Being in a township space, a space where the most queerphobic and transphobic violence occurs becomes an act of reclaiming the space where we navigate our lives.

#BlackDragMagic – A collaborative project by South African creative and photographer Lee-Ann Olwage and drag artist and activist Belinda Qaqamba Kafassie. The project  tells the stories of black queer, gender-nonconforming and trans bodies who grew up in the townships of Cape Town, where they have to navigate their daily lives. The project is about augmenting the power in these stories of daily township spatial navigation, migration, culture-,gender- and sexual-identity.

Lee-Ann Olwage

Belinda Qaqamba Ka-Fassie

The project was created to serve as a platform of expression for black queer bodies where they were invited to co- create images they felt told their stories in a way that is affirming and celebratory. #BlackDragMagic was shot in Khayelitsha, a partially informal township, located on the Cape Flats in the City of Cape Town. It is reputed to be the largest and fastest growing township in South Africa. The name is Xhosa for Our New Home. And for the subjects of #BlackDragMagic, the township is home and the space where they navigate their daily lives. In reality the township is also a space where they are subjected to harassment, violence and discrimination on a daily basis.

Mandisi Dolle Phika, 27, chose to create her portrait in front of a church in Khayelitsha. “The church is often used as an institution to promote anti-queerness; so I chose the church as a way of reclaiming our sacred spaces and to give visual meaning to the God we believe loves us the way we are. I believe that a colourful God exist, one that appreciates and celebrate diversity in all its manifestations. I believe in my ancestors, they live through me and they have a higher connection with God. I carry my African -ness and my queerness on my sleeve because, it is who I am.”

Liyana Arianna Madikizela, 18, is a drag artist from Kayamandi, a township outside Stellenbosch. Madikizela wanted her portrait to challenge traditional gender roles. “I have decided to be myself. I am a gender non-conforming body and I want to be a role model to the future generations of queers to come. I want to become the role model I never saw in the streets of Kayamandi. Someone who is unapologetically gender non-conforming and who navigate their lives against all the hostile odds of living in the township.”

Belinda Qaqamba Kafassie, a drag artist and activist, from Elands Bay stands next to a river that runs through Khayelitsha as part of the #blackdragmagic project. They are wearing a dress made from the blanket worn during the traditional rite of passage called ulwalukho (male circumcision). The portrait was created to speak about their experience as a black queer body going into a heteropatriachal space that denied that queerness ever exists.

The process of creating the project became a radical and progressive act of activism to reclaim the township and to stand up against the overwhelming climate of discrimination black queer bodies face in the township.

The setting was chosen to showcase and celebrate the lesser known township drag scene that exists in Cape Town. Although Cape Town is known as Africa’s pinkest city and there has been an eruption of sequence, glitter and fabulous drag shows across the city, black drag queens are still being marginalised and excluded from mainstream drag. The art form of drag has been westernised and South African drag queens have often assimilated to these western standards of drag. There is therefore a need to celebrate and embrace African drag as an art that tells stories about Africans in Africa, the African way. It is an act of decolonizing drag.

Mandisi Dolle Phika, 27: “Growing up in the township is hard for everyone but it’s even harder when you are a young boy who is different from what is perceived the normative. Growing up I did my best to fit into the brackets of what is perceived the normative, it felt like I was betraying myself. It was a hard decision to place myself first, choosing to ignore the church, my family, my school, my community and everything else that disregarded what and who I was. I chose to be me, to live beyond these limitations.“If we don’t go to these spaces and we don’t reclaim them it’s like we don’t exist.”

Belinda Qaqamba Kafassie, a drag artist and activist, from Elands Bay is pictured here at the tshisanyama in Khayelitsha as part of the #blackdragmagic project. The art form of drag has been westernised and South African drag queens have often assimilated to these western standards of drag. An assimilation to these standards is often seen as “elevation”, by doing that disparaging drag aesthetics that does not go the same route. There is therefore a need celebrate and embrace African drag as an art that tells stories about Africans in Africa, the African way.

Unathi Ferguson, 21, is a dancer from Khayelitsha, an informal settlement located on the Cape Flats in the city of Cape Town, where the project was shot. “The township carries a deeply interlaced notion of a sense of belonging and if you don’t meet the requirements of the space you are often marginalised or ‘otherred’. Growing up in the township as an effeminate masculine body, there is various tags attached to your being. People often said my sexuality and gender expression confused them. I use to hide and deny my queerness.”

The project also explores the role cultural identity plays in black queer identity and addresses the ways in which it is problematic. It is impossible to separate Xhosa and queer identity from one another. To erase a significant part of someone’s identity is to invalidate their full existence. This is problematic because it somehow gives muscle to the erroneous idea of homosexuality being perceived as ‘unAfrican.’

Liyana Arianna Madikizela,(18), a drag artist from the township of Kayamandi, poses at a seating area at the tshisanyama, a community space where women cook and sell meat. She is wearing a multi-coloured beaded headpiece and holding a beaded stick, items traditionally worn by Xhosa brides during wedding ceremonies. This was an intentional choice to reclaim her culture. “There are spaces where we are tolerated, but what we really need is spaces where we can really be. Spaces that are affirming and enabling.”

Shakira Mabika (24), originally from Zimbabwe, identifies as a trans woman who explores and play with the art form of drag. She left Zimbabwe,a country where former president, Robert Mugabe has referred to people like her as “pigs” and unAfrican. “I moved to Cape Town, South Africa in search for a space where I could live my truth. I came to Delft, Cape Town in quest for liberty to live freely. My experience of living in a South African township has been for better and for worse, in this country there is legislation that protects my rights as a gender diverse body but in the streets, in public spaces, in various institutions these rights enshrined in the constitution are not exercised.”

Mthulic Vee Vuma (Thuli) a trans woman from Lingelihle township in Malmesbury is photographed in front of a shack in Khayelitsha dressed in traditional Xhosa clothing. This is a way to challenging binary thinking that strongly differentiates between masculine and feminine traditional clothing. “Here we use our own culture to frame our identity, even though this contest the societal norms and gendered dress codes that are set in our culture. We frame our identity by tying together our stories of subjectivity and culture.”

Telling stories expresses determination and resilience. To hear stories is to gain knowledge and sensitisation. It is therefore of paramount importance to not only challenge injustice but also bring about means in which the wider society can learn, unlearn and relearn. We hope that the project will serve as a platform to share these stories of resilience and oppression. And that these stories can act as a form of sensitisation so a deeper understanding and empathy can be gained through storytelling.

Unathi Ferguson (left) and Shakirah Mabika (right).

Liyana Arianna Madikizela (left) a young drag artist from Kayamandi and Shakirah Mabika (right) a drag artist originally from Zimbabwe.

The girls of #blackdragmagic pose for a group shot at the taxi rank in site C Khayelitsha. The township is their home and the s

Lee-Ann Olwage

Lee-Ann Olwage is a visual storyteller and photographic artist from South Africa. Her work explores themes of identity, transitions and universal narratives through long-term collaborative projects. There is an overarching theme of celebration in her work and she is interested in using the medium as a mode of celebration and co-creation. Her long term collaborative projects allow subjects to engage in the co-creation of their stories and how they are represented. With the help of strong female mentors she is finding her unique voice and creating work that unapologetically says I’m here – this is me.

Belinda Qaqamba Ka-Fassie