Venice revels in its imaginary friends

South Africans made their presence royally known at the Venice Biennale — behind the scenes, on the scenes and in a new permanent pavillion.

Three years ago, while in Eindhoven, artist Athi-Patra Ruga dreamt up the idea of a female monarch from a never-never land who always wore a balloon dress. Last year at the National Arts Festival his fictional character became a reality, with Ruga parading through the streets of Grahamstown wearing a colourful inflatable costume. Since this debut, he has tottered about in high heels and camp get-up in Jo’burg, Cape Town and, most recently, Venice, where the 55th edition of the Venice Biennale has just opened.

While less decorous than Evita Bezuidenhout, Ruga’s fictitious monarch does tend to share with the ambassador of Bapetikosweti the belief that every public appearance is a bit like the opening of Parliament. Solemnity, ritual and costume are key.

Flanked by four amateur Venetian performers, all precariously balancing on black heels, Ruga’s monarch on Sunday negotiated the flagstones outside the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari. This medieval church houses an important altar painting by the 16th-century Venetian painter Titian and also features an intricate sculpted tableau prominently featuring four black slaves at its doorway. The “politics of context”, as the artist has put it, is by no means incidental to Ruga’s performance work.

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