Maverick Life


Interrogating the marks of colonialism – A conversation between the works of art by Athi-Patra Ruga and Irma Stern

Interrogating the marks of colonialism – A conversation between the works of art by Athi-Patra Ruga and Irma Stern
Image: Courtesy of the Irma Stern Museum and WhatIfTheWorld gallery.

The Irma Stern Museum in Cape Town has been transformed into a site of conversation between the works of the late Irma Stern and those of contemporary artist Athi-Patra Ruga. The works produced by Ruga are not only a celebration of Stern’s technique but also a critical reflection on the colonial elements that come through in her pieces.

South African artist and painter Athi-Patra Ruga is staging an intervention in the form of an exhibition at the Irma Stern Museum in Rosebank, Cape Town. The museum – the former home of Stern – has been transformed into a site of conversation between her works and those of Ruga. 

The exhibition is both a celebration of Stern’s technique and an interrogation of the colonial elements that come through in her work, according to the Irma Stern Museum’s press release on the showcase. 

Speaking during a walkabout at the museum, Ruga said that entering the space was an opportunity for accountability for him and Stern. 

“It was an intervention for… me to have accountability questions, you know, and also because… I don’t feel things should be destroyed or moved away,” said Ruga. “I think that you should just add on to them. There’s space for all of the conversation, and many things can live – many opposing things can live – together side by side.”

Athi-Patra Ruga stands in front of "Maid in Uniform" by Irma Stern.

Athi-Patra Ruga stands in front of ‘Maid in Uniform’ by Irma Stern. Image: Supplied

During the course of her life, Stern was a first-hand witness to the South African War and the First World War and lost loved ones to the Holocaust, according to the press release. These events drove her to seek alternatives to Western urbanised culture and produce works depicting an idealised version of African cultures. Her work gained acclaim during the later years of her career and features prominently in South African art history. 

Ruga explained that his first contact with Stern’s work occurred while he was still in high school in 1999, through “library-lifting” a book by Marion Arnold, Irma Stern: A Feast for the Eye. Even then, the colour and subject matter of her work gripped him.

The Irma Stern Museum had a garden soirée in honour of their artist in residence, Athi-Patra Ruga, followed by a talk about of their works of art. Photo: Lerato Maduna

Since 2008, Ruga has produced works in conversation with Stern’s art, reworking some of her iconic paintings such as Watussi Queen and Zulu Woman, according to the press release. 

Zipporah Regards Bridegroom of Blood, 2022. By Athi-Patra Ruga.

Ponahalo in Excelsior, 2022. Oil stick on canvas board, by Athi-Patra Ruga.

“I was drawn to the technique more than Irma,” Ruga told Maverick Life. “That was my initial thing with Irma: texture, colour, the depiction of the black figure because representation matters. And then the critical questions on the agency of the person and the group that that person comes from became the secondary thing. And both of those things live equally in my critique of her.”

In the lead-up to the exhibition, Ruga completed a three-month residency at the Irma Stern Museum, creating site-responsive paintings and pastel drawings that are now displayed alongside Stern’s works on the walls of her old home. Some of Ruga’s tapestries from the period 2009 to 2018 that reference paintings by Stern are also displayed.

“What I love about [Ruga’s] residency here is how personal it was. So, you know, you would sort of walk in the garden, and there Athi would be sketching,” said Nadja Daehnke, the director of the Irma Stern Museum.

Artist Athi-Patra Ruga. Image: Supplied

“I think a lot of museums, beautiful as they are, can be intimidating. And then it’s for those people who feel safe to cross that threshold. Whereas here, we try to create an ethos of inclusivity where everybody can enter… and I think Athi in his residency really captured that. That ethos, that sense of inclusivity, that sense of just being on the level of the personal and not the impersonal grand.” 

Nomalizo Genre Scene. 2022. Oil on canvas. By Athi-Patra Ruga

Siphora at Sunrise. Oil on canvas. By Athi-Patra Ruga.

The works produced by Ruga reassess Stern’s paintings from a post-colonial stance. Where Stern’s sitters were rendered nameless and passive, Ruga seeks to give them names and agency, thereby “disrupting the notion that these sitters’ primary function was as a tableau for European contemplation and consumption”, says the press release.

“What we all learn from portraiture is that it really is a… very intimate thing,” said Ruga. “The fact that [Stern’s sitters] don’t have a name and you would sit… with the Watussi queen or you would sit with the maid, or you would sit with whoever… and not give them a name was one of the first things that I wanted to deal with in my few months here.” 

One of the paintings produced by Ruga is titled Zipporah, after the black wife of Moses. The painting incorporates some of Ruga’s own features, such as his eyes and lips, while also using elements of Stern’s impasto technique. Ruga described this technique as having a “freedom” that has always attracted him. 

In taking a closer critical look at Stern’s work, Ruga has taken some of her famous images and destabilised them, “queering them in response to the status quo”, according to the press release. Ruga explained that as much as South Africa does have an art history with some representation of queer people, it remains tough for people to “come out” in the art world. 

“[There are] such few images of people who pushed the canon quite a lot, especially black artists who have pushed the canon quite a lot and are queer,” said Ruga. “I feel that that is my politics, to go into a space and think: ‘I’ll do it.’ We still have a very young canon. We are a young nation. So, exploring that canon for me is where it’s at.” 

The exhibition appeals to a wide range of people, said Daehnke. For those looking for inspiration, the works of both Ruga and Stern constitute a “visual feast”. For those interested in a deeper understanding of decoloniality or socio-political issues, the showcase holds further value. 

Ruga would like those visiting the exhibition to leave with the sense that two opposing ideas can live together.

 “I would also love for us to start engaging with the past without such a clear vision of what’s right and wrong, who is in and who is out, because that then continues the silence,” he said. DM/ML/MC

Disclosure: Malibongwe Tyilo, Maverick Life Associate Editor, is Athi-Patra Ruga’s life partner. 

The exhibition was curated by Daehnke and Ruga, in partnership with What If The World Gallery, which represents Ruga. It opened for public viewing on 31 March and will run until 18 June. While the museum only caters to special needs schools and mainstream schools on Mondays and Tuesdays, respectively, it is open to the general public on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from 10am to 5pm. On Saturdays, it is open from 10am to 2pm. 

The special events that will be taking place in regard to the exhibition are: 

  • A walkabout with the director of the Irma Stern Museum on 3 May;
  • A walkabout with Ruga on 12 May;
  • A discussion with Ruga and guests on 14 May; and
  • Practical art-making workshops themed “Old Meets New” with the curator and educator at the Irma Stern Museum on 24 May and 24 June.

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