“What began as a conversation turned out to be a huge and transformative experience”, says US performance artist, activist and poet Alok Vaid-Menon about time spent in Cape Town collaborating with friend Joshua Allen (from the US) – who self-describes as “a black, gender-nonconforming abolitionist and organiser” – and queer femme artists of colour such as Kieron Jina.
 
“With the recent advent of the ‘transgender tipping point’, representation of trans people in the media continues to be of people who are binary (identifying as a ‘man’ or a ‘woman,’), white, and conventionally attractive,” said Vaid-Menon.
 
“My work is about creating more representations of gender non- conforming people of color who have been and continue to be at the front of the movement for gender liberation.”

While here, Alok also collaborated with other artists from South Africa, such as fashion maven and co-founder of Diskotekah parties, Gavin Mikey Collins, Mzansi’s kwaai diva, Umlilo, artist Quaid “Queezy” Heneke and filmmaker and photographer Jabu Nadia Newman. 

From this, a movement known as #FemmeInPublic emerged, which Alok describes as project “about imagining a world where gender non-conforming femmes of colour could not only exist safely in public but thrive in public.” 

Together they documented a live fashion protest across the streets of Cape Town. Gavin co-ordinated and directed a shoot that saw the likes of Umlilo, artists Sandiso Ngubane, Githan Coopoo, Vuyisani Bisholo, Heneke and Joshua Allen disrupt the heteronormative and colonial gaze with their unwavering celebration of femininity. This resulted in a photoshoot, workshops and a performance event by Alok featuring Umlilo, Kieron, Sandi Blouse and Shaheed Martin at Cape Town’s Deuce Bar. While ‘Femme in Public II’ took place later in Joburg.
 
Alok spoke to us and shared some images from the shoot.
 
Femme in Public
(Left to right: Joshua Allen, Quaid “Queezy” Heneke, Kieron Jina, Sandiso Ngubani, Umlilo, Vuyisani Bisholo)

Please could you tell us more about #FemmeInPublic?

As people of colour, from a young age, we are taught to be ashamed of our femininity. We are taught – often through harassment, violence, and intimidation – that public space only belongs to whiteness and to masculinity. Our project was about imagining a world where gender non-conforming femmes of colour could not only exist safely in public but thrive in public. Art has a unique way of demonstrating what is possible in the world, and these images give not only a sense of therapy and resolution but also a sense of promise.

How did the public react while you were on set?

Reactions were varied. Some people applauded us and others harassed us. But the consistent factor is that we were made into a spectacle. This is what many people don’t realise: gender non-conforming people are always seen as an “event” regardless or not if we have a camera following us.

In terms of aesthetic what were the key elements you wanted to convey in the shoot?

We asked each of the participants to dress true to their style and to imagine the outfits that they would wear if they didn’t have to fear street harassment. We wanted the feel to be organic, and not contrived. Our relationship with our style is often intimate and personal because we have had to fight for it.

How do you think this collaboration will foster greater awareness around gender fluidity?

There are so few images out there of Black and brown gender non-conforming trans femme people! I think first it’s just going to show the world that we actually exist. Next, it’s going to show that not only do we exist, we look good doing it!

What did you take away from this collaborative experience?

The power of sisterhood/siblinghood. I often feel so afraid walking alone on the street, but being surrounded by these femmes made me feel protected – like I was part of something greater than myself. 

Femme in Public
(Left to right: Alok Vaid-Menon, Joshua Allen, Quaid “Queezy” Heneke)

Being femme in public, for me, means taking back my power. Owning what is truly my birthright – to be and be able to express myself however I choose. I’ve gone from thinking of the abuse I face on the streets as a result of how I look as abuse, to looking at it as testimony to the light I have in me. Being femme in public is as much to me an expression of who I am, as it is a political act”. – Sandiso Ngubani

Femme in Public
(Left to right: Sandiso Ngubani, Kieron Jina, Vuyisani Bisholo)
“Being ‘Femme in Public’ is a choice I have made to celebrate who I am and what makes me feel alive. We live in a very chaotic yet beautiful world of shaming people for they are. Femme in Public is activism”. – Kieron Jina 
Femme in Public
(Alok Vaid-Menon)
Femme in Public
(Quaid “Queezy” Heneke)
Femme in Public
(Joshua Allen)

Femme in Public

(Umlilo)
“Being femme in public is something of a natural state but also something I’ve had to unwillingly fight to be because the of the glaring and judgemental eyes of the public”. – Umlilo
Femme in Public
(From Left to Right: Vuyisani Bisholo, Sandiso Ngubani, Umlilo)

“Being femme in public for me, means taking back my power. Owning what is truly my birthright to be and be able to express myself however I choose. I’ve gone from thinking of the abuse I face on the streets as a result of how I look as abuse, to looking at is as testimony to the light I have in me. Being femme in public is as much to me an expression of who I am, as it is a political act”. – Sandiso Ngubani

Femme in Public
(Vuyisani Bisholo and Sandiso Ngubani)

Femme in Public

Femme in Public
(Umlilo)
“Being ‘Femme in Public’ is about finally bringing right to childhood wrongs. When I think back on all the days of changing my clothes in the bathroom after school before returning home or the nights of wearing a big jacket home on Friday night after a party to hide my outfit. Being ‘Femme in Public’ is about finally being able to hold my head high and be confident as exactly who I am”. –  Joshua Allen

Femme in Public

Femme in Public

Femme in Public

“Being femme in public is my reality. There’s no other way I would rather be. It speaks to my wanting to stand in my truth against all forces. It also allows me to present the best version of myself to the world as that is my true self”. – Vuyisani Bosholo

Femme in Public

Femme in Public

Femme in Public

“Being femme in public is my reality. There’s no other way I would rather be. It speaks to my wanting to stand in my truth against all forces. It also allows me to present the best version of myself to the world as that is my true self”. – Vuyisani Bosholo

Femme in Public

Femme in Public

Femme in Public

Credits: 
Creative Director: Gavin Mikey Collins / Featured: Alok Vaid-Menon, Joshua Allen, Umlilo, Kieron Jina, Sandiso ‘Sandi Blouse’ Ngubani, Githan Coopoo, Vuyisan Bisholo / Photography and videography: Jabu Newman / Photography: Alexis ‘Shakalulu’ Strimenos, Charles Mackenzie, Alex Hopkins (Loure Group) and
Miguel Vanas.
 

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