The occasion is the annual Performa Gala entitled, Beloved Country, an evening benefit honoring curator, museum director and writer Okwui Enwezor. It is also the occasion of Over The Rainbow, a newly commissioned performance by South African performance artist Athi-Patra Ruga. The venue, in the heart of Chelsea New York City, is fitting in the current atmosphere of American election hysteria and of political reckoning in both the United States and South Africa.
With Performa’s ever expanding mission of exploring the critical role of live performance in the arts, and having played a seminal role in Ruga’s ascent through the staging of his work Ilulwane –first seen at Performa 11 and memorably restaged at the Long Street Baths in Cape Town– it is apt at this time for Ruga to introduce his latest Queen in Exile. The South African inspired evening brings together an audience both familiar and new to Ruga’s practice which combines myth, fantasy, history, ideology and politics.
With the evenings theme alluding to Alan Paton’s 1948 novel Cry, The Beloved Country, currently steeped in a nostalgia augmented by South Africa’s political climate, one is reminded of Ruga’s background coming from the former homeland of Transkei, and that of the novels fictional village of Ndotsheni. Just like the novel’s protagonist, Ruga has come a long way, but has also thoroughly embraced his sense of identity which permeates his work. This notion is brought home as a choir and jazz band, clad in ecclesiastical white robes and gold gloves enter the space, having marched up the street in a moving display of song and dance. The troupe, consisting of singers from South Africa and the diaspora, and led by Fullbright Scholar and celebrated South African jazz vocalist Vuyo Sotashe, carry one of Ruga’s unique tapestries, in this case a (self) portrait of his latest avatar, the Versatile Queen Ivy. Their entrance is captivating and the first of many South African cultural references Ruga weaves into this heterogeneous performance.
It is only after the obligatory speeches however that Ruga finally appears from behind a screen flanked by his backup singers. A projection on the screen is accompanied by a voice transcribing the history, laws and rituals of this new land, first employed in The Future White Women of Azania. Queen Ivy, resplendent in gold in what the New York Times described as ‘a satin gown cut from a vintage pattern informed by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes and South African soap operas’ steps forward and loudly proclaims ‘Makube Njalo!’ meaning ‘Let It Be’ or ‘Amen.’This phrase stems from the Nguni version of Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, and is perhaps the apex of the hymn taken up by many anti-colonial movements, including the African National Congress who first started using it 1912. Despite its importance, these words were excluded when the hymn became the new South African National Anthem, making way for part of the old South African National Anthem, Die Stem instead. A decision Ruga describes as a ‘bitter compromise,’ the majority of South Africans accepted this new reality in exchange for the utopian promise of an all-inclusive ‘Rainbow Nation.’ As the Versatile Queen Ivy looks out over the audience ‘Makube Njalo’ is echoed by the choir in a slow paced rhythm, over and over and over.
With Cape Town rapper Dope Saint Jude joining the performance to the side of the stage, along with Angle-Ho producing the sound, the sentiment is that of a new generation of South African voices, unencumbered by the emotional weight of their parents struggle, coming forward. It marks an important point of collaboration for Ruga who gives a nod to the new voices echoing louder and louder throughout South Africa, from the Fallist movement to the Houses of Parliament. In contrast to Ruga’s previous character, The Elder, which acted as a spiritual signifier of the coming of Azania and was last seen at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival in 2015, Queen Ivy is passionate and ferocious as she stomps around the stage, her movement accelerating in sync with the live drums crashing down in a turbulent crescendo.
The term ‘The Rainbow Nation’ was coined by Desmond Tutu describing a new, hopeful post-apartheid society, one that for a new generation of South Africans seems thoroughly depleted. In Over the Rainbow Ruga masterfully continues to weave his tale using both the traditional and the contemporary, together with the personal and political. With Versatile Queen Ivy’s performance presenting a fierce critique of what was always perhaps an idealistic compromise, this latest incarnation of Ruga’s Queens in Exile asks the question of what lies beyond this rainbow. As Queen Ivy leaps from the small stage, golden gloved fist raised she leads the procession out of the building to the tune of the band. It is an exist that runs through the heart of performance art in New York City and the heart of South Africa. It is sad, it is sweet, and it is a triumph.