Zeitz MOCAA weaves local lives into the global fabric of the Amsterdam Rainbow Dress
The Amsterdam Rainbow dress ended its debut appearance on African soil at the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town. It was photographed at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg before coming to Cape Town. An evening of performance and discussion sparked introspection about the connections between LGBTI+ communities in the hyperlocal and the global.
The silos fill with the thump of a Cyndi Lauper hit as the lights turn red and low. In the centre of the Zeitz MOCAA atrium a work of art starts to jive. The dress is made of the flags of countries which persecute LGBTI+ communities. The heavy draping softens and floats as the queer artist wearing the dress moves to the music.
The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA) hosted the Amsterdam Rainbow Dress for just one day on its debut trip to the African continent. It was a Wednesday. The curator of LGBTI+ Futures, Sakhi Gcina, planned it this way to coincide with the one day of the week that Africans can visit the museum for free. He says 1,500 people saw the dress that day.
The Amsterdam Rainbow Dress is made of 75 flags belonging to states around the world that persecute LGBTI+ communities. Once a state changes its laws to respect the rights of these communities, then their flag is replaced with a rainbow flag. There are five other flags on the dress – one Rainbow flag – of Belize — and four of the City of Amsterdam.
“With the dress we want to raise awareness about members of our community who are in danger of being persecuted or even murdered by the authorities just because they are who they are,” says Arnout van Krimpen, one of the artists who conceptualised and created the dress.
The dress has been travelling the world since 2016 to raise awareness about the fight to attain and defend the rights of the LGBTI+ community worldwide. It has been to Europe, North America and Asia. Now, it is in a continent which has half its countries’ flags on the dress.
The flags that make the dress were carried in the Pride Walk parade at the opening of the Euro Pride 2016 to raise awareness about illegal homosexuality around the world. Mattijs van Bergen, Arnout van Krimpen, Jochem Kaan and Oeri van Woezik used the flags to create the rainbow dress. Amsterdam-based LGBTI+ rights groups, COC Amsterdam, helped them to create the dress which measures 16 metres in diameter.
The dress first arrived in South Africa in Johannesburg where it was photographed at Constitution Hill to commemorate International Human Rights Day. The dress came to be at the Zeitz MOCAA because of a partnership between the museum and the #CoCreateSA Fund of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in South Africa.
Last year, the Fund approached the museum and wanted to invest in a project which would promote human rights. The fund was channelled into an initiative of the museum called LGBTI+ Futures to allow for a sustained campaign to bring that community into the museum space through exhibitions, workshops and talks. It is through this partnership that the dress was able to come to the museum.
An event was held to bring the LGBTI+ community together to see and discuss the artwork. A panel discussion was held between Miss Gay Western Cape 2018 Wendy LaRosa and academics Lindie-Lee Prince andRuth Ramsden-Karelse about the history of the drag scene in Cape Town. Afterwards, a surprise drag performance by local artists Queezy and Angel-Ho brought the atrium to life.
Queezy fans Chanté Arab and Seth Gilbert drove from Stellenbosch where they study to attend the panel discussion, see the performance and support the local gay community. The trip to Cape Town is one they do regularly. “We’ll often come through just to come to Zer021 Social or the gay events in town just to be with gay people,” says Gilbert.
About the event Arab says: “I think it’s beautiful and they’re doing a lot to make it a safe space, but also it becomes very exclusive. Although it’s free and anyone can come, not many people have access to a space like this. It’s quite grand.”
Nonetheless, almost 200 people attended the event. “I enjoyed that we had people from all walks of life together in the museum. I think that’s a mark of a truly successful event. Especially when it is an event about cultural diversity and about acceptance of people from multiple gender and sexual identities. We need to reflect that in our audience too,” says Gcina.
Although the dress has a global message, the museum curative team wanted to localise it. “We were very specific in the contextualisation of the dress. We did not want it to be this broad-based homogenous view of Africa but acknowledge this specific part of South Africa. It’s important for us to realise that the global context is engrained in our history. Dutch settlers did not come here alone, but with slaves from Bengal, Madagascar and so on who have become what we know as the coloured community today.
“We wanted the model (Queezy) to be someone who is representative of the Cape Malay community of the Western Cape. The photographic team was made up of queer individuals of mixed-race heritage and the performer, Angel-Ho, is also of mixed-race heritage,” explains Gcina.
