The self portrait “The Exile According to the Elder” depicts the artist as one of his alter-egos - the Elder of Azania. It is part of an ongoing series of self portraits that are intended to provide this character with a historical depth and authenticity.
In order to explain the character of the Elder, we must first look at a fictional nation state created by the artist called AZANIA. All of the current portraits (including that of the Elder) depict the various leading characters that populate these Lands and its general inhabitants who are known collectively as 'The Azanians'. Azania is a matriachally lead state, populated entirely by women - the only male inhabitant is The Elder. The Elder is an exile from after the First Azanian War which stretched from 1994 - 2008.
The appearance of the exile in Athi-Patra’s work draws parallels between his own experience of his father's exile during South Africa’s liberation struggle. From the position of those left behind, being in exile was viewed as as a necessary evil, but in many cases the life of the exile afforded exposure to education, health care and diverse cultural experiences.“For me, when I went to the drawing board to create the next series of tapestries revolving around the Azanian Saga, I wanted to go into the objects that mechanised it, and that’s what makes Azania possible. That is why I continue to make this work. When I was growing up in Umtata in the Transkei, there were Greek and Portuguese immigrants from their various post-WWII fascist regimes; there were black exiles who came from the republic into the Bantustan and as a result there was a sense of globalism that has touched every work that I have made. However, this dispossession becomes a need, a sense of both belonging and not belonging.”
The region of the Transkei that the artist refers to above was one of the Bantu stands or independent homelands established by the apartheid government within the borders of South Africa as places “that would be black governed and legitimised separate but equal nations. In reality, these were resource poor and overpopulated regions governed by black puppets of the Apartheid state. The constructed nature of the Transkei posing as an independent state influenced Ruga’s views regarding nationalism and its legitimacy.“Nationalism is a series of emotions that are linked to objects that are larger than life, purely with the sense of being accessible. Nationalism, I feel, is isolating. My original preamble for Azania is to acknowledge the fact that SA’s history is built on the backs of women and their formidable abilities to transcend, it is also built on the hypocrisies of a nationalist narrative that both infantilises and erases women".