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Performance as Life
In mid-January 2022, curator/researcher/creative practitioner Giulia Casalini (G) interviewed performance artist, educator and LGBTQIA+ Ghanaian activist Va-Bene Elikem Fiatsi (V). The interview lasted 4 hours and it took place at perfocraZe International Artist Residency in Kumasi, Ghana. In March the same year, Giulia transcribed, edited and heavily shortened the text for publishing purposes. Whenever possible, the text has kept its original expressions and colloquial tone. The parts between square brackets serve to provide more context to the readers.
G: How do you describe yourself and when did you start an art career?
V: I call myself a ‘transvatar’ – getting that from ‘transness’ and ‘avatar’. I am known as Va-Bene Elikem Fiatsi and also as crazinisT artisT. I work as a multidisciplinary artist since 2013. I am an Ewe coming from Ghana, currently living in Kumasi [the capital of the Ashanti region]. I started my art and my advocacy in 2010, when I entered the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, imagining that I would be painting like the old masters... After a few months of learning the skills of painting and getting the correct results, I began to feel that for me that was over: I started asking myself what it meant to be an artist, beyond the technical skills. And I realised that [in the art system] the moment you don't fit into a box, you might not be considered an artist… and that someone or an institution should validate you. I told myself: ‘You don’t need validation’. I started calling myself ‘crazinisT’, and then the name began to manifest different things…
G: Can you tell us about your use of pronouns? Your website bio says: “sHit” if not “she”.
V: My identification is very important in my practice, because I battle with it in different ways… From 2013 until 2016, I was still using the pronoun ‘he’, and then I started telling people they had every right to call me anything they liked – ‘he, she, it, they’ … because that was their problem, not my problem. Then, after 2016, I felt a new agency and I started looking into the idea of pronouns from our local language. I realised that in Ewe, but also in Twi [the main language of the Ashanti region and the larger language group of Ghana], there is nothing like ‘he, she, it’. Whatever pronoun applies to a female-identified person also applies to a male-identified person, and even to a chair, a table, or an animal: in Ewe, that singular neutral pronoun is ‘e’ [-è or -é] and in Twi it is ‘o’ [ɔ]. These observations have pushed me into considering the coloniality of gendered pronouns: this is why around 2015 I started saying ‘he, she, it is Euro-American shit’ and I created the pronoun ‘sHit’ (that comes from ‘he, she, it’).
As queers, we are already seen as a kind of shit anyways: in this country, when you are queer, you are not a human being – you are simply disgusting. This is the language they use to describe us. And that disgust has been created by the colonial powers [when Ghana gained its independence in 1957, it also adopted the British colonial code of 1861 which criminalised ‘unnatural carnal knowledge’]. To reclaim that language, and confront people with that same disgust, is what I wanted to do.
G: At the moment what gender do you have on your identification documents? Have you managed to change it?
V: When they were doing the new registrations for voters’ ID cards, I thought 'that's the right time'. I went to the registration centre, carrying my passport (which had my bearded face, moustache and an 'M’), to get an 'F', with a female face. Of course, the confusion started, but I confronted them and, in the end, I got my voter ID on the spot. With an ‘F’ instead of an ‘M’.
A few days later, I did the same for my national ID card. When I presented my passport, the employee spoke with his boss and said they could not do it for me. But I insisted, asking if they knew what a trans person is – and if not, that they had one in front of them. I told them “Put a ‘woman’ there. Everything is biometric. I'm never going to disappear… What if somebody has an accident and gets their face disfigured? Would that change who the person is?” At the end, I managed to get my ID card… I will try to do the same for my passport. Whatever happens, I will take it in good faith.
With the banks instead it's been a very difficult experience. I fought for almost five months to be able to get my credit card when it expired [because Va-Bene was presenting as woman whilst the bank had her registered as ‘male’]. The bank had to call a national board meeting… and then I was given my credit card. But they never changed the gender on that account, so every time I go to a bank I need to fight – which makes it very difficult for me to get money out of my own account.
