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Luke Rudman's practice sits at the juncture of painting and performance

South African artist Luke Rudman talks about his multidisciplinary approach to creating queer art.

by Manu SharmaPublished on : Jul 04, 2023

Luke Rudman is a South African artist who is gaining acclaim within the queer art scene for his unique blend of painting and performance art. His multidisciplinary practice combines elements of drag, photography and painting, and explores themes such as queerness and environmental activism in order to create a distinct tapestry that stands out, even within the visually rich world of drag performance. The performance artist introduces his practice, telling STIR, “I love colour, abstraction, queer art and camp. I love graphic expressions of passion within artworks. I am inspired by all forms of drag and performative art. People sometimes consider my approach to creating artworks unconventional or niche, but I gravitated towards it very naturally. There is something about using one's body as a canvas or existing as a living sculpture that is powerful, and also painful as an expression of past traumas and shame.”

Rudman prepares for Eden and Luke, 2023, video Video: Luke Rudman

As a child growing up in the small coastal city of Gqeberha in South Africa, Rudman found himself within a social milieu that was not yet sensitised to LGBTQIA+ folx and queer identities, and as a result, became a frequent target of bullying for the difference he presented. This was only exacerbated by his admission to a conservative, all-boys school, along with his participation in a church that upheld similar values. "This art grew out of that place of repression. Subconsciously, I was building the safe spaces that I did not have into my pieces. After high school, I studied painting at Nelson Mandela University in Gqeberha, and have since combined my affinity for painting and performance into the works I create today," he tells STIR.

Night Out, 2019, photograph | Luke Rudman | STIRworld
Night Out, 2019, photograph Image: Luke Rudman

While some might see performance and painting as two distinct mediums, this does not reflect Rudman’s own views. He wears the hat of a multidisciplinary artist, and fittingly, believes that there is a great deal of dialogue and synergy to be found between all forms of artistic expression, and has completely integrated the two in question within his practice, alongside photography, video installation and sculpture as well. The artist explores his perspective, mentioning that categorising art into particular, single modes or mediums does not make sense with the intention of his work, and that there is a non-binary aspect to multi-modal art that is crucial in speaking to the queer experience. In his own words, "I always struggle to capture the same significance when I work within a strict, single medium. The 'everything-and-the-kitchen-sink' approach is what works for me."

Man and his Shadow, 2020, photograph | Luke Rudman | STIRworld
Man and his Shadow, 2020, photograph Image: Luke Rudman

Rudman’s works often take off from a starting point that is simple and open-ended, so much so that he has begun planning out his costumes from as little as a single colour. While he usually holds a rough vision for how the piece will end up looking, he finds joy in allowing that vision to change and develop as he progresses on a project. "There is only so much detailed planning you can do on paper," he explains, "when the final artwork is a smorgasbord of so many dimensions and modes."

Pink, 2018, photograph | Luke Rudman | STIRworld
Pink, 2018, photograph Image: Luke Rudman

Questions concerning the coherence of art that is created in such an organic and open-ended manner may arise, but with regards to the artist himself, Rudman is currently focusing on aspects of his craft besides self-evident meaning: of late, he is consciously expanding the scale of his work, which could be argued, is the natural progression of his practice. His latest pieces have seen him spend weeks painting large canvases and installations, that he then paints himself into, and uses photography and video to "save from the temporality of performance," as he puts it.

Greenpeace Plastic Monster, 2020, photograph | Luke Rudman | STIRworld
Greenpeace Plastic Monster, 2020, photograph Image: Luke Rudman

Over the past four years, Rudman has been a regular collaborator with Greenpeace Africa, which has seen his involvement in various campaigns as both, an artist and environmental activist. This meeting of talent and purpose has proven quite fertile for creative expression, having even led to the artist paint and sculpt himself into a strangely totemic monster made out of plastic waste. Rudman’s Greenpeace Plastic Monster from 2020 stands almost peacefully on the shoreline, as though it heralds an age where environmental devastation due to plastic pollution is already a foregone conclusion, and no longer a battle that can be fought or won through activist art.

Self Portrait, 2020, photograph | Luke Rudman | STIRworld
Self Portrait, 2020, photograph Image: Luke Rudman

To travel ahead in time to the present, the artist recently performed a piece titled Eden and Luke, at Live Art Arcade, which is a nomadic exhibition that is co-curated by South African performance duo Gavin Krastin and Alan Parker. Rudman looks back at this, telling STIR, “We explored durational performance at this festival, and each work was around six hours long. Through Eden and Luke, I wanted to highlight the relationship between gestural painting and performance, and between queer bodies and nature. For six hours, I painted wilderness onto a canvas that was composed of the entire wall and floor around me. I did this in drag, and subsequently painted myself into the scene as well." The result is a stunning, almost visionary spectacle that, in a sense, returns the artist’s body to nature, and upon experiencing this work, one may be left wondering if there is not, in fact, a commentary to be found here regarding the manner in which queer folx are forced to socially "camouflage" themselves, across a world that continues to grapple with the plurality of gender and sexual identity. Rudman, for his part, finds himself blending into a viscerally cheerful vision of paradise: he is at home in an Eden of his own, transforming into something that is beyond human binaries and categorisations; something fluid such as a body of clear, calm water.

A shot from Luke Rudman’s performance Eden and Luke, 2022, photograph | Luke Rudman | STIRworld
A shot from Luke Rudman’s performance Eden and Luke, 2022, photograph Image: Luke Rudman

When asked where he wishes to see his work go in the near future, Rudman has this to say—"I am studying fine art at a postgraduate level now, and I am performing and showing work regularly. My performance art can exist everywhere that I can fit. I really have no prescription for where I would like my work to end up at the moment. My obsession has always just been for the creation and performance of these works.” His goal, above all else, is to keep growing and to bring his enchanting work to more spaces, while the future reveals itself to him at its own pace.

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