Our (Tr)Ancestor in the Mirror

Amy, Kewpie and Stella (L-R) at Kewpie’s go-go party in Rutger Street. 1974. Courtesy of Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action.

Our (Tr)Ancestor in the Mirror

WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY Saif ARBEE

How an exhibition about a queer hairdresser from Cape Town helped inspire the next generation of LGBTQIA+ South Africans reclaim the land and language of their ancestors.

“I always think about it: Who am I in the scheme of things? Where am I on the timeline? I want to do what Kewpie never had the resources to do. And [that means] going to New York and to the world. Hello everyone! Hi! Thank you, Kewpie. Thanks for possessing my body,” Queezy said laughing as she adjusted her balaclava in the mirror.

 

They were talking about a photograph standing on the dressing table in front of them. “When I was younger, my mom told me that there was this hairdresser in Kensington, Cape Town,” said Queezy. “Years later, the District Six Museum had an exhibition [about that same hairdresser]. And that [is how] I was [first] introduced to Kewpie.”

Our (Tr)Ancestor in the Mirror
Kewpie, Kay Kendall, and Mitzy seated in front. Salon interior. Courtesy of Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action.
Our (Tr)Ancestor in the Mirror
Queezy gets dressed in her bedroom in Vredehoek. A portrait of Kewpie, Kay Kendall and Mitzy rests against the mirror on their dressing table. 2021.

The exhibition Queezy was referencing was titled Kewpie: Daughter of District 6, and featured a collection of over 100 photographic prints that captured the lives of Cape Town’s LGBTQIA+ community between the 1950s and1980s. Soon after its opening in 2018, the show catalyzed intergenerational conversations about queer histories as locals flocked to the archival unveiling en masse. The exhibition even sparked a Heritage Day March, which saw people of all ages revisit historical sites featured in the photographic archive. This included a float filled with transgender youth, parading the streets of District Six and neighboring Woodstock as artists plastered portraits of Kewpie on the walls of buildings she frequented.

 

“It was a moment when I really felt my connection to queer elders because quite a few of them are either gone or in the closet—or they’re here but queer spaces and queer scenes in general don’t allow for older people,” said Shiraz, a photographer and artist from Cape Town who attended the exhibition. “When I saw the Kewpie archives, I thought, This is beautiful, stunning because I hadn’t seen anything like it before. And I didn’t see anything about it in the media. [Even so], all these people were there to commemorate [queer history]. We were all feeling the same way.”

Our (Tr)Ancestor in the Mirror
Our (Tr)Ancestor in the Mirror
[L] Kewpie at home: ‘This is myself having a phone call done.’ 1978/1979. Courtesy of Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action. [R] Shiraz Calls Kewpie. 2021.

Unveiling the Archive

According to curators and archivists at GALA, Kewpie (1941—2012) was a hairdresser in Cape Town who, during the 1950s, became a prominent member of the queer community in the inner city neighbourhood of District Six. “From what we know, Kewpie’s gender identity was fluid, and she did not strictly identify as either male or female,” said District 6 Museum curator Tina Smith. “However, Kewpie and her friends generally used feminine pronouns, and would refer to each other as sisters and girls.”

Our (Tr)Ancestor in the Mirror
Kewpie sitting on the radio with navy-blue hair in Rutger Street after a six-week holiday in Durban with Salama and Geraldine. Courtesy of Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action.
Our (Tr)Ancestor in the Mirror
‘This was June in winter-time in the city. Taken by one of the movie snaps.’  June/ July 1967. Courtesy of Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action.

The images on display as part of the exhibition illustrated how the tight-knit community of District Six embraced people from all walks of life, while exposing the audience to a lesser known aspect of South African history, specifically documenting LGBTQIA+ resilience from the 1950s and1980s.

 

“Emerging from this [show] is a bold and unrepentant self-reflection of Kewpie’s illustrious life portrayed against a backdrop of societal challenges,” Smith said. “It defied conventional definitions, pushed boundaries of gender stereotypes, class and racial prejudice beyond the restrictive measures of Apartheid’s discriminatory ideology.”

Our (Tr)Ancestor in the Mirror
Our (Tr)Ancestor in the Mirror
Our (Tr)Ancestor in the Mirror
[L] Patti and Olivia in Darling Street by ‘Movie Snaps’. Courtesy of Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action. [M] Darling Street ‘Movie Snaps’ photographer” ‘I was on my way to work in the morning at Salon Kewpie in Kensington’. 1967/ 68. Courtesy of Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action. [R] Cheshire on Darling Street. 2021.

