award.
    In July of the same year he was invited by the 1820 Settlers Foundation to cover the Grahamstown Arts Festival with the aim of producing an exhibition.
    In December of 1989 he received the Fellowship Award from the SA Institute of Photographers, based on a presentation of 20 works from his Grahamstown Festival coverage.
    In July 1990 the 20 works were subsequently exhibited during the Grahamstown Arts Festival and during the ”Hot from the Fringe” run at The Market Theatre Gallery.
    In August 1990 he took part in the ”Excellence in Photography” show, a highly prestigious exhibition of selected works by members of the SAIP, and was singled out as one of the three most noteworthy photographers by the SABC magazine program ”Antenna”.
    In the 1990 Profoto Awards Ruphin Coudyzer received eight awards in the categories Commissioned People and Commissioned Portraiture.

    For the 1991 Grahamstown Arts Festival he was again asked to be the official 1820 Foundation Photographer.
    In November 1991 a permanent exhibition of pictures depicting local actors and musicians was launched at ”The Coffee Society” in Rockey Street, Yeoville, a bohemian type coffee bar under ”The Black Sun” Theatre.
    In August 1992 a small exhibition of twenty works of the last three years in theatre photography was presented during the ”Open Week Festival” at the new Johannesburg Youth Theatre complex.
    In the same month the SAIP selected 7 of his works to form part of the 25 images for the ”Man of our Times” exhibition, a project by world acclaimed British photographer Lord Patrick Litchfield.
    During the 1993 Pot-Pourri season of PACT at The Windybrow Theatre Complex, Ruphin held an exhibition entitled ”Highlights” with works from the last 14 years of his photography in the theatre and entertainment world.
    In July of 1993 he was again the official 1820 Foundation photographer for The Grahamstown Festival.

    In May 1994 he was sponsored by Benetton to hold an exhibition at The Market Theatre of works chosen from the most momentous Market Theatre productions over the last 15 years, representing one of the most important one-man exhibitions Coudyzer has held.
    These works are now permanently displayed in the foyer of The Market Theatre complex.

    In February 1996 the newly formed arts magazine ”Vuka SA” (Vol I, No 3) devoted it’s front page and a six-page article on Coudyzer’s work.
    In 1997 he contributed 33 photographs as well as the front cover picture to the autobiography ”Just theTicket” by Computicket magnet Percy Tucker.
    His photographs also appear in many local and overseas books and publications on South African theatre.

    In recent years Ruphin Coudyzer has expanded his activities by covering functions such as product launches, award ceremonies, Christmas parties and the staff portraiture for such corporations as 3M South Africa, Coca-Cola, The Standard Bank, Total SA, MTN, Gensec, The Wanderers Club, Microsoft SA, The FranchiseAssociation of SA, Bayer and Agfa SA.
    He has done the photography for brochures for companies such as Price Waterhouse Coopers, SA Breweries and Amalgamated Beverages Industries.
    His photography has also included work for industrial theatre and event companies like The Blue Moon Company, Industrial Theatre Company, Jumping Dust, The Event Company, Howling Wolf and Shoestring Productions.

    With the acquisition of AVMIN (Anglovaal Mining) as a client at the beginning of 2001, he ventured into the realm of Industrial Theatre.
    In the newly reinstated 2004 ProFoto Awards – Industrial Category – he entered nine images from his industrial portfolio and scooped one Gold, one Silver, two Bronze and one Highly Commended Award. He also won the portfolio in this section with a Silver Award.
    In 2004 he acquired the clientele of the Nelson Mandela Foundation for which he worked for a number of years.

    On the 30th March 2006 (his birthday) The Market Theatre launched their 30th anniversary celebrations by opening Ruphin Coudyzer’s exhibition “Stages Calling” of 40 works illustrating some of the most prominent plays since 1979.
    This is his second permanent exhibition at The Market Theatre (see May 1994).

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