I am not doing all this just for Va-Bene. I am a grown-up now. I will die soon. But will our children and grandchildren have to fight the same fight? I want to create a path that should be easy for them to walk. If I am able to achieve all these things, then there's a possibility that many trans people can go through it freely and peacefully in the future.
G: What inspired you to explore gender in performance from the beginning of your practice?
V: I went into performance as an activist. I didn't study performance. By 2012, when I realised how much people were not paying attention to gender violence, I started engaging myself with the issue.
At home we were taught that boys should not touch female panties. But women or girls can wash male boxers. This is because they think there is something very contaminating about womanhood: if you are in your menses, you cannot cook for the family, you cannot even read the Bible…
At the university, we were given the freedom to experiment beyond the canvas, so I would go to the railway station and buy the Obroni Wawu [translated as 'the dead white man's clothes', it is a common term for second-hand clothes in Ghana]. I would buy used women’s panties from Europe or the West and use them for my installations. Then I started wearing them. And that was when I started questioning my own gender identity and expression… people were getting scared of me, because I was doing what males are not supposed to do – also painting my nails, wearing lipstick and makeup.
I then started taking it out from the safe space of the university: I was doing ‘long walks’ [around 2014], where I would be walking to places wearing female clothes, with secret photographers documenting people’s reactions. I just wanted people to live with it until it gets normalised. I didn't call myself 'performance artist': all I was doing was an intervention – a confrontation.
Once [in 2013] I decided to join another department from my university that was travelling to Elmina for an excursion. On this trip, if it was not for a military man who intervened, I would have been lynched to death by fisherfolks – just because of what I was wearing. That episode led me to devise The Return of the Slaves (2015).
G: Can you tell us more about The Return of the Slaves (2015) and who participated in this work?
V: Since the attack I experienced in Elmina, I kept thinking about what happened just in front of a slave castle with that history [Elmina was the first of the trading forts built by the Portuguese south of the Sahara in 1482, and active in the transatlantic slave trade; its dungeons and ‘door of no return’ can be visited up to these days]. I kept thinking about how much black people have been taught to hate themselves, and the way we have internalised this oppression... At the gates of the castle there is a plaque that cautions human beings against such violence [that reads: IN EVERLASTING MEMORY of the anguish of our ancestors. May those who died rest in peace. May those who return find their roots. May humanity never again perpetrate such injustice against humanity. We, the living, vow to uphold this]. That warned me about how we have returned to that violence, after a history of slavery and of being reduced to nothingness, as black people…
So I thought about going back into the dungeon... with other people, as a collective experience. I wrote my first open call and published it. There were some oppositions to it, but there were also people applying – from Wales, the United Kingdom, Nigeria, the United States and Ghana… I got about 68 applications. The participants knew they would not be eating or drinking for the length of the performance – 12 hours in the dungeon – and they would urinate or poo there, if needed.
I was living and sleeping in the castle for about two weeks already before the event, because I didn't have money to rent a hotel or guest house – there was no light at night and loads of mosquitoes... I was already performing without even knowing. On the day of the event, the participants arrived with lanterns at 6pm. I gave them chains to do whatever they wanted with them (for the question was: how do we deal now with the free chains in our hands?). At midnight the performance and the castle closed, to reopen at 4am… some visitors hung around until the re-opening time!
I remember the opponents of this performance asking: 'How on earth do you want slavery to return to Africa?' And my reply was: 'The slaves that were taken away can't come back. Humanity must return’.
G: There are many works that deal with exile and migration. Is this related to your personal experience?
V: My dad is Ghanaian Togolese, and my mum is Ghanaian. We lived in Ghana because of my mum. So, after my mum passed away, we started moving between Ghana and Togo… I was therefore confronting immigration all the time, and the Togolese officers were very very very aggressive. They could whip you just for asking for your ID card. It was terrifying in that time to pass through that border…
Around 2000 or 2001 there was a call for a refugee ID card [because of the civil war in Togo]. I wasn’t hungry, but I applied for a refugee ID card for my own politics. I never used it for anything... After coming to the realisation of my queerness, I felt that experience was part of my identity formation, because, as a queer person, I feel I'm always in exile. This is why I have made Kumasi my home: I feel more comfortable here as a stranger – as an alien – than in my own home, where families would rather be very aggressive towards me.
