The Drag Queens of Abidjan

Photographer Ngadi Smart’s series “The Queens of Babi” features Abidjan drag queens Kesse Ane Assande Elvis Presley, or “Britney Spears”, along with Mohamed, also known as “Baba”. Though larger-than-life when outfitted and on stage, the reality of living openly LGBTQ+ in Côte d’Ivoire requires bravery and courage for Britney and Baba—and an intense level of privacy to express themselves freely.

 

In addition to Smart’s photographs, Atmos interviewed the queens on everything from how they got their start in drag to their never-ending inspirations to the struggles of living their truths within the confines of modern African society.

Words & PHOTOGRAPHS BY NGADI SMART

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“I photographed Kesse Ane Assande Elvis Presley, or simply coined as “Britney Spears” by her friends, along with Mohamed, or “Baba” for a new personal series of mine entitled The Queens of Babi. The series was created after meeting and talking with the members of Abidjan’s drag community and discussing how to highlight their talent and creative passions. For a duration of two years, until 2018, members of the drag community in Abidjan would meet discreetly in an undisclosed bar to attend drag themed events where they would parade and show off their finest creations to each other and members of a jury. Elders of the community were in charge of the organization aspect, and the winner of a monetary prize would be picked at the end of each event. The group has now disbanded, partly due to disagreements and some members’ choice to publish photos beyond their private Facebook group, which sadly attracted negative attention. But members’ desires to create and express themselves remains.

 

“Both have ambitions that reach beyond drag. Both are also aware of the difficulties of creative work like this in Côte d’Ivoire—from the cost of items like makeup, accessories, and outfit fabrication to even finding a tailor who would agree to work on their outfits. All these remarks sadly point to the elephant in the room: The culture of drag and LGBTQ+ identity is still not as readily accepted within the confines of modern African society.”—Ngadi Smart

Beyond drag, Baba dreams to work in fashion or the entertainment industry and to start a family.

Baba

Atmos

How and why did you start doing drag?

Baba

I’ve always been passionate about art. I design (body painting and fashion sketches) and I’m a makeup artist. I’ve also always loved everything related to photography and modeling.

 

Since I was eight-years old, I would put my mother’s wigs on, wear her heels, and dance to Beyoncé’s music. When I got older, I started going clubbing and would never miss out on showing off on the dance floor.

 

Over time, I realized that dressing up and performing were forms of drag and I was finally able to put a name to what I’d been doing all my life. It really solidified, in 2017, during the first season of the drag events in Abidjan. The organizers asked me to join the show since I danced well and was already involved in the scene. It was my first time on stage—it was magical! I received good feedback and presented myself in season two, which I won. Since then, I hop on stage at the smallest opportunity.

Atmos

What is LGTBQ+ life like in Abidjan?

Baba

Not ideal. There’s not much media support or positive press published about us. There are also no LGBTQ+ organizations set up and we face a lot of criticism and threats. Many of us don’t feel safe here. Sometimes it’s impossible for me to set foot in certain neighborhoods, as it would mean signing my death wish.

 

[But] my hope is to see the drag community flourish. We’re kind of limited in how we can express ourselves as it’s difficult for us to go out as we’d like to. I’ve spoken to bar managers who like the concept of our events but refuse to let us host events in their establishments out of fear of backlash or the bar being labeled as a gay bar (and consequently, lose its clientele). There’s also a great need for decent makeup we can afford or affordable accessories for our outfits. Additionally, it’s difficult finding a tailor or designer who will accept to help with some of our more intricate show outfits. People need to understand that drag is art and they need to start giving us the respect and credit we deserve.

Atmos

Where do you get ideas and inspiration from?

Baba

For example, the year I won the contest, the theme of the final event was “Fairytales and Royalty”. I was inspired by the goddess Oshun, who is the goddess of fertility and an African fairy, but also inspired from my much loved pop culture references, such as Nicki Minaj in “Ganja Burn“.

Atmos

Describe the feeling of being in drag.

Baba

An absolutely magical feeling.

Fun fact: Outside of drag, Britney is a trained chef.

Britney

Atmos

How and why did you start doing drag?

Britney

I’ve been doing drag for almost two years now. Since I was little, I always dreamt of becoming a successful model or an actor one day, so it makes sense now. I’m a very extravagant person, so people would always tell me I needed to be involved within the drag scene and competitions. I eventually thought it would be a great idea, too, as I wanted to show everyone how multifaceted I was—and how far I could stretch my diverse, creative talents.

Atmos

What is LGTBQ+ life like in Abidjan?

Britney

Life as an LGBTQ+ person is not easy in Abidjan. We’re frowned upon and not yet accepted; it’s very difficult for an LGBTQ+ person to fully express themselves as they wish.

Atmos

Can you describe the private meetings where you do drag?

Britney

The private drag competitions we used to throw happened in an undisclosed, very discreet bar. It’s a space that’s fitted out with security personnel in order for us to not be bothered and abused by homophobes (controus, as we say in our slang). We must be very discreet for our own safety in the face of homophobes who could potentially harass and attack us.

 

It’s definitely not the same experience as European and American drag cultures. We have to attend castings to be picked for an event and it’s very competitive, as there are many of us—including people from places outside of Côte d’Ivoire, such as Guinea—who audition. It’s also very expensive to get the outfits done: I like my creations to be of high-quality. And I’m tall so it just adds more to the cost of things, as I have to make things from scratch so they will fit me correctly.

Atmos

Where do you get ideas and inspiration from?

Britney

My ideas come from my own raw, creative way of thinking—although I do admire [people like] E.J. Johnson. E.J. is a big source of inspiration for me. I always create my pieces according to the themes which are imposed on us before each event, but I always add a spin—my own sense of fun creativity to give it that wow effect.

Atmos

Describe the feeling of being in drag.

Britney

I can’t fully express in words the feeling of being in drag; it’s just an immense pleasure for me. I’m a very unique, out-there person, so it’s a great way to show that side of me off.

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The Drag Queens of Abidjan

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