You can’t miss an Athi-Patra entrance. He pulls up to his Woodstock studio in the backseat of an 80’s Merc – shades on, face forward. A bizarre assortment of stuffed toys line the back window. When he springs from the car, his energy and enthusiasm belie the fact that it is 8:00am on a Saturday. He hugs everyone. Then discovers that his studio is locked, no one has keys, and we can’t get in.
He makes a calm, calculated plan. The space is as vibrant as its owner. Everywhere you look, tropical colours flood your vision – either in the form of balloons and glitter, or intricately woven tapestries and fake flowers.
One of the boldest and most exciting young artists to come out of South Africa in recent memory, Athi creates fantastical characters that inhabit both his tapestries and performance pieces, interpreting stories of the marginalized through them and investigating new ways to define a nation. His works are housed in several galleries – both locally and internationally.
After spending a bit of time in his presence, it’s clear that Athi is a born performer, although he’s had no formal training in theatre. What he does have is a degree in fashion, and he’s quick to point out the inextricable link between that and performance.
“Fashion revolves around these pieces that make us sit and move a certain way,” he explains. “They are the ultimate choreographer. We are all performers. Fashion teaches us how to behave and once you have been taught how to behave, you are performing perpetually.” As if in demonstration, Athi halts the action midway through his portrait shoot and draws everyone’s attention to an elaborate headpiece near the back of the room. Despite his own protestations of ‘My assistant is going to kill me!’ and ‘It’s not done yet,’ he puts it on and starts swaying his head about like a pro.
While he has one of the most welcoming dispositions you could ever encounter, something he’s got no time for is the old-school elitism and exclusivity of traditional art spaces. The treatment of galleries and museums as hallowed temples is not something that interests him. Instead he is adamant that young people need to force there way into these spaces, disrupt the narrative and fill that space up with their own stories.
Of the many ambitions that he discusses, his drive to make art accessible is great. Entering these spaces and rocking them was a goal of his. That goal was met. Now, he insists that strides must be taken to allow a younger, more diverse crowd entry. The people must be brought in. Athi, of course, says it best: “I want to insert myself in places that I was told – through history, through marketing, through my identity – that I can’t be in…I don’t want my art to separate anyone. I want to make art that is accessible, so accessible that everyone gets it.”