ArtCultureSex & Gender

meet kewpie, the rediscovered daughter of district 6

May 23, 2019
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Kewpie was a simple girl. She loved pink. Her favorite pastime was watching films, and she would happily attend one alone to marvel at the likes of Doris Day. She loved to dance, seeking out any opportunity to do so. She loved — and was loved in return. She experienced heartbreak. She did all these things and so much more, recording each and every moment with an ease that can only come from being both talented and possessing an unflinching magnetism. She did all this as a gender-fluid individual who was assigned male at birth in District 6 in Cape Town, South Africa.

Portrait of Kewpie (1)

‘This was June in winter time in the city. Taken by one of the movie snaps.’

Kewpie was born in 1942 and given the name Eugene Fritz, by parents Jean and Walter. She grew up in a house of six children, though only she, sister Ursula and brother Trevor survived into adulthood. District 6 was riddled with overcrowding and poverty, but the overwhelming sense of family shared by the community provided support.

“Everybody was everybody’s family,” says Ursula. “Everybody ate from everybody. It was never a question.” In the 1970s, the apartheid government forcibly removed over 70,000 people from District 6, destroying the neighborhood and displacing communities. The displacement was a tool of erasure used by South Africa’s nationalist government to further dehumanize marginalized groups and erase history. What existed before that destruction was a bustling queer community, visually archived by Kewpie, a popular drag artist and hairdresser, with an impressive collection of memories and images.

Kewpie: The Daughter of District 6 is an exhibition currently running at Market Photo Workshop Gallery in Newtown, Johannesburg, from the 17th of May to 31 July. It contains over 700 photographs from Kewpie’s personal collection that were donated to the Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action (GALA) by Kewpie and Ursula, and unveil a part of history almost lost to the violence of apartheid: the history of the South African queer community.

The artful and thoughtful narratives depicted by the immense collection are testaments that fly in the face of the fallacy touted by African patriarchs, that “queerness is un-African.” The GALA Archive, in collaboration with the District 6 Museum and the Market Photo Workshop, want to end that conversation by making visible queer narratives lost to the chaos of history. African queerness has a long and under-explored legacy in the heart of Cape Town, and Kewpie was but a single example of its talented and unapologetic vibrancy. That existence was affirmed in the District 6 community that Kewpie was part of, and although she still faced the bigotry, her collection of pictures (captured by friends, family and random photographers) depicts a world most of us would have never seen.

Kewpie Walking to Work

‘I was on my way to work in the morning at Salon Kewpie in Kensington’. Photo was taken by a Darling Street ‘Movie Snaps’ photographer.

Kewpie knew she was different from a young age and channeled that energy into her love of performance. She, sang, acted and danced, performing for her family, to the point that her presence was often requested at mini-concerts. Her mother Jean, the love of her life, put her in ballet classes at the University of Cape Town Dance Ballet – Kewpie’s talent was so strong that at the age of 14, she was offered an opportunity to go dance overseas. Her father Walter turned down the offer on her behalf, causing a rift in the relationship that never really mended.

Kewpie’s mother accepted and loved her as she was, but her father was less understanding. “He didn’t like the gay stuff,” according to her recollection.  He still supported her by setting her up with a job through a friend who was a hairdresser and later buying Kewpie her own salon. That salon became a hub of neighborhood activity and gossip, with people often salon-hopping while drinking.

Kewpie on Stage (2)

Competition (strip show) at the Kismet organized by the Stellenbosch winery. ‘It is Kewpie on stage, stripping.’

Kewpie’s salon also served as a sort of gateway into the world of “Moffie concerts,” which were the epitome of drag culture dating back to the 1950s. “Moffie” is a derogatory term for gay men that was embraced by Cape Town’s drag community. Moffie Concerts would boast up to 50 contestants, with tickets sold from Kewpie’s salon. Journalists would cover these shows, writing about the star power shown by concert performers, including Kewpie, who used the stage name Capucine, inspired by the French actress and model. Kewpie’s love of vintage bombshells informed her drag and the drag of her contemporaries. She was queer excellence. She transformed everything she touched. 

