At first, I am a bit perplexed as to why this white girl thinks she can jump up on the DJ booth without asking. It’s somewhere past two in the morning, and I’m playing a set. Perhaps now is not the time for me to start passing judgement based on superficial signifiers. The club should be a fun, liberatory space, free from surveillance and control. But how could I not? This club, EVOL, has in recent years become the home for an erupting queer underground club culture. Largely produced by and for people of colour, the scene is a politically potent space. This party, Death of Glitter, identifies itself as ‘a collective conscious, a utopia free of the constructs of patriarchy.’ If utopia is possible in a club space, then it’s a fragile utopia, one that’s going to take a lot of work to keep it from being whitewashed and commodified. It matters how people perform in front of each other. It matters how much space someone takes up. The white girl has bright, blonde hair and a European accent.
‘Do you know this girl?’ I ask Tazmé, an actor, performance artist, and the founder of Death of Glitter.
‘She’s from Pussy Riot. They performed earlier. Didn’t you know?’
Now I feel like an idiot. Perhaps not all white tourists in Cape Town are suspect; perhaps some of them were recently detained for 15 days for running onto the pitch dressed as policemen at the World Cup. Although to a queer clubscape in Cape Town, Pussy Riot members are celebrities. SMAC had informed Tazmé two weeks before that the band was interested in performing at the event, and that it was to be kept secret. They refused to be put on the guest list and bought tickets for the event. Veronika Nikulshina and I have an incredible time dancing together. She is kind, generous, and respectful.
‘What is Pussy Riot doing in Cape Town?’
‘I don’t know. Some sort of artist residency.’
Flash forward to the opening of Marinella Senatore’s solo show, ‘Bodies in Alliance / Politics of the Street’ at SMAC. There was Nikulshina in the press photo, in her bright orange sports bra and baby-blue balaclava, dancing next to Olga Pakhtusova, another Pussy Riot member, and Tazmé, looking otherworldly gorgeous his balaclava pink. I was unaware that Pussy Riot’s performance was a staged public action. I had no idea that we were being documented by an Italian artist and were to be on display in an art gallery. Was I part of Senatore’s intervention? I didn’t know what we were intervening. Had that night become, inadvertently, a performance, a protest? To what end? I went to Senatore’s show hoping to get a clearer idea.
I walk into a space that has all the fixtures of a club. It’s the Friday of Cape Town Art Fair, so the opening is ten times busier than usual. Pink neon lights shine on the gallery walls. Mirror-tiled plinths and podiums are reminiscent of disco balls. There’s a DJ outside, although no one seems to be dancing. Young men in starched white shirts and black ties carry canapé platters. There are a lot of people one might expect to find at a party like Death of Glitter – artists, photographers, students, young people trying to find their place in the art world. There are also a lot of collectors – men in navy suits, women in colorfully-framed glasses and bulky, geometric earrings. I wonder what interest they might have in the queer underground. I wonder how these images – the neon lights, the mirrored tiles, the photographs of young people dancing freely – signify differently in a gallery context, when they become objects of scrutiny. Or perhaps, purchasable items. Investments. Three photographs from Pussy Riot’s performance at EVOL are part of the installation. I like how they capture the small, human intimacies that fade away during a theatric performance – a run in Tazmé’s stocking, a small tattoo on Nikulshina’s wrist. I am trying to figure out why black acrylic curtains are hung from their frames, why the curtain is pulled halfway across the photograph, obscuring its subjects. Perhaps the black veil relates to issues of censorship that are integral to understanding Pussy Riot’s context in Russia. To me, though, it seems a bit voyeuristic. Now that I am a viewer and no longer a participant, I get the feeling that the artist is trying to unveil something to me, a dark, underground world accessible to me only because Senatore documented it. The curtain places the emphasis on something found rather than something created.
I am also walking into a space that has all the fixtures of a revolution. La lutte continue and Debut d’une lutte prolongée proclaim the pink neon lights, references to May ’68 protests in France, made ever-the-more exigent by recent Gillet Jaunes uprisings. The mirror-tiled podium was equipped with a microphone, an amp, and a Jenny Holzer-esque marquee. ‘From here you can speak about feminism,’ it said. The microphone was not on. A mural serves as a double exposure of movements past, collaging Situationalist posters with British suffragette banners, a 19th century May Day etching with the Republic of China’s UNDER PROTEST action at Rome’s 1960 Olympic Opening Ceremony. A pink satin gown is embroidered with revolutionary phrases that get appropriated again and again in movements across time and geography. La revolution es poder para el pueblo. We rise by lifting others. We are here because others were here before us.
I look around at the collectors and the canapés and ask myself the same question I always do at these sorts of functions. What is the role of revolution in a moneyed space? It seems that Senatore is trying to string together a narrative of global solidarity and resistance, but I can’t see how it all fits together, between Pussy Riot and press releases, between parties and protest statements. Senatore says ‘I wanted to expose the Pussy Riot activists to a relaxing time in Cape Town,’ as if Cape Town were not a site where protest happens. The work in Senatore’s show reflects this oversight. Nothing localised, save for a mannequin wearing a City of Cape Town Fire Rescue helmet. Revolution is imported rather than cultivated. Protest is forestalled rather than instigated. It seems more interested in collective action as an aesthetic than an ongoing practice of creating utopia.
I understand this is not how Senatore typically operates. One video in the exhibition documented Senatore’s Protest Forms: Memory and Celebration: Part II, an hour and a half long public performance at the Queens Museum in 2017. There were spoken word artists and an Afro-Colombian bullerengue group, a LGBTQ symphonic band and an all-women contemporary dance troupe. In this context, I see Senatore as someone who fosters collaborations, provides platforms, and finds material ways to lift people up and bring people together. Senatore is using the occasion of her SMAC exhibition to further her research on South Africa for a show at ISANG later this year. Perhaps, between now and then, Senatore will be able to engage sincerely with Cape Town’s ongoing histories of protest and healing, revolution and community-building. For now, I’m having trouble seeing how all these bodies — club kids and illustrious artists, activists and art collectors — are meant to align.