In his welcoming speech to the evening Gcina mentioned that it was “interesting” that the event was facilitated by the Kingdom of the Netherlands in South Africa, given the history of the Dutch in South Africa.
In response, the Consulate General of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Cape Town, Sebastiaan Messerschmidt, says: “Yes we have a burdened past in this country. It’s a very harsh burdened past that we have, but that’s exactly why we want to do more to connect now. This [LGBTI+ rights] is one of the areas that we take pride in how we deal with it. We learn from how you do it in South Africa, because we can learn both ways.”
Each speaker quoted the often spoken of fact that South Africa’s constitution is considered one of the most progressive in the world. In 1996, the constitution made it illegal to to discriminate against someone based on their sexual orientation. In 2006 South Africa became the first African state to legalise same-sex marriage. In the last week, this law was amended to include that state marriage officers cannot refuse to marry same-sex couples because of their“conscience, religion and belief”.
However, the Hate Crimes Working Group has found that hate crimes motivated by prejudice based on sexual orientation was the second most common driver behind cases reported to them in the last four years. South Africa is bordered by Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Swaziland where homosexuality is illegal.
The dress did not just spark conversation about links between LGBTI+ communities in South Africa and the world, but also in Africa in the context of the globe.
“It is important that we tell this story as broadly as possible and so we have seen a lot of countries in the past year. We wanted to visit all of the continents and within Africa, South Africa is the only country we could go to with the project. We see it as the gateway to the rest of Africa,” says van Krimpen.
The significance of the dress being on African soil for the first time was also apparent to Gcuni and his team. Highly aware of African flags being a product of colonial borders and histories, they wanted to engage with this.
“Flags are symbolic of a country’s values and which citizens they include and exclude. We wanted to disrupt that narrative of flags being the dominant symbol of national identity and inclusivity. It was important to us that if we had this dress here it needed to be embodied by a queer individual to queer the symbolism of national identity,” he explains.
“It [the museum] is making a bold statement about African identity [by hosting the dress]. Its saying that we are more than a single story, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says. Being homosexual, transgender, intersexual or gender non-conforming is not un-African,” he says.
In addition, the fact that the museum was prepared to host the dress left an impression on its partners. “The Zeitz MOCAA collects, preserves, researches and exhibits 21st century art from Africa and its diaspora. It is strong, expressive and African. So, for this museum to take a European work of art and exhibit it in its core, I find that extraordinary. It’s humbling. It’s an African museum, and I want to acknowledge this. I want to thank Sakhi and his curatorial team for their open minds and approach to do this,” says Messerschmidt.
When asked if the dress has ever and will ever go to a country whose flag is part of the dress, van Krimpen said it has not and would not. He explained that “… it would not be good for the community there or for us. We are here to spark a conversation and not to make it hard for the community.
“We have had invitations, for example from Sri Lanka. Part of the community really wanted us to go there, but another part said please don’t. So, we didn’t go. What if we take a picture at some iconic location in Sri Lanka and the model gets an enormous backlash? We don’t want that. The community should feel comfortable with us being there.”
However, even a country whose flag is not on the dress is not always completely welcoming. Speaking about their trip to South Korea this year, van Krimpen says that: “Their laws are okay, but some people started protesting against us being there. The community really wanted us to be there and it was our first Asian country. It really sparked a conversation.”
Yet, what can travel across any borders are photographs. Wherever the dress goes, it is always photographed at an iconic public space in that country.
“We take the pictures at the different iconic locations because we can travel with the dress, but we can also travel with the photographs. We can send them to places where there isn’t much space,” van Krimpen explains.
Above all, the dress is meant to reach the eyes and minds of those who do enjoy freedom. “I don’t see the dress as a signal to the countries whose flags are still on it, but also a signal to ourselves because we are not done yet. We still need to raise awareness, prevent stigmatisation and make sure exclusion does not happen,” says Messerschmidt.
Gcina says: “The rainbow dress is not merely flags from countries with anti-LGBTI laws, but an intimate portrayal of neglected lives. The fabric of these individual lives have faced the horrors of homophobia, violence and rape yet they still stand proud of who they are as Africans and claim their right to be visible on the continent.” DM
Daily Maverick © All rights reserved