“Yesterday, I was here when a couple younger ones came in. I think they were junior high school students. They saw the images, and the guy shouted, “This is disgusting!” And they ran out with speed! I understand because of the background we are all coming from. I was once in that background. I think 7 or 8 years ago I wouldn’t have been able to tolerate works like this myself.”
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Meet Va-Bene Elikem K. Fiatsi, pseudonym, crazinisT artisT. The Ghanaian-Togolese performance artist, whose work has employed the use of nudity, his own blood, and audience collaboration, is now up to his eyeballs in a new performance piece entitled Rituals of Becoming. This work traverses the themes of politics, the ‘social’ body versus the ‘biological’ body, gender identity and marginalization, and the relationship between them. The audience is boldly challenged by a simple intimacy that smudges the lines of art and reality.
Set in a gallery space located in the sole luxury hotel of Accra, Ghana, Va-Bene Fiatsi has transformed the site into “The Red Sanctuary”. Draped with scarlet curtains and selectively placed mirrors, the gallery is at once a lavish, provocative boudoir. Panties, brassieres, clothing, and high-heeled shoes garnish the walls. A mosaic of videos depicting a man in various stages of bathing and dressing take over one wall, while another is a brick-like layout of photos documenting similar events. One area of the room presents two tables stacked with makeup products and lotions, and in a partitioned section, a large bowl, water and soap, spontaneously used for bathing.
Post-performance and humbly candid, Va-Bene shares his thoughts.
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While in performance, I prefer to be silent. It is a state of meditation, asking a series of questions to the ‘other’ in me how I would love to become. I sometimes spend more than two hours doing makeup, changing it over and over again without being aware of the time. It is fun, yet very stressful, during that process of becoming, putting several layers on my face. I realize the more I add these layers, the more something happens to my physical being and the ‘social body’. It keeps reinventing itself, as opposed to the biological body, to assume and maintain a certain identity and a sense of belongingness.
Sometimes I will spend more time with the panties than makeup. I choose a particular makeup, then I’m done with it. When I get to the panties, I have to go over and over again to decide which one I want to wear. I don’t really have a measure for making this choice, there is no standard for making it. Of course, they all belong to me, but at the time, I just feel I need to wear something different. I can go through several times and not find what I want. It could be the possibility of having this in abundance that making a choice becomes difficult. If there are two, I know I’m limited to these two. But having hundreds of panties there and to choose just one out of them…
It plays some dramatic aspect of the idea of me ‘becoming’ and, to an extent, it’s a global process. It’s not only about me. I’m just a subset of this entire dialogue. You being female or you being male, you have a dramatic role to play to maintain your social body and the idea of categorizing or belonging to a particular community.
‘Social’ body being what others perceive you to be and what you are portraying…?
…and how your culture would have defined you as an ideal male or ideal female. Interestingly, I just realized that it is very dramatic in being female compared to being male, in terms of the social body, not biological bodies. Looking at the bio-politics within the female gender, you realize there is a lot of drama, there is a lot of theatre in becoming exactly the sole female that you desire to be. Unless you care not about your being, you care not about conforming to the ideals of a society.
In Rituals of Becoming, it’s a character that promotes consumerism, of course, and people begin to customize this. There’s a lot of history behind each and every cream over there, telling you how much better you could become, how much smoother you could become. This is a particular body that you might be forced indirectly to believe in, so you go looking at all the inscriptions to find something that will really make you ‘become’. You go through all these processes. It’s very much characterized in the female gender roles. It’s very much staged.
Going to the bath is the point at which I become like a child. First, stripping off a certain identity, then trying to renew the body. It could be seen in the baptismal concept of being born again. It’s been employed in a lot of religious beliefs, to cleanse the body as part of a ritual, taking you from a cursed body into a blessed body. Each religion has some aspect of a cleansing ritual, but I borrowed it from the Christian concept because I grew as one. I also feel that this is the time I have been reduced below any other human being around me, so I don’t have the sense of shame, I don’t have the sense of pride, don’t have any sense of being aware of the gaze around me. I live as though there is nothing watching me.