A Glitch in the Time Continuum

Queer communities, which have been systemically erased from history books, haven’t had the privilege of inheriting a past. The lives of our ancestors were often lived in secret. And so, in 2018, Kewpie’s archive of photographs offered many of us the opportunity to reclaim a connection to our kinfolk. “For so many queer people, there’s a much more complex relationship to ancestry, because oftentimes, your experience as a queer person forces you to divorce yourself from your family,” said Cheshire, a Cape Town-based shape-shifter, performance artist and healer who found an affinity and sense of kinship to elders in the archive as they attended the exhibition. “Queer people often think, if my family doesn’t feel like my family, then that’s not my ancestry. So, in the same way we then choose family, we also get to choose ancestry.”

“For so many queer people, there’s a much more complex relationship to ancestry, because oftentimes, your experience forces you to divorce yourself from your family.”

Cheshire

Cheshire is part of a wider movement of LGBTQIA+ youth in Cape Town that have begun reclaiming their ancestry in the wake of erasure from generations of colonization by familiarizing themselves with queer history; an act that for many has become a vehicle of self-determination.

 

“There’s such a disconnect between our generation and their generation, with how rapidly information becomes accessible,” said Cheshire. “There is a massive shift that is happening and we have a huge responsibility to be the breakers of intergenerational curses, so that we can start a whole new paradigm for our community.”

Our (Tr)Ancestor in the Mirror
Cheshire on Darling Street. 2021.
Our (Tr)Ancestor in the Mirror
Kewpie: ‘This is a very good friend of mine Cliffidia Tabaccan in town. Could be Darling Street.’ Courtesy of Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action.

A Changing Language

One such shift is the change in the language used to talk about LGBTQIA+ identities both within and outside queer communities.

 

“During the 1950’s, Kewpie became part of a queer community in District Six, who at the time were known amongst themselves and by the wider community as moffies,” GALA archivists explain. “Kewpie would often perform on stage to packed audiences at District Six’s famous moffie shows, and entered competitions where she met other moffie queens”.

Our (Tr)Ancestor in the Mirror
Kewpie in a back yard at Rutger Street. Courtesy of Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action.
Our (Tr)Ancestor in the Mirror
Zaheer, Queezy and Alroy. 2021.

The word moffie is an Afrikaans term often used to derogate effeminate men or gender non-conforming people. In fact, for many South African youth, much of this language holds the weight of intergenerational queer antagonism. But as the times change, so does the relationship people have with the words they use. It is through continuous innovation and a spirit of resilience that local language around gender and sexuality is ever-evolving.

 

For example: formulated by LGBTQIA+ people in the 1950s at a time when queer people of colour faced increased surveillance under Apartheid’s discriminatory laws, Gayle arose as a new language and queer slang, consisting of words made from feminine names. To indicate the presence of the police, people would say Priscilla’s here.

It is through continuous innovation and a spirit of resilience that local language around gender and sexuality is ever-evolving.

Saif Arbee

“When I was a child, my cousins were talking,” said Zaheer, a photographer who grew up hearing about Kewpie and her generation. “They [would tell me], you must be careful about gays because if you are around them, they will talk about you in this secret language. I was so intrigued with what this secret language could be. Today, I [not only] know the secret language [but] use it [all the time].”

We Will Not be Moved

The need to create a secret language was as much an act of creativity as it was an act of survival.

 

From 1968, the Apartheid government enforced a violent and insidious process of forced removals under the Group Areas Act by bulldozing through thriving communities like District Six and turning them into rubble. Communities of color were left in a state of disenfranchisement. Today, as young artists and activists recall the lives of their ancestors, some people have begun decolonizing the narrative of African gender fluidity by looking beyond the scope of time as it was documented in colonial history.

Our (Tr)Ancestor in the Mirror
Kewpie, Brigitte, Margaret and the Seapoint girls on the site of a demolished building off Invery Place. Courtesy of Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action.

“In Africa, there were Kings that were women, and had multiple partners,” said Queezy. “I think we’ve forgotten that because we’ve been brainwashed by Western culture and Christianity. We adopted [their belief systems] and confused them with our African heritage. The story got twisted and now there’s a great sense of homophobia and queer hate across Africa. We need to unlearn it.”

“In Africa, there were Kings that were women, and had multiple partners. We’ve forgotten that because we’ve been brainwashed by western culture and Christianity.”

Queezy

As we took portraits in Queezy’s house, she explained that the process of moving to Vredehoek, a suburb location on the slopes of Table Mountain, connected them to Kewpie. During the forced removals, District Six was eroded to the ground and its residents were moved, predominantly, into the Cape Flats so that white people could inhabit the land they desired most. Today, while the remnants of bulldozed buildings remain in fields in District Six, areas like Vredehoek have been developed for affluent white people. Queezy explained that moving into Vredehoek felt like a generational reclamation of land. By tracing Kewpie’s history through maps at the Daughter of District 6 exhibition, Queezy realized that Kewpie lived down the road from their current residence.

