South African multimedia artist on division, utopia and the American election

Sunday, November 13, 2016 - 4:49pm

Athi-Patra Ruga is no stranger to national turmoil. His home country of South Africa has often seen attention for its contentious politics, frequent protests and slowly healing racial divisions. But this year, the West has experienced its own political turmoil — and Ruga was there to see it. A work trip to Europe this June placed the artist in the epicenter of protest and anxiety over the Brexit vote, in which the United Kingdom decided to pull out of the European Union. And now, here in Ann Arbor for a Penny Stamps lecture last week, Ruga had the opportunity to witness one of the strangest and most divisive periods in American history. He arrived just before Election Day, and watched firsthand as a liberal college town convulsed from the inside out.

“I have the honor of always being away from home when all these major reactionary things happen,” he said in a phone interview Wednesday. “I was in Denmark when Brexit happened, and then now I’m here for — this.”

This “right place, right time” attitude may be no coincidence. At the core of Ruga’s work are these divisions that have come to characterize modern life, as well as the increasingly blurred lines that make easy categorization — between races, countries, even genders — impossible today. The chaotic color and pageantry of politics merges with media, art, even reality TV to create an immersive experience for his viewer that seeks to imitate and mirror, yet also to challenge the validity of the “real” world around them. This riot of visual stimulation is often overwhelming, but never without purpose or intent.

After all, contemporary culture is just as dizzying as the alternative realities, the utopias, that Ruga whips up in galleries and museums around the world. Ruga’s eclectic constructions, on the other hand, cause viewers to question their reality, though it’s up to the visitor to sort out exactly what it all means — and that’s okay.

“I start speaking to people in a way that is beyond the pedagogical, didactic — you know, those big words,” he said with a wry laugh. “I need to immerse people whereby they somehow feel they can’t escape it. For me it boils down to speaking about alternative realities, and the process by which alternative realities are built.That’s how politics are born: we all want to create a new world.”

In many ways, this critical, considered attitude toward cultural constructions developed through Ruga’s childhood in a rapidly changing South Africa, a country with a history that both intersects with and diverges from the United States in key aspects, from the legacy of racism to debates over colonization. For Ruga, the major difference in the politics of the two countries is that the memory of legal racism has slowly faded for some Americans, becoming politically stale and ceasing to have the same degree of power over the votes of citizens who do not experience discrimination directly.

“We have such a recent memory of (racism) that our parents really still have those raw stories of apartheid, of the movement. We can never take it for granted — and that’s why we’re such a politically minded youth,” he said. “There are many South Africas as well. I come from the South Africa that is always reminded of the cost at which freedom came ... for us, the power of voting is something that is totally inculcated into us. We know that voting is such a powerful thing; it has changed our world. So we will not ever let go of that.”

In other ways, though, Ruga sees himself as a global citizen, something that has influenced his work as much if not more than the nationality listed on his passport. He came of age in the 1980s and 1990s, a turbulent time for South Africa which saw it not only undergoing a democratic transition, but also fully emerging onto the global stage for the first time since the walls of apartheid went up in the late 1940s. Along with this came unprecedented access to world media, which had long been censored and limited by low access to modern technology. Like previous generations, Ruga was raised on the classic TV program “Good Morning South Africa,” but also on MTV and nightly news from all over the globe. One of his earliest memories is watching the Berlin Wall crumble during 1989 protests.

“That memory stuck in my head — that people actually could break down, literally, borders, and step across. And this was also coming at a time when our borders were falling,” Ruga explained. “So I think that I’ve always had this idea of daring to go where I’m told not to go, either by history or marketing or society.”

Though he grew up in a highly literary family — his father was a journalist and editor — not all Ruga’s media influences were “highbrow.” Ruga takes pride in the many references to popular culture, particularly fashion and reality TV, that abound in his art. He revels in the sense of sacrilege, of blasphemy, that this creates in the traditional conception of high art, something that has been dominated both by certain types of people and certain types of worldviews for a long time.

“It’s disruption. We are living in an age whereby truly defining what high art is no longer (clear),” he said. “I love art that is in the hands of the people. It shakes up a very static, patriarchal, man-centered thing. Saying that all these things that are ‘low art’ are ‘high art,’ I’m basically disrupting a centuries-old idea of creation, which we have seen is not good because it starts isolating people of certain colors, women and social classes. I take pleasure in still knowing that it disrupts.”

Ruga sees this tendency in the art world as well as in the wider world, including politics in both South Africa and the United States. “Populist” candidates have becoming increasingly prevalent in both countries, with both Jacob Zuma, President of South Africa, and newly-chosen President-elect Donald Trump gaining their base support by appealing to working-class citizens and embodying the social values of certain sectors of the electorate.

Politics will continue to divide people based on their identities. Ruga’s work reminds us that this is far from an American phenomenon. After all, perhaps the United States is just becoming a little bit more like the rest of the world.