30 January 2018

South Africa: Intersextion - an Exhibition Steeped in Transgender Sex Work

Photo: Alice McCool/Thomson Reuters Foundation
A transgender person. Shawn stands in his bedroom on the outskirts of Kampala, Uganda, April 20, 2018.
opinion

Ostracised from their communities, trans femme sex workers are forced to endure the streets

Given the hypersexualisation of trans bodies among the public, undertaking trans sex work may be seen as buying into that objectification. Situated against the backdrop of a campaign to decriminalise sex work, Robert A. Hamblin recently held an art exhibition titled 'Intersexion' at the University of the Free State's Johannes Stegmann gallery. Thabo Thwala reports.

Hamblin works with a variety of organisations to address issues around the decriminalisation of sex work and his art exhibition, which was displayed last year, was carefully put together after working with UFS and Sistaazhood support group for trans femme sex workers.

His art exhibition, which includes photographs, video and voice installation, focused on particularly female-identifying trans sex workers and explores gender as a performed construct. Models in 'The Sistaaz hood' strike seductively frivolous poses adorning their naked bodies with props which highlight the sensual and feminist side of sex work. The focus of the images are blurred by excessive movement, making the models seem elusive to the viewer; orchestrated to imitate the notion of performance. The images are blurred even in moments of stillness.

Text accompaniments are excerpts from interviews between Hamblin and the sex workers about their occupation. The interviews delve into the service itself, revealing how intricately tied to identity the work is. One interviewee noted that she finds clients who expect her to penetrate them less stimulating. During the exhibition, Leigh Davis aptly captured the emotional and physical pleasure drivers for sex workers during a speech wherein she states, " I have had power and I have touched the things most people can only fantasize about".

The interviewees also describe the ways in which their personal histories were shaped in ways marked by the stigmas against their particular identities. Most were ostracised from their homes and communities and many were exposed to the trauma of violence and exploitation because their identities rendered them 'too much of a problem' for their parents to care about them.

Exclusion from their communities meant that many sought a sense of freedom and acceptance on the streets, doing work from a young age. But the streets were not without their fair share of struggle because the criminalisation of their occupation made the sex workers vulnerable to police brutality and imprisonment.

The other issue clearly brought forth through the exhibition include the scourge of HIV/Aids. There are three portraits which are simply blacked out canvases. They are blacked out because these models passed on during the creation of the exhibition due to HIV/Aids-related illnesses or sheer brutality.

Despite all of this, an indomitable air of empowerment reigns over the exhibition. This empowerment exudes from their show of familiarity with themselves and with the streets, which they have been forced to endure. From their work gear to the neon lights flashing in the background, work meets pleasure in a fashion so unencumbered that Nikita's dancing and Mawi's prowl seem to flip off inhibitive social institutions which choose to debate their identity rather than embrace it.

As Davis so aptly articulated it, "the real enemy is poverty". Neither she, nor the rest of the sex workers find any 'fun' in being poor. While there are complex emotions and experiences attached to their occupation, trans workers essentially engage in it as a genuine form of enterprise and empowerment, working "with pain and violence to start learning how to use your body with power over men who want to fuck you" both literally and figuratively.

Thabo Twala is a journalism student at the University of the Free State. He worked for Irawa student newspaper in 2016 and reported during student fee protests. He is originally from Gauteng.

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