You don’t feel as though the audience is a bit of a violation to you?
No. I don’t feel that is violation at that point. That is the moment I have become so childish, to not to be aware of my nudity or my nakedness. It coincided with the idea to use the bowl to bathe in. This is some aspect of culture in Ghana, that you would have bathed little children in this bath. Whether an audience is there, whether friends are there, it’s like this child has no idea. This is the time I have lost all kinds of consciousness of my being, of the other. It is a moment of being rather innocent. It is very paradoxical. This is the moment I subvert social code, and am rather innocent of the social codes. I don’t really feel I am breaking taboos at this moment, even though I am. This is the moment I play with the contradictions of my being innocent and being so aware of the laws, aware of the cultural qualifications and exploring the frictions of the exhibitionist and the voyeur.
Is it a different character you are playing every time, or is it the same?
I would like to borrow a philosophical adage, that you cannot step into the same water twice. Something changes. Because this is a repeated performance, there is always a character change. You might not see anyone so different from me, but you are seeing a character that wasn’t what you saw the first time. I go into different costume, jewelry, makeup, so the character is not the same, but it remains a female character.
Why do you think that is? Where do you think that change comes from?
The change comes from the idea of playing with varieties of body peripherals, from the earrings, to the dress, lipstick, eyeliner. The change is dramatized in these things when I begin to apply them. If I sit here and apply new makeup and go into a different dress, I will be transformed from the performance I just did.
It has a lot to do with the social body.
Exactly. The physical appearance is now dissolving and coming and dissolving. The entire idea is not a strict categorization of just being female. The idea has to deal with our gender identities and sexuality. That’s the beginning of the entire project, how gender is conflicting with sexuality in, especially, conservative communities and homophobic communities. We don’t realize that gender is an embodiment of something on its own, whereas sexuality has its own space. They can only converge depending on the persons preference of both gender and sexuality.
If a male is feminine, it does not portray that male as being homosexual. They are two different characters. A transgender could be a heterosexual, whereas a straight gender could be a homosexual. In this age, we are trying to find a reason to define somebody as homosexual, and this gender has fallen victim to this idea. We have reduced every idea about homosexuality to a persons gender. We no longer see homosexuality as a practice, but rather a character play. Homosexuality is a practical sexual affair. It is not a defined sexual affair in the appearance of people.
Somebody who appears to be a straight gender but is homosexual, wouldn’t be seen in the homophobic community as a homosexual. If he [points to man next to us] is a homosexual, nobody cares. Nobody knows what he does in his bedroom. If I portray myself as a transvestite in public, then I will likely be regarded as a homosexual, as a transvestite. This is the conflict I see so much within the homophobic communities, trying to converge their sexuality and gender together, like putting them at one point where they begin to meet. We don’t see them parallel.
My journey into this artistic project is to expose myself, first as a being to the violence and the vulnerabilities of this prejudice. Secondly, to expose myself as an artist. My vulnerability is so layered because I find out each and every day how vulnerable I become because of the kind of work I’m doing, socially, spiritually, and artistically. I think it becomes a weaker role I play, where I’m always the weaker one in all spaces that I find myself. It carries that from being female in my practice, as though females are the weaker ones and masculinity is strength. Once I begin to act this role, I don’t seem to maintain that structural strength of being male. No. It’s actually being delayed.
It carries into your personal life too?
Yes. It is the point I want to find– where does art depart from life? Or, where does life and art come together? Whether they have separate spaces or whether they are just interwoven. So, I decide to live it as a life, and once it becomes that, the response to it will be so different. If I go to the theatre hall and stage this, everybody sees it as a play and the provocations and thinkings would not follow. But if I live it as life, it throws challenges to the community. It throws challenges to the audience who don’t even know they are an audience to my work. ‘Cause this is how I live, I travel like this. This is how I live.
You are confronting people with a situation that will make many feel uncomfortable.
