The art of drag — celebrating a joyful, exuberant life against a backdrop of discrimination

The art of drag — celebrating a joyful, exuberant life against a backdrop of discrimination
Miss PineTea Vahlour during her drag performance at Zer021’s Drag Diva night on Thursday, 2 March 2023. (Photo: Alinaswe Lusengo)

Drag is an overtly queer art form that forms a pivotal role in Pride celebrations such as the annual Cape Town Pride March, which this year took place on Saturday, 5 March. But as drag continues to increase in popularity, it is also becoming the site of intense politicisation from those demonising the art form.

From late February into early March, Cape Town Pride celebrates the LGBTQIA+ community and raises awareness of the issues within the community in South Africa. Pride events are bountiful and include the annual Cape Town Pride March, book launches, movie nights and parties at clubs. Drag performers are present at many Pride events, with some events focusing exclusively on drag.

Drag is an important part of queer expression, and with the popularity of shows such as  RuPaul’s Drag Race, it is becoming a part of mainstream pop culture. It is a complex performance art where an exaggerated gender performance is displayed by performers. Often, performers who embody a feminine gender expression are referred to as drag queens and those performing masculinity are referred to as drag kings. It is important to note that drag is not merely “men dressing up as women” or vice versa. Drag is incredibly nuanced and not limited to strict or non-fluid conceptions of gender. 

Though many mainstream concepts of drag come from the Global North, South Africa has a vibrant drag scene and its own history with the art. 

Kewpie of District Six

drag kewpie

Kewpie at the Roaring ‘20s Night at the Ambassador Club (Kewpie Collection, GALA Queer Archive)

Kewpie, who was a hairdresser and drag queen, is a significant figure in South African drag history. According to the Gala Queer Archive, Kewpie lived in District Six in Cape Town during apartheid. She was born in 1942 and in the 1950s she started attending queer parties, going to balls in “elaborate drag” and immersing herself in the queer community in District Six.   

Gala, an organisation that archives queer history in South Africa, hosts a collection of about 700 photographs that document Kewpie’s life in District Six. As Gala notes, it is a “collection from the apartheid era that depicts a queer, working-class, coloured community”. But the collection also shows that drag is an art form that has roots in South Africa and significance for the South African queer community.  

In a contemporary context, South Africa’s drag scene is blossoming, with many clubs and events hosting drag events. Zer021 is an example of a club that is committed to nurturing the drag scene in Cape Town. Roberto de Faria, Zer021’s owner, explained the ethos of the space:

“Zer021 as a brand celebrates individuality and safety as well as freedom of self-expression. Zer021 Social, as a venue space, has become a home to many, where one can get to connect with chosen family and friends — there are still many queer people/non-binary individuals who suffer from becoming disconnected from their blood family.  

“Our main priority as Zer021 was to let it be known that our venue and brand celebrates all gender identities and sexual preferences, and it is our joy and pride to create a space where this community of amazing people can feel safe while celebrating themselves and those around them.” 

When asked about the relationship that Zer021 has with drag, De Faria said, “When Zer021 was born 12 years ago, drag was a very niche art form, which only happened at a few exclusive venues. Once Zer021 came to be and knowing what our philosophy for representing the community would be, we decided to create a regular platform for these amazing, talented queens to celebrate their art form and at the same time allowing them an extra avenue of income on a regular basis.” 

The venue, in Zonnebloem, hosted many events leading up to the Pride March, including a drag diva night on Thursday, 2 March. The drag diva night hosted five drag queens who lip-synched before an enthusiastic crowd.

Miss Cape Town Pride

drag gilardi

Kat Gilardi during her drag performance at Zer021’s Drag Diva night on Thursday, 2 March 2023. (Photo: Alinaswe Lusengo)

Kat Gilardi, one of the queens who performed at the event, has been a drag queen for 13 years and came to drag almost accidentally.  

She and her husband wanted to participate in Cape Town Pride in some way 13 years ago. They were told they could enter a drag pageant. Gilardi’s husband helped her prepare for the pageant and Gilardi ended up winning Miss Cape Town Pride. Gilardi continued cultivating her art and is now a well-established queen within the community.

