Kewpie (1941 – 2012) was a celebrated hairdresser and performer who lived in District Six, Cape Town, South Africa. She was part of a racially diverse, queer community whose lives and bodies were by their very existence, defiant of the racist apartheid regime in South Africa.
This exhibition features photographs from Kewpie’s personal collection, which was acquired by the GALA Queer Archive in 1999. The Kewpie Photographic Collection is a valuable resource documenting what was a visible and integrated queer community in District Six. This community has since been scattered due to the forced removals sanctioned by the Group Areas Act of 1950.
Due to a systemically oppressive society, historical institutions in South Africa had intentionally erased, omitted or manipulated the histories of gender and sexually diverse people. In keeping with the work of both GALA Queer Archive and the District Six Museum, Kewpie’s photographs show the value of personal archives as evidence of lives and stories that would have otherwise been lost. The collection reinforces the historical understandings of District Six as a close-knit community where difference wasn’t unusual, while highlighting the lesser-known queer narratives in District Six’s history. The collection, and stories uncovered through further interviews with the community, expose the complexity of how Kewpie and her sisters negotiated their queer lives and identities in public.
In her lifetime, language and terminology to describe a broader spectrum of gender and sexual identities had not yet been mainstreamed. Kewpie and members of her queer community sometimes identified as gay and sometimes identified as women. They generally used feminine pronouns and referred to each other as ‘sisters’ or ‘girls’.
Many themes and ideas explored in the exhibition are relevant to contemporary LGBTIQA+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, Queer, Asexual) rights dialogue and activism in South Africa. Histories of queer people like Kewpie challenge the ongoing argument that homosexuality is “un-African”. They portray a community and culture where gender and sexually diverse people – who continue to face prejudice, discrimination and violence in South Africa – could be accepted and loved as human beings. The struggle for LGBTIQA+ rights is ongoing and Kewpie’s story offers some perspective on ways forward.
This exhibition was adapted and abbreviated from the exhibition, Kewpie – Daughter of District Six (2018); a collaborative effort between the GALA Queer Archive (Johannesburg) and the District Six Museum (Cape Town).