And a situation that will generate dialogues when I’m not even there. Assuming I just passed through the street and someone feels that no, there is something wrong with this body, then the discussion continues because we seem to be aware of particular bodies. Once a body does not fall within social constructs, it creates a lot of situations around it. I really like to play with this and don’t want to specify audiences from my work. Once the work is in the museum, or in a gallery space, it is easier to tolerate. It is under the umbrella of art and that is a safekeeping space for the work. When it moves to the public where it can’t be defined as art, it becomes more challenging. People begin to look at it more critically than if they meet it in a movie. The things we pay to go and watch in a movie, we tolerate. But to deal with reality is a different situation altogether.
Plus, the public domain includes every kind of audience. There are only certain types of people who will come to the art gallery, so it breaks down those walls.
Yeah. It breaks down the walls between audience and performer. For me, right away from the time I start performing, I always consider my audience part of my work. They are just co-performers. I also become the audience at the time that I see the audience having physical challenges.
I once encountered a situation in Elmina where I was dressed in this form, but you know, in the earlier stages, I decided not to fake breasts because breasts are not artificial. It’s something natural, something biological. I was dealing with the very strict, natural formations of the females and males. I dressed with a very masculine body in female materials, with braided hair, but I had my moustache and very long beard.
So, I went to Elmina, and the fish folks, they were descending on me. They were shouting, “Gay! Gay! Gay!” For the first time, I got so mad within, even though I did not react to it. I couldn’t understand the trauma.
I stopped. We were on an excursion, and there was a military man in the group with us, so he stopped. When he stopped, the group also stopped. The people who were shouting “gay” and were coming closer, they also stopped. There, a conversation started among them. They started arguing out the possibility of me being gay and not being gay. One was asking, “What makes you think he should be gay? Maybe he’s a filmmaker, he’s a musician…”
They started trying to find reasons for me to dress this way and reasons for me not to be gay. Then we left. That was so crazy for me to encounter, because how would you just see somebody in the street and be able to determine the person’s sexual life? That’s crazy! I think if you can tell who a gay is on the street, I think we should be able to tell who a polygamist is on the street. If you see a man, you should be able to tell if he has six wives or one wife. These are sexual and private affairs. If you are able to tell who a gay is on the street, then you should be able to tell a man who has anal sex with the wife in the room.
I begin to look at it from this point, how people could just reduce these physical beings to their sexual orientation. This is where my work got more challenging or provoking, when I decided to break that boundary between my private life and the public light.
What sort of questions and perceptions do you hope the audience will take with them?
It depends on the kind of work I’m doing. Right now we are in this work, which is Rituals of Becoming. The question I would like my audience to dialogue on or think about, is ‘what is the idea of being human?’ The only common connection that each and every human being will have is the idea of being human, regardless of your race, regardless of your religion, regardless of your gender. Being human is the most important question I think we should consider each and every time. At what point does something take someone out of the idea of being human, where the person is now exposed to dangers and violence, and his being is not considered?
It’s more or less that everything is about the doctrines that must be followed. If you don’t fall with them, with being a conformist, then you are condemned already, and you could die at any time. Nobody cares. Anyone who kills you is not even seen as a criminal, he is not seen as a murderer. That is why I mentioned that first, my work being exposed to the vulnerabilities of being an artist. If I am doing this kind of work in Ghana, who cares? If the government is against things of this kind, and the government thinks my work is challenging to their constitution, anything can happen.
I have seen several times where the security, who are supposed to protect these vulnerables, rather try to promote the violence on these people. They hide behind and push people to do the worst things to them. I don’t see myself as safe because we have police in Ghana, because we have military in Ghana, no. They are even my trauma. Their appearance is more intimidating than anything. They don’t give you any sense of life, any sense of hope. They don’t give you any sense of safety, any sense of security. They are threatening.
Have you had bad experiences with authority?
Of course. When I started my work, between 2012 and 2013, security was my first target in the university campus. I have been arrested several times on campus because they say I’m a suspect, and not a suspect of homosexuality, but a suspect of being criminal.
