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Kewpie – A Queer life revisited

Kewpie – Daughter of District Six, is a photographic exhibition currently on display at the District Six Homecoming Centre in Cape Town, focussing on the life of one of the city precinct’s most famous queer personalities. Eugene Fritz, better known as Kewpie, was a celebrated hairdresser and drag queen who lived in the vibrant and diverse inner city community that fell victim to one of Apartheid’s cruellest acts when houses were bulldozed and families displaced as a result of District Six being declared as white under the Group Areas Act in 1966.

The exhibition is a collaboration between Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action (GALA) and the District Six Museum, and features around 100 photographs taken from Kwepie’s personal collection that were donated to GALA on the recommendation of filmmaker Jack Lewis. Kewpie collaborated with archivists at GALA before passing away in 2012.  The collection documents the life of the flamboyant Kewpie and her friends, who used glamour as a respite from the cruel realities of their lives. The photos are an insight to a life which defied convention, pushing boundaries of class, racial and gender stereotypes beyond the restrictive discriminatory Apartheid ideology.  They are a testament of a queer community that was both highly visible and integrated within the broader community.

kewpie

At the exhibition opening in September, GALA director Keval Harie described the collection as “quite an extraordinary documentation of a history and heritage that isn’t often told”. By the way Kewpie was posing in them, it seems that she was aware “of the importance of visibility for queer people”. Kewpie and her gang were probably the most visible queer folk in District Six at the time, but were by no means the only ones. There were the butch, straight acting gay men who were the husbands/boyfriends/handbags of the queens who appear in the photos. Some of Kewpie’s friends underwent gender affirmation surgery, or sex change operations as they were then called. Kewpie’s friends Ron and Cora were lesbians in a relationship which seemed to be accepted within the broader community.

kewpie on the way to work

Members of this queer community sometimes identified as gay men and sometimes as women. Kewpie’s identity was fluid and she did not strictly identify as male or female: “I’m naturally just me. People can’t say I’m a man, they can’t say I’m a woman”. Kewpie’s clique generally referred to themselves as sisters or girls and used feminine pronouns. They were sometimes called “moffies”, which was not necessarily derogatory in District Six. But some did object to the term and preferred to be called “queer”. Kewpie herself recalled: “We weren’t called as gays, we were called as moffies then. But it was beautifully said, not abruptly”.

The pictures tell their own story and anyone interested in queer history will be delighted by this exhibition which showcases a small part of a thriving and celebrated queer culture in a community that has since been scattered. In keeping within the wider work of the District Six Museum, Kewpie’s photos show the value of personal archives to tell potentially lost stories in a time before Instagram and Facebook. The exhibition shows District Six as a close-knit place which embraced diversity.

Many of the themes and ideas of the exhibition are still relevant today. Histories such as this challenge the idea that homosexuality is un-African. They show a community where gender non-conformists who often face exclusion and prejudice can be embraced, accepted and loved as human beings with the right to express themselves in whichever way they want. Let Kewpie have the last word: “That is how they adopted you with that love of being you. Not as being that queer, that moffie or that gay then as now. But they came to love you as that human being”.

Kewpie – Daughter of District Six is on display at the District Six Homecoming Centre, 15A Buitenkant St, Zonnebloem, Cape Town, until 18th January 2019.

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