Cape Town - Drag artistry is on the rise on the African continent, and South Africa’s drag artists are paving the way, taking up space and moving ‘purse first’ to shine a light on one of the oldest forms of art in the world.
Drag is a form of art that has been around since ancient times and has recently sky-rocketed into mainstream popularity with the likes of RuPaul Charles’ drag empire, dominating reality television the world over. Essentially, RuPaul is colonising the world with drag.
But drag has its origins in performance, dating back to the Shakespearean era when women were not allowed on stage, and men had to perform female roles in the relevant attire, according to Mamba Online.
So what’s happening on the African drag scene?
Essentially, a lot, and I don’t think that one feature article is going to cover the reach of drag as an art form in South Africa because the girls are working! But alas, I’ll try my best.
Drag was always alive in South Africa, more specifically in Cape Town.
I remember chatting to a friend of mine recently, and he shared how they would watch drag shows in the 1960s in Cape Town in Salt River, actually, during a time when these artists faced an upheaval of hate and discrimination. But it was also during this time that the artistry of drag cemented itself as a Cape Town institution.
Even pre-pandemic, I remember attending my first drag show in 2014. I was mesmerised at the artistry and creativity when I attended my first drag show at the home of drag in Cape Town, a nightclub called Zer021 Social Club.
But what we have seen over the last two years of the pandemic is that drag as an expressive form of art in Africa has not only captivated audiences in face-to-face performances but has managed to transition into a visual and aural experience, with drag literally going viral and digital, with many artists adapting to performing via live-stream, when we were unable to go out in public.
Artists in South Africa were left out in the bitter cold when some of the harshest Covid-19 restrictions, limiting movement and capacity in venues across the country, were implemented, leaving many artists to resort to selling their personal belongings to make ends meet.
A live drag show
But nothing compares to seeing a drag show in ‘lewende lywe’ (Face to face). In fact, there’s another sort of electricity that goes through one when you attend a drag performance in person. I simply cannot explain it. You need to experience it for yourself. These artists are professionals and take their craft very seriously.undefined
According to South Africa’s most prominent LGBTQIA+ news and lifestyle website, Mamba Online, the drag capital of South Africa is Cape Town, unofficially.
The website says that the city perhaps has the most active drag scene in the country, with Johannesburg’s queer arena also frequently making drag a part of what is on offer to patrons frequenting gay clubs, bars and restaurants in the city.
Top African drag artist releases debut single
World-renown drag artist Veon Wentzel has released his debut single called, Come For Me. More popularly known as Manila von Teez, who snatched the second place trophy at the 2016 SA’s Got Talent television show.
Veon is not a singer but is famous for lip-syncing cabaret performances, so this is a first. Veon, who is originally from Elsies River, resides in Goodwood and has been working hard in the Drag Art and Performance industry for nearly two decades.
He says that the song speaks about being bold and owning your purpose in the world despite what society depicts can bring you down. The song says to be prepared for a stand off of courage, determination, power and resilience, if negativity aims to strike.
“I’ve always enjoyed singing and performing, and during the pandemic, decided that the time was right for me to record my first track”, said drag artist Manila Von Teez, who was a runner up on SA’s got talent in 2016.
“We went out on the search for people to help assist make this a reality. We approached Tia Black, who introduced us to Soulful Clay, and as they say, the rest is “herstory,” adds the flawless Von Teez.
Von Teez says that sometimes in life, one often needs to know that you simply just need to be your own cheerleader and added during the process of creating this track, he was having his own self-discovery and was truly coming into his own and loving himself and everything that is part of him.
“So, in this song, I tell those people... "if you wanna come for me.... you can't" cause I'm content with here!! Taking that power from the naysayers and haters, and that's totally where I am at in my life! A lesson we should all take and celebrate in the face of others who feel they can determine our happiness and futures.
This single is really a love letter to where am I and a celebration of loving yourself, concluded Von Teez.
Cape Town Queen of Drag
Allow me to give Kat Gilardi her flowers. Cape Town’s sassy Kat Gilardi is the queen of drag. Gilardi’s claim to fame, or her story as she prefers to call it, started in the year of her reign when she was 32 and scored her own 2010 hat trick winning Miss Cape Town Pride, Miss Gay Town and Miss Gay Western Cape.
Queer Workshop Series
A queer clinical social worker has been making his rounds in South Africa to connect with LGBTI+ folks and offer workshops that address the mental health and social issues faced by our communities.
Rahim Thawer is from Canada and has been an International Visiting Scholar with the South African College for Applied Psychology (SACAP) over the past academic year.
He has engaged in knowledge exchange activities within the school and the larger community.
LGBTQIA+ community organising and activism has a long-standing history in KZN. “We’ve been providing services to our communities for over 20 years, and still, our biggest challenges are a lack of funding for sustainable programming and a dearth of political attention to address ongoing homophobia and transphobia in our province,” says Nonhlanhla Mkhize from the Durban Lesbian and Gay Community and Health Centre.
“Beyond health services, I’ve been dedicated to creating LGBTQIA+-affirming social spaces for local communities and visitors to KZN through the Durban Gay and Lesbian Film Festival and the KwaZulu-Natal Gay and Lesbian Tourism Association,” says Jason Fiddler.
Mkhize and Fiddler have been in talks with Thawer since 2021 about collaborating and bringing the Queer Conversations to the city.
Organisers are hopeful that there’s strength in bringing in an external speaker and creating space for important conversations about LGBTI+ wellness beyond more common topics of sexual health and human rights.