Thato Ramaisa is an artist popularly known as Fela Gucci of music and performance-art duo FAKA. Since expanding his creative practice to include photography, a medium he was introduced to in 2010, he was recently part of the group exhibition "Feminism Ya Mang, Feminism Yethu. Feminism Yani?" at Goethe Institut Joburg.
The body of work is an ode to the queer and trans community, more specifically individuals who inspire him in how they unapologetically own their experiences in relation to the spaces they exist in.
Tell us about your evolution from being primarily a musician to intergrating photography into your creative expression.
I have always integrated photography into my creative practice. I picked up the camera in 2010 when I first enrolled at Market Photo Workshop but could not complete my studies due to circumstances but in the same year, I managed to save up for a compact camera that I used to document my friends' style in the city. After losing the camera I then picked up photography again in 2014 while living in Katlehong and documenting my community there. In 2015 I was able to enroll at Market Photo Workshop again and had moved to the city and outside of school work, I was creating a body of work exploring queer nightlife in Joburg. In the same year, Desire and I formed FAKA where we were exploring different mediums to express our ideas, which incorporated my photographic work, but I guess the music is what fully introduced us to our audience. However, I have been developing different bodies of work throughout the years, I am just being patient with my process and thinking of the different and accessible places that I want this work to exist in, beyond the social media machine.
Last month there was a surge in reported homophobic and transphobic crimes. How does living with this kind of reality impact your ability to feel safe and express yourself freely?
Firstly, thank you for highlighting that these are reported cases because for all we know, this is an everyday undocumented reality that needs to be included in the conversation around gender-based-violence because it’s urgent, it’s been urgent and the continual erasure and lack of engagement from those in power further perpetuates the disposability of our humanity. But living in South Africa you know that a black body holds no value and then couple that with a colonial culture that is embedded in patriarchy that puts black and brown women, queer and trans people at the receiving end of the violence of patriarchy. With all it’s triggers, it was so uplifting to see queer people mobilize and amplify this conversation. As a survivor of two hate crimes and one being in the township, the news was very triggering for me. I had to rethink space and safety. I currently reside in a suburban area which means I may not be as prone to a sudden hate crime to the extent that my siblings in the townships and rural areas are susceptible to. I remember that I had planned on going to visit my family in Katlehong in the week of Andile Ntuthela Lulu’s passing and had to put that on pause because as much as I do feel somewhat safe there, at that very moment I did not. I spoke to a close femme queer friend of mine from home to ask that they are okay because the last time I was there with them, we were walking back home from hanging out with our other friends at the local tavern and a “closeted” guy they have been intimate with was following us whispering their name because he was horny and just the sense of entitlement to their body and the disregard of not considering how this made them feel unsafe was really scary. It’s quite a common and yet discreet thing in the township for men to pursue queer people in spaces like taverns which was the case with Lulu and these very same men are the ones to physically, emotionally and spiritually dispose our bodies after accessing them to fulfill their hidden desires because once again, patriarchy tells them that our humanity is not important.
What role does fashion play in expressing your identity and that of the individuals you photograph?
I grew up in a very stylish family. Looking fly was important. I started experimenting with clothes when I was around 5yrs old wearing my grandmother and aunt’s clothing around the house. I loved how regal what I believed at the time to be “womens clothes” looked on the women in my life. When I started primary school, I was bullied so much for being feminine. The home that I was raised in never denounced my femininity and from the bullying I experienced I learnt to internalise the shame that was directed at my femininity and took it home with me where I no longer felt like I could wear my matriarch's clothing in front of them because I was suddenly a boy that is not supposed to be act like that. So whenever I was home alone I would wear their clothes and run around the house feeling so beautiful and free. I guess that was my first introduction to experimenting with fashion as a tool to explore my identity, although it wasn’t a conscious decision it definitely informed how I later engaged with fashion as a boundless space for imagination and maybe not even fashion but style/clothes as a way to communicate an extension of oneself because clothes can exist on anybody and sometimes ‘’fashion’’ is associated with monetarily wealthy people and this work also explores that kind of dichotomy of how the queer and trans people in my life and I explore and create our own worlds and visual narrative from mostly thrifted clothing and recontextualizing fashion for ourselves to say “This is the glam”.
You were recently part of the group exhibition "Feminism Ya Mang. Feminism Yethu. Feminism Yani?" at Goethe Institut. What does feminism mean to you and how have you conveyed that in this work?
Feminism to me is the work of self-actualisation and what self-actualisation does is teach you the value of your humanity so that you can extend that humanity to others because there are so many broken people out there. Broken from systems that are rooted in patriarchy and patriarchy itself is inhumane and hierarchical and those that are consciously and subconsciously invested in upholding patriarchy don’t see the value in lives that do not fit it’s constructs. Not even men sometimes. But outside of the academic theory of feminism, I know the feminism of my grandmother and her women friends organising their own church ceremonies by creating their own spaces of worship and defying patriarchy within the church. I know the feminism of my late trans cousin Zakhele who along with her chosen family of traditional healers created their own spaces and community to celebrate African spirituality. I know the feminism of my sexually liberated aunts and women cousins who spoke openly about their sexual experiences in a staunch Christian home. I know the feminism of women like Nelly Mawaza and Phindi Maphendula who dance freely at taverns without worrying about the shaming male gaze. With this work, I and along with the people in this work express our understanding and practice of feminism as something that intersects with our realities as queer and trans people. That our femininity does not seek to emulate cisgender women. That it is ancestral, as passed on to us by our queer and trans indigenous ancestors.
Who are the individuals you have photographed in this body of work and what about their stories inspires you?
Glow, Bafana Khumalo and Caleb Nkosi are dear friends of mine, and Kevin Pop is
someone that I appreciate creatively. I’ve known Glow for a couple of years and witnessing her journey has been inspiring as a trans woman from the Free State who now resides in Joburg, and seeing her evolution of fully coming into herself and claiming her space in the city. As one of the first Southern African trans women to start a YouTube page sharing her journey and being active in amplifying the black trans women’s experience in everything that she does. She holds so such wisdom, truth, vulnerability and flyness, and as a queer Sotho person, I thought about the rarity of the awareness about the queer and trans experience of my siblings in Lesotho and Free State so as to shine a light on that experience that I myself know little and would like to know more about. Bafana is a brilliant stylist, creative director, DJ and event curator from the Vaal. The creative space in Joburg tends to not look outside of itself, that there are queer people like Bafana creating brilliant art and important spaces in places that would otherwise be deemed as regressive. That the revolution is happening everywhere and Bafana is a reflection of that. Caleb Nkosi is a model from Kensington who explores her identity through fashion and makeup. I met her at Kop and we’ve since become good friends. She is such a free spirited person and challenges what may at times be stereotypical representations of who a black queer person is in South Africa. Kevin Pop is a fashion designer, drag artist and model from the Westrand. I met them a few years ago at an opening of a new queer space and they wore this really cool repurposed deconstructed outfit that is narrated throughout their work and expression of fashion design. I wanted them to be a part of this work because they also represented an interesting expression of an underrepresented community. I consider this work to be collaborative hence I have shared what each individual represents to me and will continue to do as this work unfolds.
Since it is pride month, what message of empowerment would you like to share with the queer community?
To the South African queer comunity - let us never forget the work of Simon Nkoli, Bev Ditsie, Edwin Cameron and those that were instrumental in the implementation of our constitutional rights. Let us continue to share this history with the youngins. Let us be kind and compassionate towards ourselves and each other because at our best we are love.
Photography: Thato Ramaisa
Interview: Phendu Kuta