As an artist I started looking into the idea of exile with the work series nativeimmiGrant (2017). In one of these, I did a procession-performance where I made people carry mattresses, bags... And when I returned to Togo, after about a decade, I performed Broken Exile (2015), which was reflecting on my own experience and those of Togolese refugees.
I have been looking at displacement not necessarily in relation to geographical relocations, but as a mental state. At the moment, for example, we – the LGBTQIA+ community – are said not to be Ghanaians. We are un-Ghanaians and un-Africans. That is a kind of exile, because we are being removed from our own homes.
G: In some of your more recent performances, you confront the public by showing your passports. Can you tell us more about these actions and your experiences of crossing borders in global North countries?
V: After a while, my battle with the African border-crossing transitioned into a battle with the African-Euro-American border-crossing. 2016 was the year of my first trip to Europe, to perform in Switzerland. I decided that, for that occasion, I would not go as a boy. And a new, very powerful journey began for me. Because I knew I was dead, and I went deeper into my transness... I applied for my visa, thinking about what would happen at the border, going as these three persons: one as a visa, one as my passport, and one as my physical self. During this journey I understood that borders were not created for queer people – or for black people. The borders were created for white privileged people who can come in and go out… this is why Visa processes are so difficult for us.
At the Ghanaian airport, I already had my first encounter with authorities. Then I had to transit from Turkey… It's been tough there, but after many examinations, they let me go. But in Switzerland, on my arrival, I was immediately moved to some isolated room, with two/three macho militaries or migration officers – some of them with guns. I didn't panic, and I recorded everything on my phone... At the same time, I was wondering: if queer and trans people exist in Europe, why is it so difficult for them to understand who I am? Why do we think in Africa that the West is so progressive? What is happening in the West is more hypocritical than here, where people can just tell you 'I don't like you, and this is why I fight you'. So you know your enemy. But in Europe, people say: 'You are welcome, I am okay with you – but follow me to this isolated room, I just want to be sure of a couple of things…' with guns and weapons looking at you.
I had similar border encounters in New York, Philadelphia, Amsterdam, London... Almost in every country I've been to. So, in London I devised Strikethrough (2018), where I look for myself under a broken mirror, and then in the eyes of those who pretend to validate my identity and existence. I used the videos from Turkey’s immigration as my backdrop, and I took my two passports – an old and a new one. I printed the picture that I used to apply for the passport (more masculine), and the picture I used to apply for my visa (more feminine). In the performance, I then strike the mirror with the knife, until it breaks to reveal those mirrored images. I stab myself in the middle of the mirror, where the two images meet... Killing that which already existed, for which people cannot see the 'me' now.
It was a kind of ritual, and an emotional performance. I called it 'prophetic' because in London I stripped myself naked before the audience, revealing my bare life, my vulnerability and everything... And little was I aware that what I did then, a few days later, it literally happened to me when entering Cape Verde: I was stripped naked at the airport and detained for three days.
G: Can you expand on the project Rituals of Becoming (2017), which has been crucial in your individual and artistic life?
V: To affirm my trans identity, I did not begin by thinking about surgery or taking hormones. I began with rituals. I started Rituals of Becoming a few years after doing the first interventions with female clothes... I needed to do a ritual of acceptance for my new self: it was a baptismal performance for me. So I started making an installation with all the clothes I've been collecting over the years and I created a red room, which became like a sanctuary filled with women’s clothes. That installation became what I called Monument of Second Skin... Every day, from 2015 until 2017, I would perform the ritual of taking a bath in the studio and self-document it in videos and photographs: stripping, bathing, shaving, wearing dresses and making up, before going out to the street.
Gallery 1957 [a commercial gallery in Accra] then invited me to exhibit this work as a performance-installation. At the gallery, every day, for two weeks’ time, I was living in the gallery, sleeping on its floor, and performing the Rituals of Becoming (2017).