I was questioning certain things. My work is larger than the idea of femininity or the idea of sexuality. The cultural make-up of who a criminal is is also something that is defined to us. If you wear a suit and tie, you can’t be a criminal in Ghana, but if you dress ordinary or shabby, then you should be a criminal. Even this will tell; when you are entering this hotel and you are in a very posh car with a suit and tie, I think you are more respected and allowed to enter than somebody who will come on a bicycle.
In the university community, when I started at that time, there were a lot of theft cases on campus. I don’t see the role of the security on campus because they always end up intimidating innocent people. So, I started leaving my hair some way, not a Rasta, but uncared and stuff. I’ve been picked several times by the patrol team, and now the university security are like my friends. Everybody knows me there because they have dealt with me several times and realize that they always fail. I just remind them that they have always been failing. Whenever it happens, I put them into argument– they should define what makes me look like a suspect. They couldn’t answer anytime they picked me. My last encounter with them, I decided to stage a performance, and put them in the performance.
I staged this one called ‘reThinking-naZa’. I wrote a letter to the department of the security service and told them I need a lot of security personnel in my performance. They said, “What are you going to do?” I said they shouldn’t worry, they have no roles to play but they will play roles when the performance starts. I didn’t define any role for them. I just put myself in chains and clay, then I asked the security to follow me and we walked up the principle street of the university. At the point we were getting to the roundabouts and junctions, they started giving themselves roles. They took the motorbike and rushed to stop all the cars on the way and stop people. So, they were playing very fantastic roles.
I felt like an emperor that day. I was in this clay, humiliated, but they were very protective and they were guiding. Can you believe, they even stopped the Swiss Embassy! They were coming in a convoy to meet the vice chancellor. The security stopped the cars and I passed before they go. I was above every other thing!
So, you see how they become like the song ‘Zombie’ by the Nigerian artist, Fela Kuti. I think he said the police are like zombies– they don’t move unless they are told to move. I think it is a colonial legacy, of course. Excuse me to say that they seem not to be very rational. The difference between order and conscience is not playing any good role there, everything is just about order. Because they were ordered to follow me, or they were assigned to me, they have to play every good role that will make me comfortable and safe, and they did as such. But these same people would have beaten me without any permission, so it is sometimes conflicting.
I like to play with this idea of power relations, what makes one safe. What makes you think you are safe in the first place? You are only safe because there is some law, but that is not clear. Anything can happen, so you’re not really secure.
You say you are living your life as your art, so how do you feel during a performance or during situations in your life where you’re confronted with conflicts that are a result of your art?
Sometimes it’s not really clear, even to me. Let me begin with when I separate myself from performances like this, what I feel.
Just now, I was able to go naked and perform, but if I wasn’t performing, I wouldn’t be able to do the same thing before you. I would be so conscious about it that I would cover myself. There is sometimes that different life of me. This is site specific work, though, so once I am in, I know I am in performance. I’m here 24 hours each day, so that is a different situation altogether. If I’m home and I’m bathing, and you knock, I might– not I might– I have to cover myself before I open the door for you. That time I would be so aware of my nakedness and I think I’d have a little sense of shame or embarrassment, or whatever it might be.
When it comes to confrontation by the public or police on the street, they come as I am aware that they will come. I’m playing my certain responsibility of putting questions before these people. I am aware of the situation before I go into it. When I travel in drag to Europe, I am aware it is going to be a challenge at the airport. It’s not something that comes without me being prepared for it. I have made the decision that this is my life performance. It’s a different thing.
If I’m home and some police come and say they are doing a search on me, I’m not prepared for that. It’s just my life encounter and I will respond to it as it might be– very naturally. It’s a byproduct of my performance. It is because of what I do that people will think that way and try to search me randomly, but it is not something I have invited. But to encounter police when I’m in drag dress, I’m actually aware of inviting people to the dialogue, so I don’t see it like something that will take me by surprise.
