Inspired by church widows and religious art, a large stain-glass vinyl window fills a foyer in the Norval Foundation. This work is titled ‘iiNyanga Zonyaka’, The Lunar Songbook, and is produced by multidisciplinary artist Athi-Patra Ruga. Athi-Patra Ruga makes use of an array of significant symbolism in his work as he reworks the historic narrative of the isiXhosa peoples and creates an entir ely new and fresh narrative inspired by true events and important signifiers within the isiXhosa culture and his own lived experience.
When seeing this artwork for the first time I found it incredibly beautiful but truly overwhelming, especially because I did not fully understand what the work meant or what it was attempting to comment on. The detail and colour caught my attention as light dances through each of the figures represented within the artwork. As an outsider looking in, without much context, it took a while to really unpack and understand this piece beyond the beauty expressed through the technique. The large scale of the work completely immerses you as you stand before it. Viewers must look up at the artwork and stare for a while to marvel at the magnitude of the piece, similar to a religious experience or standing in a large cathedral, overwhelmed by the scale and beauty before you. It is almost a church-like experience, whereby a viewer’s body language physically changes as one approaches the space.
The exhibit’s curator, Khanyisile Mbongwa, does a great job of guiding you through fully understanding ‘iiNyanga Zonyaka’. She even has a guided reading on the Norval Foundation’s YouTube channel whereby she unpacks the meaning of the piece. From her I learnt that the two figures in the centre of the artwork refer to the dual nature of a single character being Nomalizo Kwezi, a character created by Ruga inspired by various strong, black, femme, queer narratives. ”Nomalizo is mythical and real, she embodies all these intersections of her duality as iqaba (‘the red people’, adherents of traditional Nguni cultures) and negqoboka (Christianised, modernised Africans)” (Mbongwa, 2020).
According to the artist, Ruga, “Nomalizo Khwezi (named after a Letta Mbulu song and the Morning Star iKhwezi) is a child prodigy who was extricated from her home in Ndema, Tsomo at age thirteen after she designed a poster for the Azanian Banks conscription campaign”. (Ruga, 2020). Azania refers to an alternate name for South Africa and according to the narrative of Ruga, in Hebrew it is said to mean “God is listening”. Throughout his practice Ruga makes reference to this location of Azania.
The two depictions of Nomalizo wrapping around each other have a holy and honorific essence about them. They are honoured throughout this artwork, like holy being’s worshiped through the light dancing through the glass. The stories or folktales that Ruga references were never mentioned in history books, but Ruga’s research into the history of strong, black, prominent female figures throughout South African history is a testimony to the power of representation – through representation these stories enter history.
Throughout the entire artwork, Ruga references months and their significance through the symbolics use of sacred and important plants used by isiXhosa people. He also pays homage to African narrative and the importance of African stories told by African people regardless of time and place. The group of male characters draped in white and red cloaks showcase young boys being guided by a bright morning star. These boys are being guided to their initiation into manhood whilst being lead by the iKhwezi morning star. The aloes in front of the boys signify healing as this aloe in particular is used to soothe the newly initiated men and assist their healing process.
iKhwezi is an important star because not only does it notify that it is time for the boys to become men, but it also signifies the month of August which is represented in the large pumpkins on the left of the work and the withering leaves on the right side. These pumpkins are significant because they are said to connect the merman perched upon the pumpkin to his mother (Nomalizo, the floating woman). The merman depiction is said to be a soldier (note the red uniform) who drowned and turned into a merman due to his spiritual awakening. His mother is Nomalizo who is ascending, whilst her grown child remains behind. One can go a step further and say that the boys on the left, draped in white and red later become the soldier merman. Overall this work is complex with a lot of symbolism to unpack. The left side of the work resembles a season of change, shedding one’s old self to begin a new, whereas the right side of the work, showcases greenery and new life.
This artwork is a testimony to isiXhosa folktale and comments on the beauty of storytelling and the creation of a visual narrative, independent of the Western gaze. Athi-Patra Ruga successfully showcases newfound possibilities for African storytelling through his exploration of stained glass vinyl. His characters shed light on the value of historic narrative and the importance of knowing one’s own personal history, traditions and culture in order to celebrate and share them in the future.