The exhibition started on a bus. Exhibiting artists and their friends, writers and gallery-goers all packed into a shuttle en route towards GUS Gallery in Stellenbosch for the vernissage of ‘Sunday Service’. Co-curator and artist Brett Seiler was in the front seat, blasting vogue music and Nicki Minaj. It was clear that this show was not one where you could just ‘pop by after work.’ This show was going to be an event.
Before GUS was acquired by the University of Stellenbosch as an off-shoot from its Visual Arts Department, it was a Lutheran church, built in the style of NG Kerk-era design, with its vaulted ceiling and lancet windows. Sunday Service, which hosted a collection of artists from the LGBTQIA+ community, was meant to subvert the church’s history of exclusion. Several works arrived as protest statements. Wes Leal and Boni Mnisi transformed the confessional booth into a nail studio, polishes and pinks spilling over that too-gendered act. Lacemaker Pierre Fouché took to the gallery wall with the image of a man undoing his trousers, the threads untangling beneath him. A large-scale mural outside the gallery by Seiler read, ‘Remember when Ross told us that has HIV and it was the same night you told me you wanted to fuck other people,’ and was splattered with red paint. Reactions from passers-by revealed how discomforted people become when confronted with the stories that have been intentionally marginalised by dogmatic institutions.
Though, it didn’t feel like the artists in ‘Sunday Service’ were out to be antagonistic. Most managed rather to reclaim space by applying the church’s own means to more radical ends. Manyaku Mashilo transposed halo iconography onto a portrait of a young black woman, as much a figure to worship as any, complete with golden hair and orange-sun earrings. Heidi Sincuba made an alter out of proud erotic bodies, legs and labia hand drawn on paper bags from playful angles. Sage burnt in a porcelain dish beneath, turning that which is deemed disposable (a paper bag, or more seriously, a woman’s body) into something holy. Kween Du Toit Albertze and Kween Shiraz disrupted heterosexual hierarchies in Mary Magdalene’s myth by washing each other’s feet. I found it telling that this intimate ritual was surrounded not by straight-faced spectatorship, which seems common practice at a gallery performance, but by cheers of affirmation.
In accordance with its spiritual undertones, I felt less and less like I was at an exhibition opening but at some sort of ceremony. There was saturnalia-style table decorated by platters of scones and grapes, beer and wine, from which everyone ate, including a few curious members of the public, who admitted to me they had never been to one of ‘these things’ before. The gallery was not quiet — in between art-viewing friends were milling about, smoking, drinking, catching up. I am reminded of queer discourse surrounding the ‘chosen families.’ This was like a ‘chosen congregation.’ There was talk of hot-boxing the gallery after-hours.
Ceremonies are often synonymous with celebrations, and it was nice to see people having fun with each other against the backdrop of an arts industry which is so often uptight and itself exclusionary. But then, one must be careful. Who is validated by a ceremony? What are the lines between reverence and commodification? For instance, I am rubbed the wrong way after seeing a dozen or so white people take photos of Wandiswa Mesatywa’s work, a portrait of someone pinching their own nipples. Is this work being treated with respect, or an object for consumption? Kopano Maroga and Luvuyo Nyawose’s work, ‘tired of being the colour in your rainbow,’ expertly called out rainbow nation myths and ‘gay pride’ homogenization, as well as revealing the potentially tokenizing process of including POC artists in an exhibition curated by white gay men. If the ceremony commemorates, as the press release says, “Queer as the essence of omnipotent love,” it was clear that many of the visitors came not with love but with vestiges of their own assumptions. When it was announced that a new performance was about to begin, the crowd actually stood on one side of the room, watching a small group of young black folks who were minding their own business, until someone said, “We’re not the performance, you can sit all around the room.”
I want to go back to this idea of the ceremony. A ceremony is a party, yes. But anyone who has been to a wedding or initiation can tell you that even the most raucous of occasions maintain a certain decorum. In a ceremony, one signs a social contract, agrees that there is a way one must behave. Of course, ‘good behaviour’ is normally situated as, that which maintains the status quo. But I want to suggest that a move towards a ‘queer congregation’ demands its own set of standards. Many of these pieces are about injustice, violence, and death. Artists take serious risks in exhibiting the work they make. They are putting their bodies on the line. The jol can be a radical act, but the viewer must also be willing to hold space for mourning, aware of the power dynamics that inform how we come into communion with one another.
Matshidiso Skosana looked tired when they started their performance, as if sleepwalking. Slowly, feet heavy, they circled about the room. Folks would emerge from the crowd to dress them in layer upon layer of fabric. First a floral dress. Then a tweed jacket. And a dress over that. Finished with lipstick. With each iteration Skosana’s body became heavier, their gaze adrift. They ended the circuit at a mirror. They looked frightened at her own image, which had been so muddled by projections, so weighed down by expectations. Then, they began shedding each layer of clothing. The metaphor was perhaps obvious, but nevertheless remarkable to see a performer achieve such extremes. They blossomed into dance, flirting with themself in the mirror amid exclamations of “Yas!” and “Fuck it up fuck it up!” Skosana ended the performance by writing REFLECTION OF A PROUD BLACK QUEER on the mirror in black lipstick. This ritual, for me, was the most powerful in the show. It demanded both participation and contemplation. It adequately witnessed the real trauma that persists in the queer community and its intersections. But it also allowed space for joy and liberatory possibility.