WHATIFTHEWORLD, Cape Town
29.11.2017 – 27.01.2018
you are worth more than that which can be taken from you
a procession of hands that lay softly on your head
cascading rose petals at your holy holy feet
the tears of your chosen family
baptising you in ceremony
the throne room
the golden gilded walls
a land hungry for nothing more than your coming home
no blood sacrifice
no shaking hands outstretched in penance
there is a world for you
Bloody: the hand that wields the sceptre
Heavy: the head that wears the crown
Black, queer aesthetics have always been seminal in mass contemporary cultural production. However, the faces of that cultural production have not always shared the same identities of its genesis. Examples of the appropriation and distillation of black queer aesthetics are rife throughout history, with examples such as Madonna’s hit track “Vogue” serving quite an incisive example of the white-washing and exploitation of black queer aesthetics and cultural production. In the present moment, however, there seems to be a shift in the visibility of who are being crowned as the vassals of black queer public culture. From RuPaul of RuPaul’s Drag Race to South African musical duo FAKA, the canon of black queer creative energy is proliferating mass media at an (arguably) unprecedented rate and level of visibility. Most exciting about this moment is the plurality in the kinds of representations of black queerness that are being celebrated. The plurality of the lives that black queer folks lead is being engaged with in ways that do not fall into tropes of trauma porn or aesthetic fetishization and minimization of the humanity that forms part and parcel of the black queer experience.
Amongst these vassals, artist Athi-Patra Ruga finds easy company, adding to the black queer canon a singular mythos imbued with high femme, South African-centric, political rigour. In Ruga’s latest offering “Queen’s in Exile” the artist cultivates a psychosphere of concentrated black queer energy that harkens to a kind of nostalgia for something that never was: a dynasty for the forgotten footnotes of our national history. The fabled gods that time forgot and the history of whiteness erased.
In the video component of the exhibition, Ruga is depicted adopting the persona of black queer avatar embodying and channeling various black and queer historical figures of South Africa’s past. Bedecked in luscious gold fabric and bejeweled for the gods (a face beat for the ancestors) Ruga pays homage to figures as wide and as varied as Brenda Fassie to Steve Biko; Nonqawuse to Winnie Mandela. Matriarchs, militants, mavericks, mothers and martyrs. They are all invoked with reverence and deference as if to form a modern day black and queer pantheon. And Ruga stands as high priestess conducting ceremony. The sense of ritual is palpable; the stakes are high. Every bead and sequence in its place. Every cylindrical gesture of the arms intently rendered. A kind of practical magic for summoning the exiled queens of a bygone era.
Not only does Ruga bedeck his exhibition with representations of historic and imagined black and queer mavericks but ‘Queens in Exile’ features the communal creative abilities of a much wider, young, black and queer creative community. All pushing the envelope in their respective disciplines the exhibition features the creative inputs of Jody Brand, Unathi Mkonto, Angelo Valerio and Elijah Ndoumbé (including others). The importance of collecting the energy, creative eyes and multiple aesthetic sensibilities of the local black and queer community is both ingenious and a testament to Ruga’s politics of ensuring that this content is handled by the community who it is generated from, about and (in my opinion) for.
The beauty and potency of the exhibition lies, for me, in the environment and psychosphere that it managed to generate. It’s no secret that the Cape Town visual arts scene is one dominated by white folk. The night of Ruga’s opening (though still heavily attended by white folk) also managed to create an environment welcoming to many black and queer folk in the creative community. To walk into a room full of familiar black and queer chosen family is not an occurrence that happens often in the Cape colony and to be brought together around such stimulating and layered content that speaks to our collective herstory in such incisive and non-reductive ways is a gift. And, I suppose, if I believe art is good for anything it is that: to bring us together in ways that we never expected.
The title of this review is a reference to the title of Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib’s debut collection of poetry, ‘The Crown Ain’t Worth Much’[calltoaction]