WHATIFTHEWORLD is pleased to present The Beatification of Feral Benga, a solo presentation of new work by Athi-Patra Ruga, at The Armory Show 2018 in New York.
One of many narratives that stretch across the Black Atlantic is performance. Interlaced with this artistic and body-political act, is the palpable sense of being consumed for the commodification and entertainment of others.
Populating this infinite flow of cultural exchange and common threads of ancestral and artistic memory is Athi-Patra Ruga, who puts himself in intimate conversation with Francois “Feral” Benga.
In his new body of work, Ruga has fashioned a monumental tribute to the Senegalese dancer who became a sought after model of the Harlem Renaissance, and performed at the Follies Berge in Paris in the 1920’s.
Ruga constructs beatification through the artistic process of marking Feral Benga as being in state of bliss, soon to be canonized and venerated by audiences from the 1920s to the future queer archive of African modernism. By reimagining and reimaging the body, Ruga is putting forth questions of memory, identity and embodied knowledge.
In Ruga’s lucid and artistic realm, forgotten and erased characters are woven into a multitude of tapestries that invoke questions of the body: the passive body, the eroticised body, the queer body, the African body. With an acute focus on the black male body throughout industrialized history, Ruga pays homage to the diplomats who performed their culture on behalf of the African continent.
With the sculpture of Feral Benga, Ruga has embedded himself as the impression is of his own body, but in one of Feral Benga’s iconic poses. This hybrid being is reconfiguring how we understand the history of black performance and the narratives that are embodied in what Ruga refers to as ‘a walking wound’. Speaking to the current state of the South African national imaginary, Ruga shares with his audience the movement and memorialization of disavowed revolutionaries.
If exile is the middle passage between performance and the homeland, then Ruga is entwining apparitions of the recent past, from Brenda Fassie, Josephine Baker to Feral Benga. Ruga performs and constructs around these iconic figures in order to seize the mediums of tapestry and sculpture as being able to encompass the paradox of belonging and displacement.
Memorializing the African performance artist is a crucial component of the modernist exercise. If certain bodies are remembered for not being able to produce knowledge, then Ruga is disrupting the archive of heteronormative modernism from the perspective of queer Africa. Picking up on threads left by artists such as Feral Benga, Ruga is continuing the legacy of performance artists descended from the continent.
Words by Chaze Matakala
Athi-Patra Ruga is one of the few artists working in South Africa today whose work has adopted the trope of myth as a contemporary response to the post-apartheid era. Ruga creates alternative identities and uses these avatars as a way to parody and critique the existing political and social status quo. Ruga’s artistic approach of creating myths and alternate realities is in some way an attempt to view the traumas of the last 200 years of colonial history from a place of detachment – at a farsighted distance where wounds can be contemplated outside of personalized grief and subjective defensiveness.
The philosophical allure and allegorical value of utopia has been central to Ruga’s practice. His construction of a mythical metaverse populated by characters which he has created and depicted in his work have allowed Ruga to create an interesting space of self reflexivity in which political, cultural and social systems can be critiqued and parodied.
Ruga has used his utopia as a lens to process the fraught history of a colonial past, to critique the present and propose a possible humanist vision for the future.
Recent exhibitions and performances include: Art Afrique, Louis Vuitton Foundation, Paris; Over the Rainbow, Performa 17, New York; Women’s Work, IZIKO South African National Gallery, Cape Town; An Age of Our Own Making, Holbaek, Denmark; Queer Threads: Crafting Identity and Community, Boston Centre for the Arts, Boston; AFRICA: Architecture, Culture and Identity at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art; Imaginary Fact at the South African Pavilion, 55th Venice Biennale; African Odysseys at The Brass Artscape in Brussels; Public Intimacy at the SFMOMA, San Francisco; The Film Will Always Be You: South African Artists on Screen at the Tate Modern in London; and Making Africa at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.
His works form part of Private, Public and Museum Collections here and abroad, namely: The Zeitz MOCCA ; Museion – Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Bolzano Italy; CAAC – Pigozzi Collection ; The Wedge Collection, IZIKO South African National Gallery.
Watch the official 'The Beatification of Feral Benga' trailer for here - www.vimeo.com/258954599