When asked what Pride meant to her, Gilardi said: “Pride means so much. It’s pride in who we are. That’s firstly what I take from Pride. I take a lot [from] being who I am and being proud of who I am and I live my life proudly as a gay person, as a drag queen and I just feel that’s what Pride means to me.” 

Gilardi explained that before drag, she felt that she never valued herself but through drag she had found a sense of self.  

“My journey has been amazing because I’ve gone on to stages and places that I never thought drag could go. And being told that I am good at what I do and that I am someone amazing on stage, that does a lot for me as a human,” she added. 

Another queen who performed is PineTee Vahlour, who started out as a backup dancer for Manila von Teez — another drag performer — in 2016. Vahlour was inspired by Von Teez’s confidence as a performer and used this inspiration to explore drag for herself. 

“For me, Pride means a lot. It’s being yourself, being free and opening doors for young kids out there that are maybe in the closet. Young kids don’t believe that they can become something being gay, being trans or being bisexual. So celebrating Pride Month or Pride festival is for me, a platform that says I can be a leader for the small ones that see me at the Pride shows,” Vahlour said. 

She said that being a drag queen in South Africa has its ups and downs. She sometimes gets hateful comments from people but does not allow this to discourage her.

“Just because I am gay doesn’t mean that people can stop me from what I am doing. For me, personally, I’ve never had a problem being myself.” 

epa10392228 Drag queens attend ‘RuPaul’s DragCon UK’ at the ExCeL London, in London, Britain, on its opening day 06 January 2023. The ‘RuPaul’s DragCon UK’ is a fan convention that celebrates drag culture and brings together the drag queens from the popular television show ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’. The colourful event will be held from 06 to 08 January 2023. EPA-EFE/TOLGA AKMEN

Globally, it is not always easy for drag queens to perform and be themselves. Because drag can be such an overt expression of queerness, it has become the site of much politicisation and debate. In the US, legislation that aims to ban drag performances is gaining traction. According to THEM, a queer publication in the US, conservative lawmakers are promoting malignant discourse around drag and accusing drag performers of being groomers and child predators. On Thursday, 1 March, Tennessee’s governor, Bill Lee signed a ban on public drag performances and transition-related care for minors, THEM reported.

But it is not only drag queens who are targeted for being queer. Many queer people still live in fear because of their identity. In South Africa, section 9 of the Constitution explicitly expresses the right to not be discriminated against based on sexual orientation. Despite this, queer lives are still incredibly vulnerable and susceptible to violence in this country.

‘It means a lot of things. I guess it’s the freedom of expression, of comfort, of familiarity, of identity.’

According to the South African Institute of International Affairs, queer people, especially black, femme bodies, are disproportionately affected by violence and discrimination. This is why celebrating Pride is more than just being proud of queer identity, it also serves to raise awareness of the plight of the community and to advocate for queer rights.  

An attendee, who preferred to be unnamed, at Zer021’s Drag Diva night, told Daily Maverick what pride means to him.

“It means a lot of things. I guess it’s the freedom of expression, of comfort, of familiarity, of identity. It means simply having this space, and having a sense of pride and being somewhere where you can completely be yourself. It’s not having a mask over yourself and simply being free.” 

He went on to express his feelings about drag as an art form and its place within the community.

“I think it’s beautiful. I really admire it and admire the performers themselves. There’s this confidence that you get as soon as they put that layer on themselves, the confidence of being on that stage. They are unapologetic about who they are and that is a very beautiful thing to see in people. It makes me feel confident, knowing that they are confident.” 

Another attendee at the event also expressed similar sentiments, highlighting that Pride is all about freedom for queer people. 

“Pride is the space to be who you are and with people who believe the same values as you do,” she said. 

When asked about drag, she said, “I find it very creative and freeing. I just like watching how funny they are, and just how playful.” 

It is clear, then, that drag is an incredibly meaningful art form within the queer community. It not only sparks joy but empowers and inspires people to fully embrace who they are. In South Africa, where queer people are still a marginalised and oppressed group, celebrating Pride also means celebrating the drag performers who, throughout history, have been an irreplaceable part of the community. DM168

Alinaswe Lusengo is a 2022 UCT Media & Film Studies graduate who has been interning at Daily Maverick.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.

DM168 11/03 FRONT PAGE


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