meet the performance artist challenging gender norms in ghana
While living in a gallery for his latest exhibition, Rituals of Becoming, crazinisT artisT has used his own shape-shifting, gender-blurring body as a tool to confront and question assumed distinctions between real and virtual, gender identity, class...
The first time I saw crazinisT artisT (real name Va-Bene Elikem Fiatsi), he was playing dead, with oily black paint covering his slim, naked body. He lay in the arms of a white woman outside Bible House -- the publishing house for bibles -- in Accra, Ghana's capital. Part of the annual Chale Wote street art festival, the performance, which used biblical symbolism to represent issues around the disempowerment of Africans and dependence on western influence, resulted in the event being banned from going anywhere near Bible House again.
When we meet two years on, the Ghanaian-Togolese artist is in a very different guise. crazinisT artisT's hair is long and neatly braided, he's wearing a tight pencil skirt and heels, and his nails are long, red and glamorous. "You can call me he, she, it, they, whatever you like! Most people call me he," the artist explains. He is sitting in Gallery 1957, an exhibition space in the Kempinski Hotel in Accra -- the latest five star hotel to set up shop in the capital. In his recent exhibition, Rituals of Becoming the artist "re-colonised" the space: the walls adorned in skirts, dresses and lace underwear, tables covered in beauty products and jewellery, and red velvet curtains draped throughout. It feels like a theatrical dressing room. A basin for washing and a towel are placed in one corner. When we meet, he's been living in the gallery for two weeks.
"I've had a few experiences of people walking in, they see me bathing, then they walk out quickly saying 'Oh sorry!' because they feel they have entered somebody's private space", the artist says. Regardless of the presence of an audience, crazinisT artisT spontaneously performs his intimate 'ritual' -- akin to the one we all do daily -- of cleansing the body, making ourselves up and putting on clothes. Onlookers may see him doing this in the flesh, or on one of the walls in the gallery where video projections and photographs of earlier rituals are displayed. The artist reduces himself to his childhood form when he bathes -- which he says is a baptismal metaphor -- stripping himself of one identity: "I have come to the physical and biological truth of who I am," he says, "then I move to the social body". The next stage is make-up, which he often spends two or more hours on, "So by the time I go to pick the panties and the dresses, my body can no longer be defined as male. The social body becomes very dominant over the biological body," he explains.
The details of the performance were kept under wraps during the month the exhibition was being installed in the hotel. "It transpired that the hotel staff, and visitors were unaware of his sex, right up until the bathing ritual during the exhibition opening," explains gallery owner Marwan Zakhem. "There was understandably a degree of shock at this revelation. In most instances, people were confused, even more so upon learning about crazinisT's religious background [he used to be a pastor] and the fact that he is straight," he adds.
"The idea is to question our sense of belonging in terms of gender and also in terms of sexuality. In our conventional society I think we have misinterpreted these ideas" says crazinisT artisT, who identifies as gender nonconforming and has been switching between male and female gender identities since 2013. For the past seven months he has been presenting as a woman full-time, "performing both the female gender and the stereotypical identity of a cross-dresser or transvestite," he explains. He does this to investigate and challenge "fear of gender nonconformity and the blurred relationship between gender and sexuality" within Ghana's conservative society.
By chance, in the first week of the exhibition the Ghanaian parliament was debating whether laws against open homosexuality should be reinstated. "Socially, it was a very fraught time for the country, which made crazinisT's performance even more poignant," explains Zakhem from Gallery 1957. Homophobia is on the increase in Ghana -- a trend which crazinisT artisT describes as a Christian import. "We think that homosexuality stands for a western idea, so we have to become homophobic to be able to oppose it. But I find that it is rather homophobia which is imported from the west… homosexuality has been with Africans for many years."
The artist tells me that in Ghana -- like in many other parts of the world -- men who do not conform to masculine stereotypes are often assumed to be gay. "Ghanaians begin to see sexuality in terms of people's physical being, not their sexual activity. It's about how you look, how you act, how you present your body as a particular gender," he says. But it didn't used to be this way. In our interview crazinisT artisT reflects on his childhood in Ho, the capital of Ghana's mountainous Volta Region. "I grew up around men who were so feminine. They spoke 'like females', walked 'like females'… but we never considered them to be homosexuals," he remembers. It was only when homosexuality became a more present global issue that Ghanaians started "looking for ways and means to define what a homosexual must be -- like being feminine -- and it started exposing people of this kind to violence". Today in Ghana, LGBTQ people and those who do not conform to a particular gender, like the artist, tend to live under the radar or fear verbal, physical or even legal repercussions.
This installation is particularly concerned with the rights of Ghana's highly marginalised transgender community. CrazinisT ArtisT has many trans friends, who he says are not accepted by society and "can't do much to please people around them". The artist seeks to "fight for justice and against all forms of human violence", adding that he exposes himself to such vulnerabilities and risks "not necessarily to claim understanding of the conditions of [other LGBT people], but to explore the stigma and prejudices associated with being in drag or being trans or any of such". The artist's commitment to challenging his society to think more deeply about gender and sexuality -- no matter what harm it might cause him -- is absolute. Aside from violence he has experienced when dressing in clothes traditionally considered female, since he began switching genders in 2013, he has lost most of his family relationships.
CrazinisT ArtisT also sees the plight of this marginalised group in Ghana as inherently linked to issues around privilege and class. This is why he turned down the hotel's offer of a room to stay in during the exhibition: "I have to live under certain conditions, which must be in contradiction to the hotel, to the comfort I would have received in a room here," he explains. "Everything I am doing here now is not the ideal in my country. So the conditions I'm placing myself in are marginalised… the conditions of people who seem to be neglected, abandoned, nobody cares about whether they live or die."
But for crazinisT artisT, even this exhibition is "too safe". The high security of the hotel and what he describes as the "umbrella of protection" that comes with art in a gallery space is artificial. Not that there haven't been bad reactions to the piece -- he recounts an experience the previous week when a man became very angry, quoting the Bible and shouting "what is your problem? God has made you a man, why do you want to be a woman?". Even as we sit in an office space next to the gallery, I hear some people enter and quickly walk out again, describing the photos and videos as 'disgusting'. crazinisT artisT doesn't bat an eyelid.
In a sense, the artist has already taken the piece to the public because he has been living in Accra and performing the female gender for seven months now. But ultimately he'd like to take the whole installation to a more accessible space: "Sometimes you need to stage the violence to overcome the violence. I need to do this in a place where people will react very strongly," he says. I ask him whether he'd be scared. He looks at me quite seriously. "I don't think I would be scared, because my life is already gone. Sometimes I think so. That I have no life, and that my life is for the others."
Text Alice McCool