G: What were you doing before starting your art education and becoming an artist?
V: We didn’t have enough money to pay for my tuition at KNUST, so I needed to save money first. I became a teacher in 2006, graduating from the teacher training college, which was an evangelical school. I was teaching all subjects – from English, to French and mathematics... I have done home teaching, selling water and credits on the roadside and other jobs. During this period, I was also preaching the gospel (for free) in churches like the Assemblies of God... Other churches, knowing and hearing about me, were also inviting me for their programmes. I would walk to villages in the mountains and in the deeper valleys to preach the gospel, donating clothes and other stuff to the people…
But when I entered the university, at the age of 29, I started questioning things. And the church was the first place of confrontation – since it was there where I was born. In a few months, I left the church and renounced to Christianity.
G: Has the church left something in you, as a performance artist?
V: I think there is no life in Ghana that is not a performance. But the church really impacted me a lot: the prayers and the rituals are very performative. The church also made me very bold: I've spoken to congregations, to elders… It also gave me a lot of knowledge in terms of symbolism, aesthetics, and confronting issues of violence (with the figure of Christ dying as a sacrificial lamb). Perhaps this is also why I am so much angered anytime I hear Christians becoming homophobic: because the preaching of Christ is the reverse of what the church is doing now, where they want to kill the people they're supposed to be protecting.
Most of my performances have some sort of religious iconographies in them. For example, the work eAt me... (2016), which took place on a Good Friday, borrows its concept from the Last Supper – drinking the blood of Christ, eating the body as a communion [in this work Va-Bene drew her blood to cover a table where sHit was lying, naked and motionless, for 5 hours].
G: Let’s speak about clay – a material you use in most of your works. When did you start using it and what does it mean to you?
V: Clay means a lot to me. It means life and death. It means transition, vulnerability, rejection, and a kind of grievance…
In the art school, despite I was in the painting department, I found something I liked about clay – its malleability, fluidity, the fact that it can harden, dry and then dissolve in water again. I then started using clay for the street performance interventions. For that, I felt like I needed to create a new ritual to connect with the earth. Earth was the first point of contact to start thinking about my death and my mortality... So I started putting clay onto my body: it became another skin for me. And it began to conceal my fears about death.
In our tradition, the earth is considered as Mother (it is called Asase Ya in the Ashanti region). It is where, as traditional people, we say that we’re born from. But the Bible also says that we were created from clay. And the Muslims would also use dust to do rituals of cleansing. In some traditions [as in the Ewe], people eat clay as a way of healing, for rituals or other purposes... And so, the earth was telling me something about the idea of rebirth.
G: Can you tell us more about your Good Friday performances? They seem to me very much like guerrilla actions…
V: When I started confronting the Christian communities in my work, I decided that these pieces should be event-specific to be able to speak the language that they were supposed to address. So there came the Good Friday interventions.
In the work Crucifix (2014), for example, I looked at the context of Ghana and of many other African countries, where marginalised people are lynched. Mobs would beat them to unconsciousness and pour fuel on them, setting them on fire [in this work, Va-Bene stands crucified in front of a video showing the lynching of an alleged gay man]. In the work dZikudZikui-aBiku-aBiikus (2018) I took that issue to the streets: I chained car tires to my leg and poured petrol onto them, setting them on fire. I was battling with the fire, managing to survive and escape... The police arrived and arrested me just after the performance ended.
The title of this performance speaks about death and rebirth. In the Ewe tradition, when a woman gives birth, and the child dies… the third time that this happens, they need to perform a ritual for you, because they believe that there is an evil spirit that is taking away the child. Or there must be a reason why the child is not staying. Part of the ritual is to name the child with an unpleasant name – such as 'garbage', 'idiot', 'death' or 'shit'... Because the belief is that death doesn't take bad things. That ritual exists also in Nigeria. So I borrowed the Nigerian term 'aBiku' and the Ewe 'dZikudZikui': 'dzi' means birth/born, 'dziku' is death, so 'dZikudZikui' is 'born-die, born-die'. I see the queer community and other marginalised groups, including black people, as 'dZikudZikui'. You are born. You die. You come back. They give you all the nasty names… We were given 'queer'. We claim it. They call us 'shit'. We claim it... we will always come back. We will never be extinct.
