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Tandile Mbatsha is Representing Queer Identity through Performance Art

Tandile Mbatsha is a Cape Town based Arts and Culture Coordinator at Injabulo Projects, an Honours student at UCT and a performance artist who challenges gender norms by being a mirror for young queer people to see themselves without thinking there is something wrong with them. Their most recent performance piece was a collaboration with soul/jazz musician Zoe Modiga at Afropunk Joburg on 31st December on the song 'Inganekwane'.

Their most recognized perfomance piece “Intyatyambo Iyaphuma Engxodorheni” (beauty can emerge from arid land) premiered at last year’s National Arts Festival and they also performed it in November 2019 for the Justice Coalition’s commemoration of the SJC10 Judgement, celebrating the #RightToProtest. Mbatsha has been challenging gender norms since they were fourteen years old, living in a boy’s hostel where rugby formed part of the grooming of the boys, they instead opted for classic ballet and modern dance and that is where their journey in performance art began.

How and when did representation and raising awareness for African queer bodies and the LGBTQ+ community become of significance to you?

I have a Queer uncle from my maternal family, so I grew up under his shadow, so to speak. I was always compared to him as my family only really had him as a reference. I'm grateful for the work he did, because at least there was a reference. However, I grew tired of my every move being compared to his. This is when I knew I had work to do. My family had to know that there is difference in Queerness and all of it had/has to be celebrated.

Tell us about your collaboration with Zoe Modiga for Afropunk Joburg 2019, and how it came about?

Zoe Modiga and I come a long 10 years. We met at Art School back in Johannesburg (2009). We later collaborated on my final Choreographic Studies exam at university in 2015...passed that exam with a 'highest achiever' medal. This is the greatness she brings to a work. 

She requested my collaboration on the Afropunk stage for her song 'Inganekwane', and of course i agreed. It had been a long time coming, we always spoke of collaborating again. We started conceptualizing the piece during December over the phone, from two different provinces ka di voice messages, pictures, videos and messages. Nao Serati and Nthabiseng Molebeleli made an exquisite costume for me. Aphelele Chonco made the garment Zoe wore during our performance. Serati, Aphelele, Zoe and I all went to the same artschool...something to be said about the privilege of the alumni network. 

It is very easy working with her. Our process is quite organic, very much a give and take. We were in a space for a little over 3 hours and we created that piece. We had tea and scones most of the afternoon though, lol. Definitely watch for another collaboration with Zoe Modiga in the very near future. 

What have been the disparities between performing in gallery spaces and street performance art and how do you use both spaces to communicate your message in the best way possible?

The disparities of performing in gallery and street are safety; anything could happen in the street in terms of responses or engagement. The gallery is a closed and secure space. Audience in a gallery goes there to see art, they are expecting. In the street, the helper, construction worker, CEO, policeman etc are all not expecting. The effectiveness of the work I do varies according to the spaces I occupy. The street is more thrilling. I reach more people that actually want to talk and ask questions. The gallery performances have been highly curated hence the street lends itself to 'honest' engagement. I'm very happy to reach the construction worker or helper who doesn't know what to make of their child, niece, nephew or grandchild than the gallery goers who perhaps have more access to information.

Tell us about your collaboration with the Justice Coalition's commemoration of the SJC10 Judgement and the celebration of the right to protest. Do you view your performances as a form of protest?

My collaboration with SJC was another opportunity for such engagement. I remember saying to my manager, I know it's not much monetarily but the reach will be far and wide. And that's what my work is about. Reaching Africans that may not be able to go to a gallery showing of Intyatyambo Iyaphuma Engxodorheni. My main concern besides my stomach is the young misunderstood Queer ekasi. My existence is a protest Phendu. Every day I show up, out of my living space, I'm very conscious of how I present myself and how others see me, and most importantly how this will impact the experience of another Queer. So my work is inherently a form of protest because of the body which presents the work. I enjoy seeing the cognitive dissonance (if one can see it anyway) when I rock up with a cute trimmed beard and a skirt to the primary school I teach at and the faces of workers at the bus terminals on my way there. When I see the confused faces, to me, it means that I've unlocked at least one “why” of being to that confused face, hopefully making it possible for a younger Queer to exist. This is what the SJC10 Judgment meant to me...the right to's huge.

Your performance piece; "Intyatyambo Iyaphuma Engxondorheni" is a metaphor for a flower blooming infertile land, how do you connect the metaphor with being queer and African?

This metaphor is precisely indicative of how Queerness is viewed in Africa. Just the other day I read about two Queers who have been sentenced to 15 years imprisonment because they were caught having sex. Africa is not fertile land for Queers to thrive. Lesbian women are raped to correct their Queerness. Queer stories are scorned upon and silenced on account of culture i.e Inxeba. So nje we can't in our land!?! There is a line in one of Jonas Gwangwa's songs...'Freedom for some is freedom for none'. Africans refuse to unite on Queer rights. But we must unite on decolonisation. An ideal came from the student protests in 2015/16/17 Rhodes Must Fall or/and Fees Must Fall...something to the effect of...if the revolution is not Queer then it is bullshit. I'm paraphrasing. Which bleeds into your next question...

You come from a family with strong cultural traditions and faced challenges coming out - what is your advice to queer individuals or anyone who is afraid to live their truth?

Self-actualisation! Self-actualisation! Self-actualisation! How are you to self actualise and be self sufficient if you're not truly living and breathing your truth? Self actualisation is the highest need recognised by Maslow, how will you be self sufficient if you are not actualising your true potential. Life is too short to try and satisfy others. Consciously and consistently choose you, unapologetically so. Life is for living and not shrinking one's self! Also, you will never satisfy EVERYbody so best you start with satisfying you and then others follow. And this is not a crime. Even against family. As Africans we are always vilified for choosing ourselves over family, do it. Often they are scared for you against society, so show them you can stand even against them, and then they'll be confident that you'll be fine in society.

South Africa's post-apartheid Constitution was the first in the world to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation, and South Africa was the fifth country in the world, and the first in Africa, to legalise same-sex marriage. Do you feel that these facts reflect the reality lived by the LGBTQ community in South Africa and in your opinion, what forms of progress are necessary?

Beautiful gowns, great gowns lol! Ours is a socio-cultural issue now. We need to interrogate how we socialise our children. South Africa has a shackling social and cultural fabric in terms of gender binaries. The toys we buy our children, the chores in the house, our speech case in point, boys don't cry etc. On paper, yes, we have a great constitution however a lot of work has to be done socially and culturally. Interview: Phendu Kuta


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