Even I Exist in Embo: Jaundiced tales of counterpenetration
with Oliver Neubert
40 x 60cm
Edition of 5 + 2AP
A show by Athi-Patra Ruga, titled She is Dancing in the Rain with her Hand in the Toaster, opened our side gallery series in June. Shortly afterwards he took up a residency in Bern, Switzerland, where he produced the Even I Exist in Embo series with Swiss photographer Oliver Neubert. These photographs are part of a larger project around the Injibhabha, the name Ruga has given to a creature he describes as an Afrowomble, loosely based on the 1980s children’s TV series, The Wombles.
Ruga describes his working method as resulting from ‘the clash between material and memory’, but notions of utopia and dystopia also form a common thread. The title of this series is derived from Et in Arcadia Ego, a Latin phrase that roughly translates as ‘Even I exist in Arcadia’, and is best known as the title of two paintings by Nicolas Poussin. Ruga has replaced the utopian Arcadia of Greek mythology with Embo, a parallel notion drawn from the Xhosa folklore with which he grew up.
The significance of the title was accentuated by the controversies around the recent Swiss elections, which took place during Ruga’s residency. An election poster for the rightwing Swiss People’s Party (SVP) depicting three white sheep standing on the Swiss flag, kicking a black sheep out of their group, pandered to Swiss xenophobia and sparked protests. Ruga made the Injibhabha costume prior to these events, but its startling resemblance to the figure of the black sheep ensured that the work took on a political dimension. In Poussin’s work, the title points to the inevitable presence of death in Arcadia. For Ruga, the title refers to the presence of outsiders like himself – symbolised by the Injibhabha – and the apprehensions they raise as a result of their presence in the SVP’s fictional racially pure Swiss utopia.
Ruga held an exhibition in Bern at the conclusion of his residency, and is currently included in Impossible Monsters, the opening exhibition of the Johannesburg gallery Art Extra, with a work featuring performance artist Christopher Martin. Besides being active as an artist, Ruga owns a clothing label, Just Nje/Amper Couture. He was nominated for the Africa is in Fashion (L’Afrique est à la mode) competition, which took place in Niamey, Niger, in November.