District Six’s LGBTQ heritage brought to life through Kewpie exhibition

Kewpie at the Marie Antoinette Ball at the Ambassador Club. Photo courtesy of GALA

One of District Six’s most fabulous residents, known simply as Kewpie, will be honoured in a new photographic exhibition in Cape Town that celebrates South Africa’s LGBTQ heritage.

Kewpie, born in 1941, was a well-known hairstylist and drag artist who would often perform on stage to packed audiences at District Six’s Ambassador Club. Kewpie also ran Salon Kewpie in Kensington. She passed away in 2012 but her life will be seen afresh in the new exhibition.

Kewpie: Daughter of District Six, will run at the District Six Museum Homecoming Centre in central Cape Town from 21 September until 18 January 2019.

It features a selection of photos from an archive of 700 prints and accompanying negatives. Of these, approximately 100 photos will go on show, dating from the 1950s to early 1980s.

Through exploring Kewpie’s life story and queer culture in District Six, this exhibition promotes a positive and inspiring message of diversity and integration in District Six and is a celebration of LGBTIQ+ history. The photographs and accompanying material explore Kewpie’s life and drag culture in District Six, introducing a new audience to a fascinating period of social history and deepening historical understandings of the diverse District Six community.

The exhibition depicts the full and complex lives of Kewpie and friends, showing both the carefully crafted public personas of the drag queens and also their private ‘off-duty’ lives. The rich photographic imagery helps the audience understand how people in the District lived – the clothes they wore, the houses they lived in, parties they attended, holidays they went on, Christmas celebrations and relationships between neighbours and friends in the community.

The photographs offer a sense of the physicality of District Six, as they show the urban infrastructure of streets, factories and shops. The vivid visual depiction of lived experience and place contrasts dramatically with information presented about the eventual destruction of District Six and displacement of the community as a result of forced removals.

District Six Museum director Bonita Bennett says the exhibition tells a “wonderful story of resilience, zest for life, style and community lived out against the backdrop of forced removals which was happening all around”.

Leslie Caron (hair by Kewpie) and Ayesha.
Photo courtesy of GALA

“Kewpie’s story and that of the community around her which included those whose gender choices were not mainstream, tells a story of acceptance and embracing of differences which is not without pain and struggle,” says Bennett.

The District Six Museum and the Gay & Lesbian Memory in Action (GALA) are joint hosts of the exhibition, with funding from the Norwegian Embassy in South Africa. The exhibition’s co-curators are Jenny Marsden (GALA) and Tina Smith (District Six Museum).

While the Museum focuses on preserving narratives and artifacts from the District Six area demolished during apartheid, GALA is the keeper of a uniquely African archival collection, which documents the history, culture and experiences of LGBTIQ+ people.

Smith says GALA has a “valuable resource which records a thriving and celebrated queer culture within a community that has since been displaced”. She notes that, “The collection reinforces historical understandings of District Six as a close-knit community where diversity was accepted, while highlighting a lesser-known aspect of District Six history.”

“Emerging from this is a bold and unrepentant self-reflection of Kewpie’s illustrious life portrayed against a backdrop of societal challenges. It defied conventional definitions, pushed boundaries of gender stereotypes, class and racial prejudice beyond the restrictive measures of apartheid’s discriminatory ideology.”

GALA director Keval Harie adds: “Kewpie’s legacy raises important and necessary questions for the LGBTIQ+ community in terms of issues of identity.“

“We need to move beyond binary approaches of identity and support communities, particularly the trans community and focus on being gender affirming,” he said.

‘Salon Kewpie’ in Kensington. Photo courtesy of GALA

“That is the power of Kewpie’s story. What has struck me is how people in the broader District Six community have a Kewpie memory that they cherish. That is powerful as we deal with high levels of homophobia and transphobia in South Africa.”

A number of events are planned throughout the exhibition run, including a panel discussion and exhibition walkabout on 22 September. A Heritage Day celebration is planned for 24 September.

The documentary film, A Normal Daughter: The Life and Times of Kewpie of District Six, directed by Jack Lewis, will also be screened in October.

Kewpie: Daughter of District Six opens to the public on 21 September and runs until 18 January 2019 at the District Six Museum Homecoming Centre on Buitenkant Street in central Cape Town, an area in the inner city that was part of the destroyed District Six. The Homecoming Centre is open Monday to Friday from 9am to 4pm.

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