Ingrid Jones interviews the South African artist Athi Patra-Ruga, who is working in collaboration with the fashion house Dior.
His practice spans across the mediums of costume, performance, video and photography
Looking back on your childhood days from growing up in Umtata in the Eastern Cape, did you imagine that you would be gracing international art stages today as Athi Patra-Ruga?
One can only dream! Further to my luck, I have a supportive family unit that never made it an option for me to think otherwise.
My parents dragged me to art school in 10th grade as soon as they saw that I could doodle something. But, no matter how much you prepare for these opportunities, it is always mind-blowing to see them unfold.
Post-apartheid South Africa permeates throughout your work. How has this country, with its diverse range of cultural references, influenced and inspired your work over the years?
I was born six years before the end of institutional apartheid and grew up with many promises of a better, egalitarian nation.
I have, therefore, always found it fascinating that we are still living in such a highly unequal society, and that in South Africa’s resilience we see a culture that is open to the influence of others and in constant debate with itself.
That wisdom is what inspires me about this country. I find great humour in our contradictions, which is evident in the utopian proposal I have of a parallel country: The Republic of Azania.
On 11 October 2019, South Africans woke up to the news of your collaboration with international fashion label Dior. Take us through the steps of achieving this incredible milestone.
I was approached by the Dior atelier when I was in London opening my solo exhibition at Somerset House. Dior invited me to design two interpretations of the Lady Dior bag.
I began, as I always do, by looking at history and then thinking of the potential carriers and cognitive effects of the opulence and artful restraint that is visible in my petit–point tapestries and sculpture works.
Tell us about your first feelings when you heard about the Dior collaboration?
I really do not remember the feeling. Preparedness, perhaps? As a costume major, the year 1947 represents Dior’s contribution to the Modernist Exercise with The New Look.
The shapes and the restrained opulence of this collection represented a modernised femininity which, decades later, one can now say is crystallised in the accessible Lady Dior bag. I wanted to honour this, and felt prepared to.
Talk us through your design concepts on the Dior Lady Art Project. Does a South African influence feature strongly here?
The first look was inspired by the scallop shape; a motif that is present in my works (such as in the armour of The Versatile Queen Ivy, one of my performance art avatars).
I drew inspiration from the 1949 Junon dress that depicted these overlaid scallops, reminiscent of a flower unfurled: like the petals of a protea or peony.
The second design pushes the three-dimensional effect of quilting and applique. I transferred the trademark self-portraiture face of my sculptures into a Trompe-l’oeil mask on the front of the handbag.
Both handbags are a jam session between the craftsmanship and art-making in my studio and within Dior’s atelier in Paris.
Would you say the international audience is open to the local uniqueness displayed in your work?
Of course! That is why I’ve been working on an international level for the past 15 years.
What do you make of the current South African art landscape?
I always feel that this is a question for the audience. It is through their patronage and engagement that we even have a state of the art.
It is the audience who ensures that artists continue to tell their stories well and with dignity.
Pastel or neon?
Velour or voile?
What, in your opinion, defines good art?
The need for preserving and telling stories through superior and skillful narration and technique. And, as a result, give dignity to the lives and wares of the communities which these stories come from.
If you could have one fashion trend from the 80s or 90s make a comeback – and stay – what would it be?
The revolutionary spirit of my parents’ generation.
Which of your works are you most proud of, and why?
There is not a single work I am not equally proud of. I feel there is nothing more intellectually pleasing than seeing and respecting them all for the lessons and breakthroughs they have given me.
Two lessons for other artists?
Technique, technique, technique and then mess with it.
We are preparing two solo shows at the moment: one in Cape Town in Winter 2020, and in New York in Summer 2020/2021.
The feature film The Lunar Songbook is in development and saw me going to the Locarno Film Academy for further workshopping.
We will also be publishing and launching our fourth book, Of Gods, Rainbows and Omissions, at this year’s Cape Town Art Fair… as it stands.