District Six Museum Homecoming Centre, Cape Town
21.09.2018 – 18.01.2019
“You should have been here, for the opening night. Oh, it was packed!” Amelia tells me as we walk through the installation, now empty save for the two of us. “And the best thing is, that, ja, it was from people from back then, you know, friends and that… But there were also young people, so many of them. And, I can’t even begin to tell you how much that meant, what that felt like. You know?”
Kewpie in a photograph, remains utterly fabulous. With the frame and poise of a natural born dancer (which she was), any opportunity to fall into a graceful split, or kick her leg up high and grin happily, was an opportunity grabbed with both hands. Walking through the exhibition, I see bold curlicued font reading various things that embody her. While one reads: “And all around me was love”, another reads something less poetic, something more determined to navigate the need for definition when it comes to embracing who you truly are: “I’m naturally just me, people can’t say I’m a man, they can’t say I’m a woman.” Trying to comprehend the life of a woman of colour within the maelstrom of the Apartheid era is one thing, trying to comprehend the denial of that very womanhood permeating every other atrocity these women were subjected to…that is something I cannot phrase.
As someone who has experienced first-hand the barrage of absurdity that can manifest at the will of a determined bigot, I’m left marvelling at the story of Kewpie as Amelia Brinkhuis walks me through the exhibition. Kewpie didn’t shy away in the face of any of it; she was bold, she was unapologetic and she was glamourous. The kind of strength and kindness that emanates from the stories and photographs is something that strikes like lightning through the blind hatred of the era she lived in. Immediately, you’re subsumed in the story of a woman’s world that persevered despite every force compelled to snuff it out. I was told by Amelia that Kewpie had wanted to dance as a child, but that her father hadn’t approved, and had in fact, put an end to a prestigious opportunity.
“The salon came after that,” Amelia says. The infamous salon in Kensington, Salon Kewpie, honoured in the far end of the space. Turning the corner to step into the ‘salon’, I listen overhead as Kewpie talks the details of hair, describing the lengths gone to perfect this look, and that. I smile, because salons like this are something that certainly unites women of colour. The community, the drama, the indulgence, the flair! I move to the remaining photographs, now depicting the balls Kewpie would frequent, using the stage as a means to celebrate herself and raise funds for charities. Kewpie would also perform at The Ambassador’s Club, to crowds of people, quite often.
“Kewpie was very generous,” Amelia tells me, “always gave, even, until she had nothing you know, for herself.” She casts her hand across the map of the then District Six and several minutes pass while we talk through the gentrification of the area, bouncing between Kewpie’s story and ours. Dotted areas on the map are The Ambassador’s Club, the homes Kewpie lived in, Hanover Street, where Kewpie trained to be a hairdresser at Salon André, and the like.
From the 700 photographs in the original collection housed at GALA; Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action, these images, shot by friends, professionals and whatever lay in-between, span the lifetime of Kewpie. The nickname, allegedly the result of an affectionate relative, became somewhat of a channel for her self-expression as she quickly ended ties with her given name, in the process of realising her true identity. Amelia is quick to tell me that Brian, who’d been Kewpie’s partner for ten years, and his family had welcomed her with open arms, as well as the throngs of those who resonated with her, respected her.
‘Kewpie: Daughter of District Six’, is the title of an exhibition drawn around the compassion and courage of a woman, who was steadfast in her sense of self. What’s most bizarre to me – standing in a room surrounded by images of the life of a woman I never had the chance to meet – isn’t how familiar she feels to me, but rather the fact that society has managed to still impress a notion of novelty around queerness. Even with icons such as Kewpie. Weaponising their ignorance as a means to further their own agenda, they actively forego the empathy needed to relieve us of their hatred.
The strangeness lives in the repetitive narrative of someone queer tasked to hide who they are, while we as a society celebrate the worst qualities as we reward homophobes, transphobes, misogynists, rapists and racists for simply existing as they are.