In an email conversation with creatives Mziyanda Malgas and Daniel Walton, they explained to me that Cape Town is often viewed from the outside as a city which is open and accepting of everyone, particularly those who have a creative inclination. However, when looking at the city through the eyes of young queer people living in Cape Town, there is an entire layer that the two of them, along with other queer people, unfortunately experience. “Being feminine guys, Daniel and I have been targets for many years of our lives, and within this past year we have felt it more than ever. We endure catcalling from men in the streets almost on the daily. We have encountered homophobic attacks in clubs and even had an instance where we were modeling outside and three Afrikaans men walked past us and spat on the floor in disgust,” Mziyanda explains.
Daniel and Mziyanda expressed the pain that this causes them. They have been a supportive of each other under the circumstances, and decided to fight back using their creative capacities. In April they were courageous enough to go back to some of the places where they have been harassed and photograph themselves in these spaces. For them, the importance of occupying and reclaiming these spaces through the medium that speaks to their creative spirits has brought a sense of empowerment. From alleyways, to bars, bathrooms and streets in town, they have replaced the haunting memories of aggressive words and probing hands with a positive energy they hope will seep into the walls of city. I interviewed the two of them to find out more about their experiences and their photographic project.
How do you envision and enact your own understanding of “empowerment”?
MM: I envision empowerment as a way in which you give people the strength and courage to truly be themselves and express themselves. I enact my empowerment in my everyday life, or at least try to, by staying true to myself and who I am.. By trying to increase another person’s state of being, be it through my Instagram stories or just meeting people while out.
DW: Queerness is difference. I can’t speak for everyone. Personally, it’s expressing [my] difference from the cishet normative narrative. I enact my queerness by creating art, the way I present myself and dancing in clubs. Here I perform my queerness. I empower myself by creating art, reacting to my experiences and my own identity. Hanging out with Mziyanda empowers me. When we are together I feel a sense of power between us. I don’t resonate with being called a “man” as I feel it carries so many things that I don’t relate with. But, reclaiming space is very important to me. I feel so often, we are made to feel uncomfortable in spaces or we are showed that we are really unwelcome. Reclaiming spaces also makes cishet people confront their discomfort towards who we are. Therefore, I wanted to reclaim these spaces that people don’t see as ours and make them our own.
Taking over space or reclaiming space comes across as an important foundation for the images. Share a bit about how this importance resonates with your experience as queer identifying people?
MM: Men have always been dominant figures in society. So essentially with being queer men, the space is not ours but rather theirs. So with the project that Daniel and I did, we wanted to reclaim the space and go back to the spots where we felt extremely vulnerable, uncomfortable and often scared and take pictures there to show that “yes, we might have previously felt afraid to be here but no, we are no longer giving anyone that much power over us”. These pictures are not about to end homophobia and sexual harassment but for us, it really was a big turning point and moment in realizing that as queer men, we do not have to accept the harsh reality that comes with being who we are but rather take power in it. Funnily enough, yesterday was my birthday and a couple of friends and I went clubbing and had a blast. This morning I had a discussion with Daniel over the realization that whenever we go out, we always seem to take over and ‘queer out’ the space in that we make it our own. This club was the same one in which Daniel got attacked for being gay, so to come back and vogue all over the dancefloor as Britney Spears played was our tiny bit in reclaiming the space!
DW: This project on my sexual harassers came about when I was given a documentary project at college. I really, really wanted to document my harassers, because I had told so many people my stories but they would never believe me or they would think I’m joking. I also wanted to create something for women and queer people. We are always told that it’s just a part of our life. It’s not okay, it’s not normal and I’m tired of dealing with this on a daily basis. This subject is so often spoken about amongst ourselves, but our voices are never heard or taken seriously. Therefore, I created this project. I took photos around town, of each of the men that harassed me. I captioned each of my images with the quote of what they said to me.
But these images, are something for women and queer people to know that they are brave, they are beautiful and they shouldn’t feel ashamed. We need to flourish and hold our heads up high, even though it’s really tough, it’s what we need to do.
I’m hoping that people know that I don’t let these hurtful memories get to me. If I let these experiences upset me, then I have let them won. I have moved on, I’ve conquered the space. And we can all conquer it. I am strong and I will continue to stay strong and fierce for myself and for all my queer brothers and sisters.
Daniel, please share a bit about your creative and conceptual preparations for your Polaroid series? How do these connect with the larger project?
DW: This project was inspired by all my experiences combined together. Recently I had an experience at the club Fiction (this was quite a few months after my project though) and I got lemon thrown at me by these two guys. I turned around, frowned and opened the door to go back into the dance area. Out of nowhere, from behind, this man grabbed my arm and my body and threw me to the ground and told me to “get out” and was called me a, “fucking poes.” He then proceeded to say, “This is a straight club, not a fucking gay club.” This experience inspired me a bit for a new project I’m doing at the moment. These experiences are frightening, but they inspire me to create work from them. I want all the queer children to know that you can stand up for yourself and you can create art from this. DON’T LET THESE BASICS RUIN YOU! You are beautiful and you are you. [The captions for the Polaroid photographs are the words these men said to Daniel while on the streets.]
Please share more of the stories that inspired this project?
MM: These projects have been inspired by instances that have happened over the span of many years of our lives. Catcalling has always been something that I have experienced. From a young age, I never hid how I acted and it was never a facade that I put up, so I think it was very easy for people to pick on me and comment on certain traits about myself, such as how I spoke, walked and just the way I would react to situations. Over the years and with growing up, I have found the words thrown at me to have become more vulgar and in my opinion stupid! Telling me you think I’m sexy and that you want to make me your girlfriend is supposed to what, swoon me? Grow up!