Three or four weeks ago, police ordered me to strip down, but they were not in uniform. Even though they are not in uniform, they think they still have their power and think that I don’t know my rights, and have the authority to strip me down. I wasn’t aware of their profession, so I dealt with them as natural as I would with any other person. I told them, “I can’t strip down for you. I don’t know who you are, and you don’t know who I am. You don’t have the power to tell me to take down my dress because you are confused of my identity. I don’t think that I should be answerable to anyone about whether I am a female or male. Unless, maybe, you are interested in me for a relationship and are confused of my gender, I can declare my gender to you. If you are still interested, we go over. If I like, I accept.”
That is a different situation. If I find a very beautiful lesbian who thinks I am a girl and she is interested in me and begins to make advances, I’m sincere. I’ll tell her, “Look, I’m a social girl, but I am a biological male. Do you still want to go ahead?” It’s a different condition. If a male also finds me interesting, and proposes to me and maybe this time I want to become gay, I will say, “Okay, I am male. I have a dick and if you are interested, let’s continue it.” But if I don’t be gay, I can tell you, “Oh, I am very sorry, I am a lesbian.” So I can deal with a man.
Yeah! I have a man who is chasing me now! This guy doesn’t know my gender identity, and I am not interested. Of course, he is not so direct to tell me what he wants. He is playing those male/female games. So, I am also dealing with him somehow. It’s funny! It’s okay with me. It’s fun to be female! That’s why I say being a female is very dramatic. Especially, I think, a Ghanaian female is much more dramatic than a European female. I was once in a relation with a European, so I think the Ghanaian one is very dramatic. It’s very cool for a European girl to be straightforward and tell you her mind if she is interested in what you are saying. But Ghanaians, sometimes, we have to play our own way– [puts on falsetto] “Oh no!” They are interested, but “Oh no!”—they have to play. I think I liked that when I started doing it. It’s funny.
Do you perform outside of Ghana?
In Togo I performed more than three times. I had three performances in Bern, Switzerland.
How did you feel the audience was similar or different to Ghana?
It was interesting to perform in Europe. The first performance, which was ‘rE-gen-er-at[e]’, was in chains in the cold– minus one degree– and nude, so you can imagine the cold at that time. What made it so interesting is that after one hour, my identity was no longer a question of interest. It was no longer something that people were thinking about. All they were thinking is, “human”. So, I think I achieved my responsibility as an artist. That time, I brought people from different cultural backgrounds to agree that I am just a human being. It was funny because after one hour, everybody became so aware of my mortality and my survival, so they’re like, “Please, stop the performance! It is enough! Someone go pick him from there!” They brought me hot tea, which I never took, though. This time, I think I rather gained their emotions into the work. My identity as black in race was dissolved, my being male and conflicting with my sexuality. There was confusion when the performance started because I was dressed as a female, but by the time I finished stripping down, this was a male body appearing. So, there would have been a little provocation from people who were confused about this kind of idea. After a while, I don’t think that was so much the question. It was all about, “Hey! He must survive.”
The second one that I did with a lady, she is a performance artist, is one thing I love that happened. I think we are soul mates in what we do because, even though I don’t fully understand what she’s doing as an artist, and I don’t think she knew what I’m doing as an artist, this is a female who is so concerned about enhancing her body, over-exaggerating her breasts and buttocks and using silicon to fill them. It’s similar to what I am doing as a male, but I have borrowed all these things and yet am also exaggerating them. She is sexualizing the female body.
She has exposed herself in daily life. This is where I think we meet; what I do as a live thing, it’s what she does also as a live thing. In normal life, she dresses leaving a large part of her breasts exposed, anywhere, in any class of place, almost half naked, just provoking people’s ideas about how the female body has been over sexualized. This is what she does as a life.
