Kewpie's dolls | Meet the daughters of District Six in photo exhibition

A photo exhibition in Cape Town looks back on a queer community that flourished in the '60s and '70s, despite apartheid's restrictive silos

23 September 2018 - 00:00 By TANYA FARBER

Dancing shoes and up-style hairdos, feathers and fancy eyelashes ... During the '60s and '70s, Kewpie was a social butterfly of note in District Six, flitting between her hair salon, drag-queen performances, netball matches and gay beauty pageants.
She was also an icon in her own right - representing the fluid identities born in the layered fabric of District Six. Now, pictures of and by Kewpie are being exhibited in her old stomping ground.
The gay community of this area has been immortalised through a collection of some 700 photographs and negatives, which made their way into an archive in Johannesburg.
Kewpie - Daughter of District Six explores the life of a vibrant queer figure and a lifestyle that found expression even in the rigid silos of apartheid.
"The lifestyle Kewpie chose brought him to independence," says Ursula Hansby, 71, Kewpie's younger sister and only surviving family member.
There were six children in the family but large age gaps and untimely deaths meant they did not all share the house in District Six, where Hansby and Kewpie - or Eugene, as their parents had named him - grew up.
Hansby says she and Kewpie got on well. "We had no choice, we were under one roof."
She says of Kewpie's secret life back then: "We were not very exposed to these things in those years. Parents were very conservative; we were not even allowed in grown-ups' company. Kewpie never dressed like that at home. It was when he was out and about."
Their father rejected Kewpie's identity and the son increasingly sought his own life outside the family home.
"Our dad didn't accept it at all," says Hansby. "[Kewpie] reacted badly. I was at primary school and Kewpie often didn't pitch at school. He was trying to find his own life and friends; that is where the hairdressing started. Mom was much more accepting. You know, mommies have a softer spot for their children."
In 1963, the family moved to Bellville. Kewpie chose to stay in District Six. "He had found his friends," says Hansby, "but later he came to work at a hairdresser near us. He would visit mom when we kids were at school and my dad was at work."
Many years later, when their father passed away, Kewpie didn't make it to the funeral.
"He went to visit some family that day and maybe he fell asleep or something," says Hansby. "He didn't pitch up and none of us ever asked him why."
Hansby's own acceptance of her brother unfolded gently over the years.
"At that time I wasn't very impressed with his lifestyle. I was conservative, I suppose. Once we moved to Bellville, I was more at peace with it because we weren't in the same house any more."
Kewpie opened hair salons and employed friends, some of whom Hansby says abused his goodwill. "They sponged off him. Their lifestyle was such that they depended on each other, and he was always so accommodating. Mr Samuels gave him his own little premises and was so caring. But others took advantage. He was the caring person; there was always food for others and somewhere for them to live."
Then, Kewpie became ill. Hansby by then was busy with her own life, working and raising children.
"He started taking ill but we were not aware of it," she says. "He was dumped here by his friends. Once he got sick there was no one around for him."
She stepped into a new role in his life. Kewpie had an operation to remove his trachea, after which Hansby found him a place in an old-age home in Kensington.
"He had no voice," she says. "We were lucky to get him into the home. He stayed there for 12 years through the kindness of the reverends there. I think he had cancer of the throat, but he didn't have a pension or anything. He was practically penniless."
Hansby's children and grandchildren grew close to Kewpie in this time and were "very accepting of him", she says. "We made them understand. The eldest one called him 'Uncle Kewpie' and he said: 'I am not auntie, I am not uncle, I am just Kewpie'."
Kewpie kept up his hairdressing skills right to the end, grooming his fellow residents at the home. When he turned 70, Hansby threw him a party in Bellville and invited friends and neighbours from District Six.
"He was shocked and surprised. He enjoyed it so much."
Just a year later, Hansby woke one morning and had a feeling something wasn't right. She called the nurse who cared for Kewpie and they went straight to his room.
"He was not himself. I stayed with him that whole day. At 7.30pm the sister said, 'Rather go home now'."
At 11.30pm, she got the call that Kewpie had passed away.
"Wherever he went, there was not a soul who didn't know him," says Hansby. "He stood out. He was queen of this and queen of that. He was adored."
Mogamat Benjamin, 61, was a close friend of Kewpie's, though he was 15 years younger.
"I am excited just to think that Kewpie should be commemorated in this way," he says of the exhibition, recalling the milestones in a friendship that endured until Kewpie's death in 2012.