G: When you started performing, were there other artists doing similar work in Ghana?
V: Not that I know of. There are many artists in Ghana, but not many of them work in performance – even up to these days. Their works could be interactive, but they would not be calling themselves performance artists. When I was an undergraduate, Bernard Akoi-Jackson was doing performance in Ghana – but of course not with female clothes... One of the first performance artists I started falling in love with was Jelili Atiku, from Nigeria: he was actually one of the few artists who was using performance to challenge social justice, colonial histories and Western religious indoctrinations from a Yoruba perspective… He was the first person to invite me to Europe, when I went to Switzerland.
G: What has been the public reaction to your interventions and performances? Has that changed during these decades?
V: There have been a lot of changes and a lot of reactions. I think those changes are the family rejections, the friends’ rejections… Those changes are the reason why some art spaces in Ghana would not want to work with me now: not necessarily because they are homo/transphobic, but because they are unable to take the criticism…
Also, those who were my friends and colleague students at the university wanted to see an end of that – because they saw it as art. When they began to see that the art became an embodiment and then it became life, they dismissed it… But they would accept me if I just did this as a cross dressing performance or as a drag queen.
G: What differences you perceive between performing your work abroad or in Ghana?
V: Well… [laughs] when I perform outside Ghana, I'm paid for my work. I've never been paid for any of my work in Ghana. The biggest advantage of performing in Ghana is that the work is living within a certain colonial context: it is made for the people, with the people, by the people... This is one of the most important things for me – because I am hoping that what I do in Ghana is creating change… When I perform in Europe, the challenge is that I am performing to a different audience. I'm temporal – I would go, and then leave. And I can be protected by an arts institution that frames what I do as 'performance art'. But when I perform in Ghana, I'm aware that many people are not looking at me just as an artist: they are looking at me as someone who is causing change.
G: After COVID-19, you have been very much engaged online – even in terms of performances [some of them can be seen on crazinisT artisT’s YouTube and Vimeo channels]. And, throughout your practice, you have always been very active on social media… What is your relationship to the online sphere?
V: The internet has been like a ‘third space’ for me. Because coming from Ghana, and the background some of us emerge from... we have to make ourselves visible. We have to create voices for ourselves. Otherwise we will always be silenced. I always tell people the internet was made for Africans. It's for us to bridge the gap, to connect and to go to places we can never even go... So I started using the internet to reach out to people that are not immediately with me. And to create witnesses.
G: Whilst you were growing up, did you know any queer people? Was there anything like a ‘queer community’?
V: It's so embarrassing to say that, whilst growing up, I didn’t even know about LGBTQIA+ – as a language, as an acronym, or as a politics. But I lived and grew with people who were just queer, who were non-binary – and there was no framing for that. There was no label. People who are appreciated as being 'very effeminate' were called 'kodjobesia' [in Twi] or 'nyornugborme' [in Ewe]. And if it was a girl being a 'tomboy' (preferring to be with boys and do boy-like activities), nobody would have a problem with that.
But when the labels came in [post-2000s, but especially in the past decade], and the politics began to actually rise, and we began to speak for ourselves, then they started saying we are imported from the West. Because I agree that the language is from the West: 'LGBTQIA+' is not Ewe and it is not Twi. It's not Ga. It's not Yoruba. It’s an English term, coming from Euro-American academic spaces. But whilst the word is not Ghanaian, the people... we are Ghanaians. We are Africans. We are Ewes. We are Gas. So the problem is to look deeper into our own traditions, and see what we were called before the English came to define us.
The reason why I might have never met a gay person whilst growing up, is that sexuality is so private! Unless somebody tells you that explicitly, you will never know (and being gay doesn't even mean that you are even having sex…).
G: Can you tell us about the current anti-LGBTQIA+ bill that the Ghanaian Parliament wants to pass, and that you have been fighting against since 2021?