When we met she never knew I was a male in a female body, or in a female costume. When she was going anywhere, she called me– washrooms, everyplace. She’d say, “Let’s go,” and she was able to confide in me that her breasts are silicon, her butt is silicon, and blah, blah. The first time I opened her to the shock was when I was performing nude. Then she saw that no, I have a dick. I think after the performance she vanished for the first time, but later we became fine. We never spoke about it.
We never spoke about it, but we became closer and decided to do a performance which challenged the public and our immediate audience. In this performance we were kissing on stage. I was dressed as a female, so we both look female, so we should be lesbians to do what we’re doing. I strip her and we have to kiss onstage, and after kissing– it’s a chocolate kiss– I give her a chocolate drink, she drinks, she gives it back to me, I drink, we exchange a kiss, then we give it to any audience around. Anyone who takes it would have to kiss the two of us. This is where the heterosexuals will have to deal with a male kissing them and a woman kissing them. The person will have to question his or her own sense of satisfaction or comfortability because, if he’s a homophobic, I think it will be weird for him to kiss me. But he has to play that role at that point. We leave him to that trauma, he has to deal with it. A girl may not be comfortable kissing the female artist if she is not a lesbian or is homophobic. She also has to kiss me, so we give you this mixed feeling.
We did this performance just briefly, less than ten, fifteen minutes. I think the response in the European context was interesting. I don’t know how it would be if I should do the same performance in Ghana. I don’t know, maybe I’ll be stoned to death that day [laughs]. I challenge my own possibilities as an artist.
I think my work is very layered, so it would take somebody who wants to work with me a lot of understanding of what I do. I realize this at points, when people are interested in my work and we collaborate briefly, but they just understand a bit of my work. It’s difficult because even me, myself, I’m understanding it.
I think I’m just moving something out of the traditional forms of performance. I would have to do carnival makeup here to be able to call it performance art. I would have to do something weird. This is just something daily. It’s something very much of a normal life that I borrow and use in this performance. It will be difficult for people to deal with as art. This is not anything extraordinary to see in a female room.
Yet, it’s still fascinating because it’s like you’re a fly on the wall watching something so personal. It’s so simple, but it is private.
Exactly. I am working as an artist and I think, as individuals, we need to be responsible for others, too. I don’t need to be gay to do this performance. If I become gay, I don’t think I’ll do this performance any longer because it doesn’t make sense to me. I’m rather confirming that a gay must be like me.
When you get ideas about a new performance, do you just go for it?
Any performance that I do has been developed, sometimes, many years ago. If I’m given a platform to perform what I want to do, I have a series of work already. Unless they have given me something thematic and I have to redesign my performance, that’s different. I do many things, so I work on some subject or works for a long time while I’m doing other projects. I think I need to nurture the performances, I need to let it grow, and also I need to understand the intensity of what I’m doing. Some works take years to do. You saw my work that I lay in the blood, right? That one took me 2 years to do. It seems so simple, just walk into the mall and sleep on the table in your blood. But 2 years to get that done.
Is it just a mental preparation?
Also some other preparations. That one, I was bargaining for my blood for 2 years before I got it from the hospital. I go to the hospital for a blood donation, but for myself, and the hospital seems to see it like there is something wrong with you, to walk to the hospital and say, “Can you give me my blood?” If you are donating it for somebody’s sake, it’s okay, but you want a whole pint of blood for yourself? For what? You going to drink it? I refused to explain everything to the hospital. I only told the person “Oh, I want to use it in my work.”
Two years I was bargaining for this, so I also have to use patience to do these things. Sometimes it’s crazy in a way. As I’m performing Rituals of Becoming, when I sit down, I am still working on my upcoming works.
Oh, that is what part of the meditation is for.
Yeah, I keep working all the time. I don’t have any life. My life is art. I’m always working. I can’t tell when I’ll get access to do a project, but I’ll still be thinking about it, redesigning it, reconceptualizing it, recontextualizing it daily, until it materializes.
Featured image: crazinisT artisT, Rituals of Becoming, performance at Gallery 1957, 26 February 2017, courtesy the artist and Gallery 1957, photo by Dennis Akuoku-Frimpong