Our (Tr)Ancestor in the Mirror
Kewpie in Invery Place. Courtesy of Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action.
Our (Tr)Ancestor in the Mirror
The Ghost of Queezy Lives in District Six. 2021.

“That’s why I felt like going [to Daughter of District 6],” they said. “While we were there remembering Kewpie, we were also remembering the people of District Six, paying homage to a part of Cape Town that needed healing.”

Reclaiming Cape Town

Since the end of Apartheid in 1994, South Africa’s government has followed neoliberal principles of inclusivity without implementing the structural changes necessary to make the country more equitable for people of color. It comes as no surprise, then, that the Rainbow Nation fallacy doesn’t sit well with South African youth.

 

“The mechanics and reality of apartheid was swept under the rug in Cape Town and it is very much still at play in the city,” said Cheshire. “Over the last few years, I’ve come to understand why I need to be in the city. My occupation of space is part of reclaiming the land.”

Our (Tr)Ancestor in the Mirror
Shiraz in a backless dress. 2021.
Our (Tr)Ancestor in the Mirror
Kewpie in their bedroom, preparing to go to a party. 1974. Courtesy of Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action.

The exhibition at the District Six Museum has, for many, became an urgent call to action to reclaim space in the area, and reconnect with and remember their ancestry. After seeing the Kewpie archive, South African youth have been inspired to elevate the work of the previous generation and push their artistic practices into new, unchartered territories, spaces that their ancestors did not have access to. “When I saw the Kewpie archive, I was like, I want to do something similar, but in a way that recognizes people while they’re still alive,” said Shiraz, who is a photographer.

Our (Tr)Ancestor in the Mirror
Stella; Amy; Kewpie (L-R) same party in Rutger Street. 1974. Courtesy of Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action.
Our (Tr)Ancestor in the Mirror
Angel-Ho and Shiraz. 2021.
Our (Tr)Ancestor in the Mirror
Bright, Gavin Petersen (Vuil Lakin), Kewpie. Courtesy of Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action.

It’s a sentiment that’s echoed by Angel-Ho, a sonic and performance artist who quickly noticed conversations about Kewpie permeate their community. “It was so funny because I had never heard of Kewpie in my entire life,” they said. “All of a sudden, I found out about them through events on social media. I eventually went to see the photographs, and my mom told me they knew Kewpie because they were from Kensington. She told me that they used to do my sister’s hair. I was like, what in the hood? This is so wild!

Walking in the Footsteps of Our (Tr)ancestors

For LGBTQIA+ communities of color, recognizing where we came from is essential to knowing who we are and where to go next. “Our connection to our ancestors is severed,” said Cheshire. “It got so [confused] and diluted by the colonization of the Western Cape by the Dutch. For the longest time, I didn’t know we had ancestors. I didn’t understand why there was so much pain and suffering, and this sense of loss. No one could explain that to me until my mother chose to transition. It was only then that I had a direct point of contact into my lineage.”

“Our connection to our ancestors is severed. For the longest time, I didn’t know we had ancestors.”

Cheshire

It’s true that centuries of colonization are responsible for the widespread misconception that queerness and transness are un-African. But while queer- and trans-antagonistic attitudes still permeate contemporary South African culture, a young generation is in the process of decolonizing African history beyond the bounds of heteronormativity.

 

Kewpie: Daughter of District 6 shocked audiences in part because it showed that LGBTQIA+ people have always existed and lived unapologetically throughout South African history. But the archive also served as a catalyst for overdue recognition of and conversations about gender diversity. And so, by commemorating the resilience of the (Tr)ancestors that came before them, young LGBTQIA+ South Africans were finally able to see themselves on the timeline.

Our (Tr)Ancestor in the Mirror
Brian and Kewpie at Kewpie’s New Year’s eve party in De Smidt Street, Greenpoint. Late 1970s. Courtesy of Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action.

Photographic Archives: Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action

Historical Resources: The District Six Museum

Creative Direction: Saif Arbee and Mpumelelo Mngadi

Production Assistant: Mpumelelo Mngadi 

Lighting: Mpumelelo Mngadi

 

Muses:

Queezy Babaz

Alroy Van Wyk (20 Model Management)

Zaheer Abrahams

Chester Martinez as a conduit for Cheshire V

Angel-Ho

Shiraz Soeker

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