(b. 1984, Umtata, South Africa; lives and works in Johannesburg and Cape Town)

The Night of the Long Knives #1, 2013
Archival inkjet print, 150 x 193 cm (exhibition copy)
Photo: Hayden Phipps
Courtesy of the artist and WHATIFTHEWORLD, Cape Town

This photo is part of the multi-year project The Future White Women of Azania by South African artist Athi-Patra Ruga. This series of performances, sculptures, photographs, and carpets describes the labyrinths of identity in South Africa after the end of apartheid. In 1994, Nelson Mandela became the country’s President and abolished those laws that divided the population into racial groups and included a ban on interracial marriages, doing business outside zones allocated to the black population, and other inhuman rules. During apartheid, some of its opponents united under the flag of Azania, an African Atlantis that had supposedly existed before the first colonizers arrived. After Mandela’s death in 2013, right-wing politicians frightened South African citizens with tales of the “night of the long knives” which black people would allegedly organize against whites. Ruga defines his project as a “procession,” “a nonverbal way that convinces one of a bond.” He sees his balloon outfit as a kind of armor and recalls the Russian constructivist artists who “lifted it up to something god-like.” Mass demonstrations in the young Soviet Republic were all about affirming revolutionary equality and abolishing class differences. In his work, Ruga calls into question identity itself and argues that any symbolism dividing people into classes and races is empty inside and insignificant.

Valentin Diaconov