How poverty and gender inequality weave across a human body
Sitters were adamant the exhibition should express their beauty and their femininity
The road to awakening — or enlightenment — is punctuated with sharp wake-up calls. Japanese Zen Buddhist masters use a wooden stick, the keisaku (attention booster) to strike meditating monks who have fallen asleep or whose poses are poor. Rather than punish, its role is to instruct.
Life supplies many wake-up slaps. For photographer and transgender activist Robert Hamblin, it took a specific form and outcome. The former professional media and arts photographer’s subject matter is “debates around body politics in a postapartheid era”.
The exhibition InterseXion at the Iziko National Gallery earlier in 2018 was a collaboration between Hamblin and activist groups The Sistaaz Hood and the Diamond Town Girls.
At its conference last year, the ANC resolved to decriminalise sex work. President Cyril Ramaphosa said: “Whatever views individuals may hold about sex work, whatever the statutes may say about the legality of sex work, we cannot deny the humanity and inalienable rights of people who engage in sex work.”
Hamblin’s wake-up slap was delivered by highly indignant activist and transgender sex worker Netta Marcus, founder of The Sistaaz Hood. Hamblin had been producing photographic work with trans women sex workers for seven years, and was working at the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce conscientising transgender sex workers about their rights and feminism.
The transgender women were unaware of his profession, until one of them found an advert in a glossy magazine featuring a photograph of a white, well-heeled model taken by Hamblin. Marcus slapped the offending magazine down on Hamblin’s desk, pointed at his name and demanded to know why he was not being paid. Hamblin offered to collaborate with them in a public art work and InterseXion was born.
The exhibition juxtaposes Hamblin’s and his sitter’s bodies and has been read as an intersection of the lives of transgender sex workers platforming their unique stories. A smaller version of InterseXion titled “… when you feeling like a lady” was first exhibited at the Klein Karoo National Arts Festival in 2013 and the work was nominated for a fine arts award.
InterseXion consisted of photographs, video and sound installations. Three stories constituted the exhibition — The Sistaaz Hood, the Diamond Town Girls and InterseXion. Visitors were invited to listen to interviews of Hamblin talking with sex worker, activist and muse Leigh Davids; members of activist support groups; look at photographic stills and absorb quotes.
“The blurry, unrealistic, mostly decontextualised images are intentional,” Hamblin explains. “My work method reflects a mandated representation of these trans bodies, challenging popular notions of the representation of gender, sex work and disenfranchised people.”
InterseXion clearly identified the subjects as sex workers. And the sitters were adamant that the exhibition should express their beauty and their femininity. “We wanted to be treated the same as rich white women — to be beautiful, not stared at under the bridge where we live now,” said Marcus.
Hamblin’s role was defined as “both a client and a spectator”. He was required to pay his sitters what a client would pay them for their other services. Most poor and black transgender sex workers have a 30- to 32-year life expectancy. Four of the 24 transgender sex workers who participated in the exhibition died before 40.
We are poor, we are never going to transition, we accept our bodies, we are not crazy, we know we have male bodies and we want you accept us.
InterseXion “offered a vantage point to discuss how poverty and gender inequality weave across a human body and life in disparate ways”, Hamblin says. “I am privileged; born that way, and therefore sustaining that was a natural result. I am safe, stable. She never is.”
The opening of InterseXion at the Iziko National Gallery kicked off with a performance piece originally performed at the District 6 Museum as part of the University of Cape Town’s Queer in Africa festival. It involved a group of transgender women dressed in evening gowns who expose their chests.
“For a transgender sex worker, the chest is a site of shame and its exposure to public gaze is an act of great vulnerability,” Hamblin explains. The premise for the exposure was, “We are poor, we are never going to transition, we accept our bodies, we are not crazy, we know we have male bodies and we want you accept us”.
At first, the piece was met with complete silence. The performers read it as a complete failure until Hamblin explained that rather than disapproval, the silence was a sign of reverence. And then the applause came. Quietly at first and then gathering momentum until it grew into a thunderous roar and many a face grew wet with tears.
For Hamblin, the room containing the gargantuan soccer ball — made of perishable fragments of newspaper, cardboard and plastic, representing materials used by street people for shelter — was the most important art work. A thick braid, rather like an umbilicus was attached to it leading to the room containing Talk on the Yellow Line, where viewers could stand under the yellow light and listen to the stories of transgender sex workers.
Hamblin says the short film he made with Davids required them both to strip naked. “We were both vulnerable. Our bodies do not conform to cisgender expectations. Neither of us have had genital surgery.”
When Hamblin asked Davids whether he should leave his glasses on for the film, Davids put him clearly in his place: “Keep them on — you’re a typical client so don’t try and be sexy. We have to deal with ugly white men all the time and you’re an old white man, just be that.”
He says the experience robbed the film of eroticism and made the point that he was privileged. “There I was with my hairy arse and my funny queer body, naked, with my designer glasses on.”
Perhaps one of the most moving insights from the exhibition and one that shows the power of art when harnessed for activism was Marcus’s poignant quote: “In the late 90’s the National Gallery stoop was my first shelter. We never went in. We thought art was for rich people. We did not know then that we were the art”.