V: The current anti-LGBTQIA+ bill is dubbed ‘Promotion of Proper Human Sexual Rights and Ghanaian Family Values Act 2021’. Everything it proposes is very indoctrinating – because its values come from the Christian Council. It talks about sex as natural and unnatural: everything must be heterosexual, and exclusively as vagina-penile sex. If you take the bill word by word, I don't think many people will actually survive in Ghana – including cis and hetero people.
The bill seeks to jail queer people if they do not submit to conversion therapy. And if a family or friends are aware of your sexuality and gender, and do not come forward to report that to the police, they will also go to jail (not less than 5 years and not more than 10 years). The bill says that, if someone rents their premises to you, they should be jailed for that. And that you cannot employ a queer or LGBTQIA+ person… So what does that offer, economically, to this country? The bill goes on to say also that LGBTQIA+ people cannot have or adopt children…
But because it is not written on the foreheads that we are lesbians or gays, the main group of people who will become even more vulnerable is the trans community… because the bill itself and the proponents do not understand gender and sexuality as two different things.
G: Thinking about whether this bill will pass, would you ever think to move outside of Ghana, or seek refuge abroad, to continue your practice?
V: I have never dreamt of moving out of Ghana, even if this bill passed. I think the best thing that would happen to me, would be for me to be in jail – and remain there until my death. People say I can be outside Ghana and still continue to fight… But how many of us will continue to escape from this country? And until when would they come to accept that we exist in this country if we are always out?
Somebody must die for it. And I think I'm one of those who must die for it. If I ever move because of the bill, I will cease being an activist. And I don't know what will become of my life if I cease being an activist…
G: To conclude, I would like to ask you about the residencies that you hold every year in your studio-home, pIAR (perfocraZe International Artist Residency). How did you start it?
V: pIAR started as a follow up to what happened with The Return of the Slaves (2015): I was thinking about how to create a community for people to have conversations, exchanges and collaborations. With pIAR, I wanted to gather Ghanaians and people from around the world…
I moved in this house in 2017 and I started preparing the spaces and the rooms… By 2018 I launched the residency, and in 2019 we had the first edition, hosting about 30 people. When Covid came in 2020, only about 20 of the selected 75 people could come...
The residency started as an underground project. Before the launch, I would invite people from Europe to do projects with me and exhibit at Chale Wote [a street art performance festival taking place every year around August-September, in Accra]. I was testing the possibilities of bringing international artists, thinkers, creatives and activists to engage in such conversations in Ghana.
It's quite challenging to get Ghanaians to apply for the residency – especially queer Ghanaians... But I understand their fears. There are lot of applications from outside Ghana: a lot from Nigeria, Europe, the USA and Brazil... So now my main focus is to get Ghanaians interested in the residences and the mentorship.
pIAR is a free residency for everyone. The only thing is that non-Ghanaian artists should contribute towards the food that will be cooked for them by our kitchen. But I cover the food for the Ghanaian artists and I also take care of the team of 8+ people that works with me – because none of them is doing other things for survival… So the fees I get by working abroad go back into supporting the residency and its running costs.
G: With the proposed bill, I understand that pIAR is at risk… What are your plans to save it?
V: pIAR has always been at risk… because, in the neighbourhood, people smile at us, but then they would go to have other conversations with our landlord and try to kick us out.
However, if the bill passes, the landlord can be jailed just for renting to me. So we might soon be evacuated from this house… My current plan is therefore to buy the space. If not this one, a new one that can be a kind of 'safe sanctuary' for queer people to come and share their stories, make friends, talk and be free... a place where artists can explore any medium, discipline, subject and political issues without fear.
Crowdfunding campaign to save pIAR: https://www.gofundme.com/f/xx48d3-save-piar
Or you can support by donating via PayPal or via Patreon: https://linktr.ee/crazinisTartisTstudiO
More information about the ‘anti-LGBTQIA+’ bill and if you wish to support Ghanaian organisations working against it: https://linktr.ee/lgbtrightsgh