On top of being a bustling hub of culture and laughter, Kewpie’s salon was home to a broad mix of customers who enjoyed much success. Kewpie and fellow stylists would even compete in styling competitions. She traded in the art of transformation, which she knew well, sharing the alchemy of her own life with others. 

Kewpie and Patti doing Sue Thompson's Hair

‘Salon Kewpie’ in Sunderland Street: Kewpie with a client, Sue Thompson and Patti.

Perhaps, some of the most striking portraits in the collection were those taken of Kewpie’s long-time lover Brian Armino. Kewpie knew Armino for 35 years and they were together for 13 of them. As the story goes, the two met at a party. A few nights later, Brian picked up Kewpie from the Bioscope (cinema) where she was watching Judy Garland in A Star Is Born, and they attended another party together, sharing their first dance to “Harbor Lights” by The Platters. Kewpie was smitten. She described Armino as looking like a Hollywood heartthrob. After years of watching celluloid heroines get swept off their feet by leading men, she had finally found her own.

Brian introduced Kewpie to his parents and they welcomed and accepted her as a woman. This is an important fact.  Their lives were completely intertwined, with Brian working the cash register at Kewpie’s salon. They stayed together for eight years, and from what is depicted in the images of their time together, shared a deep love. Brian eventually decided that he wanted to get married and have children, ending their relationship and breaking Kewpie’s heart. “Those days will never appear again, they will never come back again,” she told GALA. “I’ve treasured it all my life.”

Portrait of Brian

‘My Brian’. Brian at 19/20 years old.

Brian and Kewpie at Kewpie's New Year's Eve Party

The destruction of the community that made District 6 is that much more heartbreaking when taking into account the kind of freedom afforded to Kewpie and Brian, and to the other queer couples existing in relative peace. However, there were still rules that dictated how a queer couple could present themselves. Like Kewpie and Brian, couples always had to perform the male and female binary. Two masculine-presenting men or two femme-presenting females were not as welcome. There was a precarious balance to queer existence and the depiction of queer love, but the very fact that it existed in the relative open is a conversation that should begin to demystify the history of this highly persecuted community, one that is searching for its own traces in its country’s history.

The most striking narratives to emerge from apartheid South Africa are those of defiance whether it took place through struggle or in merely living one’s life without permission. It’s vital to learn about the harrowing details of apartheid, but neither should it be forgotten that, despite the odds, Kewpie and her people lived. And loved. And shared their love of themselves and each other through performance and skill at hairdressing. They walked through the world with the singular purpose of using their own light to make existence that much more beautiful. Sadly, Kewpie passed away in 2012. Yet, thankfully, she left South Africa’s queer community a treasure trove of history and 700 different ways to never forget her memory. It is our job to bear witness, and share with the children.

Kewpie Sitting in her Beauty Salon

GALA Archive

Competition (strip show) at the Kismet organised by the Stellenbosch winery. ‘It is Kewpie on stage, stripping.’

GALA Archive

Mitzy, Brigitte, Patti, Sue, Kewpie, Miss Vi, and Gaya Outside the Ambassador Club

GALA Archive

Kewpie at Kogel Bay

GALA Archive

Brian and Kewpie on Rutgers Street

GALA Archive

The Biggs Family with Kewpie, Mitzy and Patti at the Trafalgar Baths

GALA Archive

Amy, Kewpie, and Stella at a Go-go Party

GALA Archive

‘The gang in Greenpoint at a party stage with the late Brian kissing Kay Kendall’, De Smidt Street’: Mrs. Mills, Kay Kendall, Brian, Carmen (white gloves) and 2 neighbors.

GALA Archive

At the Trafalgar Baths. ‘Willy’ (Wilhelmina) ‘She was a strooi meisie …you know working on the road’.

GALA Archive

Kewpie Prepares to go to a Party

GALA Archive

Kewpie Working in her Salon

Sodia and Kewpie at the Marie Antoinette Ball at the Ambassador Club