"My connection with Kewpie began in District Six," says Benjamin. "I left school at 12 and went to work at Dermar Fashions. Kewpie was living at the Queens Hotel, which was adjacent to the factory. We used to meet during lunch time and dance at the Ambassador. He was a good dancer. He could do the splits and the kick-ups anywhere. He was supposed to be a ballerina but his father wasn't happy about that so he started hairdressing."
Benjamin was a member of a drag-queen netball team called the Supremes.
"Kewpie was one of our mascots. He would come and watch every game with his entire entourage. We awarded him 'Spectator of the Year'."
Benjamin's most enduring memory is of the day the Supremes played a netball match at Silver Tree, a sports field in District Six that essentially was the only recreational facility there, and a player called Patti had forgotten her shoes.
"Kewpie and the other spectators were dressed to kill, with their up-style hairdos. Patti was part of that but she would also play. On that day she forgot her shoes for the match and didn't want to play barefoot because it could damage her feet. So she played in her stilettos but the other players complained that she was going to injure them."
Benjamin, whose stage name was Kafunta, negotiated his own path through geographical areas, gender identities and religions.
"I was raised Muslim but my grandfather was Portuguese. He called me Ronald and put me in school at the Holy Cross."
They moved from vibrant District Six to the far-flung "coloured township" of Bonteheuwel to the utilitarian compounds of Lavender Hill.
Through it all, Kewpie remained his friend and his symbol of freedom. He recalls fondly how, after he moved to Lavender Hill, Kewpie and others made the trip there from Kensington for his birthday.
"Kewpie came out of her way with others specially to see me. It made my day."
Benjamin's family accepted him, and it has always pained him that Kewpie's father could not accept his son.
"Why? He never killed anybody or did anything wrong. He made people laugh and he made them beautiful. He was a wonderful person who was friendly with everybody."
Sandra Fourie, 75, a friend and contemporary of Kewpie's, was removed from her home in Claremont when it was declared a "white" area.
She moved to District Six and studied hairdressing, later working in Johannesburg and Durban and enjoying the freedom of movement particular to those who could "pass" as white.
"I was called a 'play white'," she says. "And I lived a wonderful life. I never struggled. I lived in Mayfair. It was a white suburb and all my friends were white."
But this week, with the exhibition unlocking a door to her colourful past, it is her friendship with Kewpie in District Six that takes centre stage.
"I was very great friends with Kewpie from my teenage years," says Fourie. "We stayed friends after I left. I would come to Cape Town every year and visit. These pictures are a trip down memory lane. South Africa is certainly more open-minded now."
Keval Harie, director of Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action (Gala), which organised the exhibition, says the collection is "not only an important documentation of life in District Six but also an important documentation of queer history".
LGBTIQ people in Africa "continue to face discrimination and high levels of violence", says Harie, and continue to fight for equality and recognition.
"If the bane of activism in Africa is invisibility and public misconceptions, then Gala's activist archive, which houses collections like the Kewpie photographs, is indispensable. There can be no queer pride without queer history."
The exhibition shows how "this particular queer community was visible and well integrated within the broader District Six community, reinforcing the historical understanding of District Six as a diverse and close-knit community that looked after its own".
Allanise Cloete is a researcher at the Human Sciences Research Council who wrote a thesis at the University of Western Cape entitled: "The invention of moffie life in Cape Town, South Africa."
"Moffie" life, she says, "is a representation of same-sex desire among men that is highly visible . embodied through the self-styling of the gay hairdresser, gay beauty pageants and Gay Pride events."
The coloured community has long displayed greater acceptance of these cultural practices, she says. Although the visibility of gender-non-conforming men and women has increased in a more tolerant SA, "highly visible performances, such as gay beauty pageants, have been commonplace in the 'coloured' townships of Cape Town" since before the adoption of our new constitution.
She says this visibility can be traced to the "figure of the moffie", who led minstrel troupes during the New Year carnival celebrations.
"During carnival, a gender-non-conforming man dressed in female clothing often led the carnival processions. These men were known in the local vernacular as 'moffies'," she says, which meant that during the 1950s and '60s this "representation of a highly visible same-sex subculture was able to flourish before the advent of legal protections."
• Kewpie: Daughter of District Six, is at the District Six Museum until January 18 2019

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