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Art, Culture

Three Rites of Passage

by Nadine Botha / Images by Sydelle Willow Smith / 09.03.2012

Colbert Mashile, Churchill Madikida, Thembinkosi Goniwe, Nicholas Hlobo… “Circumcision as subject matter has itself become a right of passage for black artists,” says Athi-Patra Ruga. Ruga’s performance work Ilulwane headlines the Infecting the City public arts festival running in Cape Town until Saturday March 10.

Ilulwane debuted at the prestigious New York visual art performance biennial, Performa, in November. The mock opera features Ruga himself performing alongside 27 synchronised swimmers with a soundtrack by Spoek Mathambo. The Cape Town manifestation takes place in the Long Street Baths.

“It’s candy-coated seriousness,” laughs Ruga.“I said in jest that I should make an opera. The beautiful thing about being an artist is that once you say something, you have to do it.”

The Xhosa word for bat, “ilulwane” is literally translated as “one who floats at night”. It is also a derogatory Xhosa term for men who choose to be circumcised in a hospital, rather than the traditional initiation ceremony. The term dismisses such men as neither boys nor men, confining them to a form of sexual purgatory.

“I wanted to create an alternative ritual for these guys that come back from the hospital and don’t get their ritual,” Ruga explains the primary inspiration for the work. The synchronised swimmers are drawn from the grandiose ceremony associated with Hollywood legend Esther Williams. The dark side of the undead is manifest in Ruga’s references to legendary horror actor Bela Lugosi.

Athi-Patra Ruga - Ilulwane

Although Ruga witnessed his brothers being marginalised by this term, Ruga himself only experienced the prejudice when his masculinity came into question because of his sexuality. Homosexuality then, with visual references to the photographer Alvin Baltrop, is the second layer of inspiration.

For Ruga, Baltrop’s photographs represent a celebratory pre-HIV/Aids perception of gay culture. Ruga demonstrates cruising as itself being a rite of passage. The significance of the Long Street Baths in the Cape Town gay culture also adds resonance to this theme.

“I wanted to make it how my generation sees this shit in society,” explains Ruga. “A lot of people are turning Christian and not going through these rituals, or simply not going through these rituals because of the malpractices. So a very important, defining covenant between the black man and his lineage is all being questioned now.”

Such questions regarding the nature of gender and sexuality has always permeated the fashion-designer-turned-artist’s work. For instance, as fashion designer he would drench his range in canola oil, also known as rapeseed oil, a working-class substitute for lubricant.

“I got frustrated with the apolitical transient nature of fashion and I wanted to communicate things regarding the body that didn’t just last a season,” Ruga explains his own move from fashion to art in 2007/8.

However this fashion background is still visible not only in the sculptural costumes that emphasise his performance work, but also in the tactile crafted quality of the tapestry works that have come to define his gallery work. The discipline entailed in creating these works is in itself a form of performance, believes Ruga.

The tapestries are also portraits of Ruga’s performance characters, embodying an abstracted form of them before they come to life through performance and photography. The “Miss Robben Island 1984” tapestry, for instance, is a preface of the character that will come to life in the third part of the Ilulwane trilogy. Ruga is expecting to raise more than a few eyebrows when he brings to life this representation of Nelson Mandela’s prison wife, questioning the very nationalist agenda of gender and sexuality.

The performance featured in Infecting the City is the second part of the trilogy. The first part was a 2010 performance and video with Ruga covered in bandages, wearing a red dress and running on a treadmill in high heals. However, Ruga says it was more of a mood setter than connected through a coherent narrative.

This ominous mood prevails into the current manifestation of Ilulwane. “The boy becoming a man, might not make it; the guy going cruising, might get HIV/Aids,” acknowledges Ruga.

Himself turning 28 on the eve of his Friday March 9 performance, Ilulwane takes on a third mythology of passage for this young artist. Having broken onto the international scene last year, what is his future trajectory?

“Ilulwane as a character might be around for a long time,” he reflects. Looking to a covenant with his own artistic lineage, he continues: “I’m in awe of people like Dame Edna and Pieter Dirk Uys who have kept their characters alive for so long.”

*Athi Patra Ruga’s Ilulwane plays tonight, for free, at the Long Street Baths at 20h45.

**Opening image © Sydelle Willow Smith/ Africa Centre and Cape Town Partnership.

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