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South Africa: Solo artist risks body to promote queer gender rights inside posh galleries.

Author: Ray Mwareya Date Published: 09 Jan 2018
  • South Africa: Solo artist risks body to promote queer gender rights inside posh galleries.

    “I take 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 artefacts. This is my goal to make visible the difficult plight of black queer LGBTI bodies in South Africa,” says Thandile Mbatsha in his/her own words.

    Thandile is 26, young and full of positive anger. “I grew up in a home infested with domestic violence. I have scars on my body from trying to stop my father from beating my mother (who is my hero).”

    Her anger, she has turned it around, “to sensitize my community and make sure that my non-binary and queer body enters the gender spaces that our ancestors could never.”


    Therefore Thandile describes herself as a choreo-activist. “I invented this word for myself,” she says. “Choreo-activism means conducting a series of body movements that address 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.”

    Her body is her reference. “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.

    She catches attention for her rowdy art – “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, on of Cape Town´s most known townships, a “place full of issues” when it comes to respecting the choices of queer residents. Certificates of distinction at the South Africa National School of Arts and the Cape Town University Dance School has steeled her resolve.

    Thandile feels says the queer body community are under siege in Cape Town, curiously, a place loosely described as “Africa´s most gay and lesbian-rights friendly city.”

    “The gravest danger facing the LGBTI community is facing in South Africa right now, today at 04.January .2018 are hate crimes,” says Thandile emphasizing her fury with an actual date.

    Thandile claims: “A young openly lesbian woman in Strand, Cape Town city was murdered on New Year’s Day. Noxolo ‘Noxie’ Mabona was stabbed to death during an altercation, allegedly related to her sexuality, at a party on the first of January. She had gone to her neighbour’s house to join a party.”

    Thandile sighs, as if giving up. “That one can be killed by their neighbour means us queer bodies we are hunted even in our own backyards.”

    A lifetime of bullying:

    “I haven´t fared better,” says Thandile. “In school, other pupils teased me for being short in size and bearing a large skull. I was shunned and called “othered” 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, his/her 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.”

    The anguish, hurt she has modelled 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.”

    Funding versus “financial stigma”:

    Thandile bemoans the absence of meaningful state or corporate support for LGBTI art in South Africa. She sees it as an extension of “financial stigma.”

    “No one funds my initiatives,” she says candidly. “Corporations, even galleries don’t sometimes don’t understand queer art. They dismiss it as “other.”

    She says, “I teach dance and produce productions at a primary school and for Injabulo Projects a non-profit organisation, established in 2015 in Cape Town. We focus on anti-bullying efforts among high school pupils and monitor project, an incest survivor project.”

    Sojourn to New York:

    In November 2017, Thandile went to the as part of a queer art dancers collective to the Perfoma17, 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 shook New York.”

    Despite opening the tour at the fancy Yancy Richardson Gallery in Manhattan, and the Lohman Museum of gay art, she got a rude awakening.  “Everyone thinks it’s easier being queer in NY than any other place in the world. This is not the case.”

    She claims: “I was only in the states for two weeks. I lived in Brooklyn Bedford Stuyvesant, in a Jewish area. Some would literally cross to the other side of the road when we were approaching, and shunned eye contact. I’ve never experienced that disgust even in country South Africa.”

    Expensive surgery; stifling laws:

    But back home in South Africa, Thandile feels the state laws and public healthcare still place obstacles to the enjoyment queer bodies’ human rights by LGBTI artists.

    “One thing frightens me,” she moans, “The state healthcare needs to be inclusive and efficient for transgender and queer bodies. The waiting period for gender affirming surgery is ridiculously long. It is way too costly to do it privately.





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