PICS: Athi-Patra Ruga alongside Irma Stern at latest ISM exhibition

A new exhibition - an intervention, many would say - has taken form at the ISM, encouraging conversation and comparison.

Athi-Patra Ruga’s work has been in conversation with that of the late Irma Stern since 2008, drawing and reworking iconic paintings like Stern’s Watussi Queen, Swazi Youth and Zulu Woman.

Now, Ruga is engaging with the famed painter at the intimate level of her former home – a project that forms part of an ongoing interest in the Stern oeuvre.

His art is in conversation with that of the iconic painter, Irma Stern in a new exhibition that has opened its doors to the public at the UCT Irma Stern Museum (ISM) on 31 March.

Athi-Patra Ruga in front of numerous artworks at the ISM
Athi-Patra Ruga in front of numerous artworks at the ISM. Image: Supplied

Ruga’s oil stick and pastel works on canvas have been hung among Stern’s pieces in the ISM for the exhibition, inviting viewers to compare and consider.

Both admiration and disruption are evident in his latest contemporary artworks. Attracted by Stern’s technical ability, lavish use of colour, her bold position as expressionist painter in the conservative South African art world of her time and her atypical life, but also acutely aware of her colonial viewpoint, Ruga’s artworks cast a revisionist eye over Stern’s work, generating new interventions.

Despite their broadly differing viewpoints there are astonishing similarities – perhaps a contributing factor to the magnetic pull that exists between them.

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Stern became famous only later in her career, and to this day, her work is well entrenched in the annals of South African art history. Stern sought an alternative to Western urbanised civilisation in a fantasy of noble exotic cultures in a time dominated by the horrors of the South African War, the First World War and losing loved ones to the Holocaust. Many of her paintings portray an idealised and romantic version of ‘native’ cultures. For Ruga, paintings like these deserve a closer look and he has taken her famous images and destabilised them over the years, Queering them as a response to the status quo.

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Stern’s paintings have unspecific titles like ‘Malay Girl’ and ‘Zulu Woman.’ In Ruga’s own rejoinders to Stern’s paintings, he reassesses from a post-colonial stance and gives her nameless, passive sitters actual names and agency, disrupting the notion that these sitters’ primary function was as a tableau for European contemplation and consumption.

His works are a contemporary response to the post-apartheid era and it critiques the existing political and social status quo.

Mary Corrigall, an art consultant explains that Athi-Patra Ruga’s works are “in some wat an attempt to view the traumas of the last 200 years of colonial history from a place of detachment…where wounds can be contemplated outside of personalised grief and subjective defensiveness.”

Works by Athi-Patra Ruga and Irma Stern
Works by Athi-Patra Ruga and the late Irma Stern. Image: Supplied

During a 3-month residency at the ISM, Athi-Patra Ruga applied a lense of detachment, creating a new series of paintings and pastel drawings in response to the museum collection and archival materials.

These paintings form a dialogue between his works and that of Stern, in the attempt to prompt a shift in the reading of both of their works. In both artists’ works, one can see a search for an alternative social fabric – be it for Utopia or the construction of a mythical metaverse.

Stern and Ruga’s names are attached to ground-breaking and transgressive works, with a willingness to push boundaries of aesthetics and explore new ways of making art.

They’re both known as larger-than-life characters with charisma, love of an opulent visual language and unrelenting focus on their art – something that ensured international celebration of both artists.

The Irma & Athi exhibition, which runs until 8 June 2022, poses as a dialogue between the two artists’ works – installed alongside each other within the ISM and includes new site-responsive works that Athi-Patra Ruga produced during his 3-month residency at the museum, combined with select and iconic loan works.

The exhibition’s retrospective will feature select examples of Ruga’s iconic tapestries from the period 2009 – 2018, which reference paintings done by Stern during her 1943 and 1946 expeditions to central Africa.

Ruga in red
Ruga in red. Image: Supplied

As part of the exhibition, Ruga will also present a number of learner arrangements and walkabouts that highlight the conversation with Stern and her art he has had for over a decade.

Walkabouts with Athi-Patra Ruga:

9 April 2022 from 10h30 to 12h30

12 May 2022 from 14h00 to 16h00

There will also be a discussion with the artist and guests on 14 May at R160 per person, walkabouts with the ISM director on 13 April and 3 May and an ‘Old Meets New practical art-making workshop with the ISM Curator and Educator on 24 May and 4 June at R250 per person. Bookings are essential and can be arranged by emailing

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