Athi and Irma

Finding connections between South Africa’s past and present

Athi-Patra Ruga is a provocative multidisciplinary artist who works between Cape Town and Hogsback in the Eastern Cape, the province of his birth. His most recent work, Athi and Irma, is a performative dialogue between himself and Irma Stern in which the two are “asking each other questions, ideating, and proposing new ways in which I could continue with my work and how she can be read in the future”. The show is on at the Irma Stern Museum until June 2022. 

Design Indaba interviewed Ruga about his longstanding relationship with Irma Stern’s work. Below is an excerpt from the interview, which can be viewed here.


1. A lot of artists discourse with artists that have come before them and who are no longer alive. How does that feel? What is the level of engagement and how do you find this plays out?

Well, communing with the dead is something that I have done throughout my life and even in the last 20 years I have been communicating with Irma Stern. It started with Marion Arnold’s book about Irma Stern, which I had when I was in high school, and which influenced my use of colour and my aspiration to line – she is the master of line. But at the same time, it’s about having communications that are tough – about my history and my own long red line or lineage in art and cultural expression. 

It’s also asking questions about autonomy and agency, such as when one gets a name and when one doesn’t in a portrait, as well as how things are symbolised and what is being a political or non-political artist. Those were the questions that were going through my head during the residency, and have been going through my head for the past 20 years, since I’ve been in contact with Irma. 

The show is a representation of that full circle. It becomes a show in which we are both giving each other dignity. Her historical work somehow lends dignity to the figures that I work with, and also me naming my figures and having them be my contemporaries – black, queer, feminist contemporaries. They feed on and give her a longer life. That’s the beautiful thing about having the educational drive, which was happening throughout – we were giving walkabouts and all of that. We need to have a newer generation reading Irma Stern differently because there is much richness in the work.


2. Given the state of where we are as a country, what do we need to do as artists?

Our task description has always been defined. We are those people who are able to take the most complex of ideas and refract them through our bodies and through our skills and virtuosity and have people see them. 

My favourite part is the process. I would like to advise humans – or just South Africans – that there is something very generative in trusting the process because that’s where you’re going to enjoy it the most. You’re never going to see a free South Africa or a utopia, in that sense, because it doesn’t happen, and we are seldom satisfied as humans. Let’s just enjoy the ride and make sure we have the most respectful, dignity-giving, sustainable, autonomous journey. Let’s make it fun for each other. 



Read more:

Athi-Patra Ruga.

A golden milestone. 

Lookbook: Tapestries by Athi-Patra Ruga. 


Credits: Colin Gwesu

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