“It’s a huge risk; I move my black queer body in posh museums and galleries, deftly avoiding pieces of art that cost thousands or millions. I can’t break them, these are irreplaceable artifacts. This is my aim to make visible the difficult plight of black queer bodies in South Africa,” says Thandile Mbatsha.
I meet Thandile in the lounge of Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay Art in New York. Thandile is invited as part of a queer art dancers collective to the Perfoma, a biannual in New York. “Our sponsors said the content we produced was relevant. Even in their context, Blackness and Queerness are universal themes.”
We sit down to a cup of tea and French rapeseed oil cakes. I’m enamored with their rowdy, free spirit dancing after a tour of the Yancey Richardson Gallery in Manhattan.
Thandile stops with a biscuit crump looped on their lips, and stops chewing. “Everyone thinks it’s easier being queer in New York than any other place on earth,” they say.
“This is not the case,” I reply. I pour a vase of tea for them and assure them, I, for sure, don’t think so. At Women Taboos Radio, our initiative, gender is a fierce taboo fought over in Africa. So we are aware.
Thandile brushes their hair, relaxes. In New York, something boggled them – “Some people in Bedford Stuyvesant suburb would literally cross to the other side of the road when we were approaching, and shunned eye contact. I’ve never saw that disgust even in country South Africa where I come from.”
Thandile spreads out a laminated photo of their mother and dots on it with a finger: “I grew up in South Africa in a home festering with domestic violence,” they say. They rub their ribs with the same finger. “I have scars on my body from trying to stop my father from beating my mother.”
At 26, they have turned around their anger, “to sensitize my community and make sure that my non-binary and queer body enters the gender spaces that our parents could never.”
I nudge them to be a bit rowdy, as much as they like. Thandile makes a bow of their legs on the sofa, what they call a Shima dance. I watch over their steaming vase of tea. “Through this dance, I see myself as a choreo-activist. I called this word for myself.”
“Choreo-activism means conducting a series of body movements that addresses a social ill. The location and staging, sometimes in sensitive, wealthy galleries also make the work choreo-activism. It’s disruptive, visual body artwork and is protest art.”
Their body is their preference. “When I am on stage my intersections as a black queer body are my first point of departure. I cannot separate myself and my art from our collective realities.”
Thandile pitches the decibels of their voices high and laughs brutally. I am perplexed. “Are you too happy?” I ask. “No!” they say. The trick is always to be loud and catch attention with their rowdy art and body movement, they tell me.
Their art is not easy though: “I get commissioned and curated by galleries and museums sporadically. While I wait for a constant residency I work with young school children to confront rape, and sexuality bullying. It’s a hefty task.”
Thandile was born in 1993 in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, one of South Africa’s most volatile townships. It is a “place full of issues” when it comes to respecting the choices of queer residents. Certificates of distinction at the South Africa respected National School of Arts and the Cape Town University Dance School have steeled their resolve. But Thandile says their queer body community is under siege in Cape Town, curiously, though a place loosely described as “Africa´s most gay and lesbian-rights friendly city.”
“The gravest danger facing the LGBTI over there, right now are gender hate crimes,” says Thandile, their eyes reddening.
Thandile says: “A young openly lesbian woman in Strand, Cape Town city was murdered early this year. Noxolo ‘Noxie’ Mabona was stabbed to death during an altercation, allegedly related to her sexuality, at a party.” Thandile folds their mother’s portrait and stretches their back. “That one can be killed by their neighbor means us, our bodies, we can be hunted in our own backyards.”
Of sexuality and sport
I assure them that participating in public-facing sports while queer is candid topic that we encounter at Women Taboos Radio Africa. “I haven’t fared better in that regard,” says Thandile. “In school, other pupils teased me for being short in size and bearing a large skull. I was shunned and called ‘bothered’ because of my sexuality. I spoke like a girl, my face resembled a girl; I played with dolls, tea cups and pots. I was bullied, schoolyard thugs told me I was a man.”
This cost Thandile a lifetime chance to excel in sport, their passion. “In Grade 8, when 14 years, I lived in in a boy’s hostel where rugby sport was a very aggressive big part of grooming the boy child. There I was, rebellious, taking classical ballet and modern dance as an extra mural outside of school. Because I defied masculinity, I was restricted from playing rugby ball. I had to endure learning a paramedic course or get bored sitting in the stands, watching ‘real boy’ players.”
I tell them that for us too at Women Taboos Radio, the stigma for queer bodies extends to raising support to continue publishing. Hearing that, Thandile bemoans the absence of state or corporate support for queer art in South Africa. “No one funds my initiatives,” they say candidly. “Corporations, even galleries don’t sometimes don’t understand queer art. They dismiss it as ‘other’.”
The anguish and hurt, they have molded it into a positive spirit. “So, when I dance and make art about violence, queer rights and freedoms this is the lineage of the violence my body has gone through. The act of having to suppress, diminish, compromise oneself is violent.”
Ray Mwareya is a freelance writer and a fellow of the PEN America Artists at Risk Connection and a receiver of the UN Global Migration Fair Reporting Prize and the UN Correspondents Association Media Prize. Ray’s work is published in The Guardian, Radio Netherlands, and Ricochet Canada and others. I tweet at @Rmwareya