The Bass Museum of Art in Miami Beach is under construction until December, but the exhibitions continue. Through partnerships with other organizations, the museum has been presenting art and educational programs outside its own walls since 2015. The bassX series is one such initiative. The exhibitions at bassX are shown in typical spaces, but with an edge.
Enter artist Athi-Patra Ruga. Born in South Africa and based in Johannesburg and Capetown, Ruga will make his first appearance in Miami this Monday night with a new iteration of his hybrid performance series The Future White Women of Azania.
Though Ruga’s work is usually presented in a visual art context, his language is expansive. He started in fashion but found the medium too superficial and fleeting in its impact, so he moved into performance. According to Bass curator José Carlos Diaz, “Athi-Patra Ruga uses his body as a communicative tool. In his practice — which also includes textiles, interventions, and photography — he uses a highly refined aesthetic to address the concepts of utopia and its counterpart.”
The influence of fashion remains in Ruga’s luscious visuals and elaborate costumes. The pieces have become moving images loaded with political and metaphorical symbolism.
In an interview for the Standard Bank Young Artists Award, Ruga described his work as a kind of protest theater. Performance, he says, is an accessible art form. “You do not need to have materials or even a studio. Your body becomes the studio.” His performances are genuinely hybrid, with projections and music that create an immersive environment for dancers and spectators.
The idea is to create a situation that demands a visceral or emotional response. “The audience is the third element,” he said. “They come up with their interpretation of the work. And there is a democracy in performance art because of this, because there isn’t strict choreography, there isn’t a strict setting, there isn’t strict anything.” When staged in a public space, the potential for audience provocation and reaction is increased.
This dynamic seems to delight Ruga. Considering his birth country, where public space has historically been contested terrain, the exploitation of the public arena is particularly loaded.
For his ongoing series The Future White Women of Azania, Ruga continually elaborates on his invented mythical place, Azania, where individuals are no longer defined by biology or nationality. Each performance is an opportunity for Ruga to explore an existing character or introduce a new one. The narrative often centers on individual dominant archetypes, articulating political positions of power and pageantry.
The balloon costumes often worn by his main characters and supporting ensemble form surrogate body masses that can be popped and mutilated to “bleed” tinsel, paint, and whatever other materials can be blown into them. His references range from South Africa’s political elite to Xhosa (the tribe to which Nelson Mandel belonged) folklore to hip-hop.
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His bassX performance will further the narrative of his futuristic world.
— Catherine Hollingsworth
Athi-Patra Ruga’s The Future White Women of Azania
Part of the Bass Museum of Art's bassX series. 8 p.m. Monday at the Miami Beach Regional Library, 227 22nd St., Miami Beach. Admission is free, but a reservation is required via bassmuseum.org.