Zanele Muholi and Sisonke Collective crack the concrete jungle, New York City.

By: Aluta Humbane

Intombi Yes’godi, Aluta Humbane was invited to be part of rewriting history by one of Africa’s most influential visual activist and artist, Zanele Muholi who took over New York, for the Performa 17 Biennial that was held in different historical spaces in and around the City of New York, America.

Muholi, whom is known for collaborating with her participants extended an invite to over 20 South African performers from all corners of South Africa including the great drag diva, Oddi Diva Mfenyana from Nyanga in Capetown, and of course myself, Intombi Yes’godi engawuthwali u 9 months from Inanda, Emachobeni after having participated in her series of Brave Beauties (2014) to be part of this great collaborative initiative.

When we arrived in New York, we were mesmerized by the glimmering and spectacle of Time Square huge billboards and to our amazement in the midst of all the strangers and lights on tall building, was a huge billboard of Muholi alongside global sensation mogul J Zee and were immediately aware that we were indeed part of rewriting history because it is very rare someone from Africa makes time square Billboards, let alone queer.

I found myself singing, Alicia Keys empire state of mind song, ‘Concrete jungle where dreams are made of’ as we waltz through Time Square and retreated to our temporary home in Brooklyn, Bedford Avenue. A scene reminiscent of the many  American movies ;and sitcoms played itself out as we saw ourselves as leading characters in what was to be one the greatest experiences as South Africans, abroad.

The Performa 17 Biennial, alongside Muholi, saw us occupying and performing in spaces such Schomburg Centre which is recognized as one of the leading institutions focusing exclusively on African-American, African Diaspora, and African experiences. Begun with the collections of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg 92 years ago, the Schomburg has collected, preserved, and provided access to materials documenting black life in America and worldwide in (Harlem), Bronx museum of the Arts which is an internationally recognized cultural destination that presents innovative contemporary art exhibitions and education programs and is committed to promoting cross-cultural dialogues for diverse audiences (Bronx), Richard Jansen Gallery (Manhattan), and the historical landmarks where LGBTI history originated such as Stonewall Inn – A gay bar & National Historic Landmark, site of the 1969 riots that launched the gay rights movement where pride began (Manhattan), and Leslie Lohman museum of gay and Lesbian art, to mention a few.

The experience was one fast paced movie where for once the many queer performers were not playing supporting roles, but had the opportunity to shine and exist beyond pride.  Not only did we get to perform in all these spaces which embodied such a significance in black and queer history, but also had a chance to meet some of greatest people, activists, artists and members of state including our Consular General who hosted us to high tea at the South African embassy in New York as we honoured all our fallen LGBTI heroes. We also got the chance of interacting with American photographers, writers and performers such as Renee Cox and Stacey Lee Chin who also invited all of us to her home and hosted us to a really wonderful dinner.

The experience was both emotional and liberating in that we were given an opportunity to be in spaces where many Africans, specifically black queer Africans might never get the opportunity to visit, let alone occupy and perform in. We are now able to share the experience with our communities. The experience was more personal because it dealt with our histories, our existence, those before us, and those to come, history of queer identities and struggle on a global scale.

This trip also reaffirmed how important it is for us as LGBTI individuals to document, archive and tell our stories through our lens, our mouth piece with no misrepresentations or filters that may distort our messages or experiences. The work of Muholi in Somnyama Ngonyama also highlights this important facet of the personal being political.

As we interpreted the series of portraits through performance, we began to unpack our own personal struggles with ‘the self’ in society and the dangerous long term impact of living in an ill society, such as turning against our own, dealing with past trauma and exclusion, accepting loss and liberating the mind. This trip was far more than just a performance trip in New York, It also offered us an opportunity or outlet to engage our inner struggles in the presence of our mother Mally Simelane, the mother of late Eudy Simelane whom was brutally raped and slaughtered in Kwa Thema, Johannesburg.

In solidarity, as we sang the original national anthem by Enoch Sontonga “Nkosi Sikelela” before every performance felt our spirits unite  with those we have lost through the struggle, through homophobic attacks, those raped and butchered due to homophobia that transcends itself to action, HIV/AIDS and those who still live in fear daily for their lives worldwide.

The message was clear in all interactions and performances that, “We are in pain, we are in mourning”. In our black clothes/regalia, paid our respects for all those whom have passed on, our brothers and sisters killed in homophobic attacks directly or indirectly influenced to death by psychological exclusion that may have propelled them to risky or rebellious ways of surviving, and those left behind at home who only exist during pride and immediately goes back to their cocoons after pride. Those underprivileged, ostracised and rejected, not advanced. As we immersed ourselves in the spiritual journey.