Honouring daughter of District 6

Kewpie as Marie Antoinette at the then Ambassadors Club in District Six.

The queer community of District Six is being remembered in a photo exhibition called Kewpie: Daughter of District Six, which is on show at the Homecoming Centre in Buitenkant Street.

Born Eugene Fritz, Kewpie was a famous hairdresser and drag entertainer in District Six from the 1950s to the 1980s.

She would often perform on stage to packed audiences at District Six’s Ambassador Club, or on the streets with fellow drag artists from the area.

And although the exhibition is centred around Kewpie, it also shows some of the other figures who were part of District Six’s queer community — Kewpie’s “sisters”.

The photographs show Kewpie and friends socialising, performing and working, at home, in their neighbourhood, and on outings.

Kewpie was born in Osborne Street, District Six, but moved in with neighbours after her parents moved to Bellville in the 1960s.

She stayed on because she felt accepted in the area.

At the exhibition, Kewpie is quoted as saying: “District Six was really my gay vicinity”.

Later on in life, Kewpie opened a salon in Kensington, called Salon Kewpie, and spent her last years in an old-aged home there. She died in 2012, at the age of 71.

The exhibition is hosted by the Gay & Lesbian Memory in Action (GALA), who are the keepers of a uniquely African archival collection documenting the history, culture and experiences of LGBTIQ people.

The Kewpie collection, held at GALA, is the personal photographic collection of Kewpie.

Keval Harie, the director at GALA, said from what we know, Kewpie’s gender identity was fluid, and she did not strictly identify as either male or female. However, both Kewpie and her friends tended to use feminine pronouns for each other.

He said the collection came to GALA through film-maker and activist Jack Lewis, who recognised the unique value of the photographs, depicting day to day life in District Six, from aLGBTIQ perspective.

Mr Lewis and the founder of GALA Graeme Reid, discussed with Kewpie her legacy and the significance of the photographs. “It’s been a long dream of GALA to have an exhibition on the life and times of Kewpie and her sisters and we knew that this exhibition could not take place anywhere else but in the true home of Kewpie’s legacy, District Six.”

Mr Harie said while Kewpie’s photographic collection is an important documentation of life in District Six, it is also an important documentation of queer history and the exhibition offers an opportunity to celebrate the heritage of the LGBTIQ community.

“But we need to remind ourselves that one of the most devastating consequences of the brutal and unjust system of Apartheid was that tearing apart of families, biological families, adoptive families, chosen families and queer families.

“LGBTIQ people continue to face discrimination, exclusion and violence, despite the commitment of organisations like Triangle Project, Gender Dynamix and SWEAT to continue the fight for equality and recognition. Many are still torn away from their families or kicked out of their homes. GALA’s activist archive, which houses collections like the Kewpie photographic collection, is indispensable in challenging invisibility, exclusion and public misconceptions around our identities: Indeed there can be no queer pride without queer history.”

Kewpie’s sister, Ursula Hansby, said she was honoured by the outpouring of support and respect shown to her brother.

“I am very privileged and grateful to all of you that supported Kewpie throughout the years and Kewpie’s legend can live on.”

Moegamat Benjamin, a close friend of Kewpie’s, who himself once was a drag artist who went by the drag name of “Kafunta”, said they used to perform and dance at the Ambassador Club in Sir Lowry Road. “Kewpie was known as the ‘Daughter of District Six’, as she used to make the people laugh; she used to do cabaret; she always had a passion for people.”

They had thrown a party for Kewpie before she succumbed to cancer, he said.

District Six museum director, Bonita Bennet said the exhibition tells a “wonderful story of resilience, zest for life, style and community lived out against the backdrop of forced removals which was happening all around”.

“Kewpie’s story and that of the community around her, which included those whose gender choices were not mainstream, tells a story of acceptance and embracing of differences, which is not without pain and struggle,” said Ms Bennet.

The documentary film, A Normal Daughter: The Life and Times of Kewpie of District Six, directed by Mr Lewis, will be screened this month – the date is yet to be confirmed. The exhibition will travel to Johannesburg next year in May 2019, where it will be hosted at the Market Theatre Photo Workshop.