Sodia and Kewpie (right) pictured at a Marie Antoinette Ball at the Ambassador Club in Cape Town. Picture: Supplied
Sodia and Kewpie (right) pictured at a Marie Antoinette Ball at the Ambassador Club in Cape Town. Picture: Supplied

Capetonians have a last chance to see  Kewpie: Daughter of District Six at the District Six Homecoming Centre, an exhibition conceived by the Gala (Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action) centre in celebration of its 21st birthday. And what better way to celebrate a coming of age than a photographic exhibition of the District Six gay icon herself, Kewpie.

With its worn wooden floorboards, smelling of sunshine and time, the Homecoming Centre is reminiscent of a school or community hall. It provides an empathic space for the exhibition, and its ice-cream-pink display boards hold numerous black-and-white photographs and quotes celebrating Kewpie’s life.

The SA constitution is envied by the rest of Africa and the world for its many rights, in particular the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) people. And yet many activists have warned that while the rights of the LGBTIQ community are enshrined in the constitution, there is still much work to be done to ensure those rights are protected and carried out, for so often left-wing movements are accompanied by right-wing backlashes.

Regarding the gay movie Kanarie, a staff reporter for Power 98.7 wrote that “despite South Africa’s liberal constitution, we are still ostracised — in our homes, in the workplace and on the streets. For some, it is no easier being gay in 2018 than it was in 1985.”

Of the 57 states in Africa, just under half are violently opposed to male homosexuality, where it is viewed as a white man’s disease. Punishments range from a few months or 17 years in prison with hard labour to the death penalty. More tolerance is possibly afforded lesbians, as women are regarded as secondary citizens in patriarchy and therefore of little importance.

Gala director Keval Harie considers the Kewpie: Daughter of District Six exhibition as “little short of a miracle”, given the withdrawal of global funds for many nongovernmental organisations. It’s been a lifelong dream of Gala to have the exhibition of 100 photographs (including street photographs and more personal photographs), which is drawn from important photography collections and illustrates queer life from the 1960s to the 1980s. When it comes to LGBTIQ narratives, Harie says “there is very little out there”. Harie believes “there can be no other place or home for Kewpie’s legacy other than the District Six Homecoming Centre”.

Born Eugene Fritz, Kewpie was nicknamed after the famous doll by his Aunt Joyce. Harie believes that being compared to this beautiful doll suggests he had “star power” from “a very young age”. As the title of the exhibition indicates, Kewpie, along with the “moffies, was very much a product and part of the broader community of District Six”. By and large, they were accepted as part of the community. Of course, as one respondent tweeted, one “mustn’t over-romanticise District Six. There was violence and invisibility of lesbian women in District Six.”

Kewpie did not aspire to be a gay activist. At least not in the classical definition of the term. She would not be boxed. “I’m naturally just me. People can’t say I’m a man, they can’t say I’m a woman,” she said. But the courageous way in which she used  her talents and success led to her becoming a gay icon, a trailblazer and an activist, encouraging those around her to be themselves and to succeed. Bearing testament to this is a comment by lifelong friend Mogamat “Kafunta”, who is quoted as saying “she inspired me to be myself”. And on the interactive pinboard there is a pink post-it that reads “Kewpie — thank you for helping us be who we are xx.”

Kewpie was a highly skilled hairdresser, owning two salons — Yugene’s Hairtique and Salon Kewpie. People would not only go to have their hair done but also to socialise, have a drink, smoke a cilla. “Clients walked in with taai koppe [unkempt heads of hair] and left with the most luxurious, sleek dos. No job was impossible for Kewpie,” former stylist and housemate Sammy Samuels recollects. In tribute to her role as hairdresser, the exhibition includes part of a salon from that era complete with lino floor, magazine pin-ups, lights and Formica chairs.

Kewpie was also a fine ballet dancer and was offered an opportunity to train overseas. Her father denied her the chance. One cannot help speculate how different her life might have been had she been allowed to take up the opportunity. But her dancing greatly assisted her in choreographing her drag shows showcasing her alter ego, Capucine (based on a French actress and model), at various hotels, cinemas and halls.

Harie says the primary aim of the exhibition “is to say to LGBTIQ communities in South Africa — this is part of your history” and highlight its importance in human rights. But he cautions that there cannot be any African queer pride without queer history. “The Kewpie legacy is your legacy and you have every right to celebrate and acknowledge its powerful legacy.”

The exhibition’s importance is vital to continued discussions around factors such as “gender identity, transphobia and homophobia in South Africa and Africa”. But mostly its importance is the “contemporary struggle of access and representation”.

One of Gala’s primary objectives as a queer activist archive is to “speak against a popular narrative that homosexuality is not African”. As Harie points out, Kewpie’s past was in District Six.

Harie hopes the exhibition will lead to an acceptance and understanding from people who might suffer from prejudice; that a bridge of understanding is built by acknowledging these stories and people exist within our communities. “It is important for people to see themselves reflected in history not just as the targets of discrimination.” 

  • Kewpie: Daughter of District Six runs until January 18.