“Facing Ethnic Drag”, a long-planned mdw Gender Studies conference, had to be repeatedly postponed because of the pandemic. Finally, on June 17, it was at least possible to hold this year’s kick-off event on a virtual stage with a keynote by Jay Pather and an artist talk with Mamela Nyamza. Initiated and organised by Evelyn Annuß and Mariama Diagne from the Department of Cultural Management and Gender Studies (IKM), the evening vividly illustrated the focus of mdw Gender Studies on the humanities and on cultural theory in the context of performative practices. Among other key themes, it profiled gender studies in the context of the arts represented at the mdw while also opening up a cross-sectional field of scholarly inquiry at the interface of aesthetics and politics.
The title encapsulates various current discourses. Introduced around the turn of the millennium, the term “ethnic drag” has been employed to investigate forms of cultural appropriation in German-language theatre. This series of events now aims to rethink the term in a transdisciplinary context beyond questions of representation, and thus to examine it more closely in light of the specific contextual situation of various performative practices. The aim, in other words, is to situate different forms of masquerade—i.e., of drag—historically and spatially from a global perspective. “Doing Drag” is viewed here as a practice that not only mimetically represents culture and society but also potentially plays a part in their shaping and fashioning. The title of the conference is thus meant to spur the question of how the queer practice of drag, of cross-dressing, relates to folkloric, racist, or grotesque representations of figures perceived as allegedly Other. How, then, can these representations be resemanticised, appropriated, or reversed? And how can what has been cited in this way be analysed and confronted from an expanded gender-theoretical perspective? How, in other words, might one succeed in “Facing Ethnic Drag”?
From the opening online mix-and-mingle, the global perspective of the event series was evident. This year’s exemplary focus was on South Africa as a site of rich intellectual-artistic debate: in South Africa in particular, we have for some time now seen experiments with gender-fluid forms of public staging, both artistically and, for example, in street festivals, that aim to work through these performance practices in their connections to the country’s colonial past and history of apartheid.
In his keynote at the launch event, Jay Pather (Director of the Institute for Creative Arts and Professor at the Centre for Theatre, Dance and Performance Studies at the University of Cape Town) explored a wide range of exciting artistic works and their historical context. Pather is himself an internationally renowned choreographer and curator and an expert on the performative arts in South Africa. One of his main areas of work is the question of the extent to which traditional practices in contemporary South African art forms live on as genuinely modern. Pather presented numerous video examples of contemporary queer artists who are largely unknown in Europe and whose works deal in very different ways with exoticism, “Blackness”, feminism, and the marking of bodies in the context of colonialism and apartheid. His appeal: In addition to the shrill and colourful dimensions of drag which so often impact the public, it is precisely the artistic use of these practice that needs to be viewed not as “trendy” entertainment. Rather, drag needs to be considered as enmeshed with aesthetic and political confrontations and made legible as a “strategy of survival” in the context of an ongoing coloniality that still shapes global conditions. The artists portrayed in his lecture find themselves confronted with challenges of (self-)representation, especially in the quotation of “ethnic drag”, as Pather emphasised in conversation with Evelyn Annuß. Which historically determined forms of embodiment, he asked, are re-evaluated, positively revalued, or devalued in being cited and in what way? And what role does the relationship between gender and race play here?
In South Africa, he also noted, art actions in publicly accessible urban spaces, spontaneous happenings, and unexpected street performances are examples of practices that repeatedly break with routine and standardised audience expectations, enabling the participation of individuals who do not work within established art institutions. For this reason, even actions that could be assigned to more avant-garde deployments of performance are often explicitly conceived for public space, such as the work 19 Born 76 Rebels that Mamela Nyamza conceived for Cape Town and subsequently adapted for the Avignon festival. Nyamza—a dancer, choreographer, and activist—also presented art of her own in dialogue with Mariama Diagne. In these works, she combines different dance styles, translating them into contemporary performances that subvert gendered or racist markings of her body, which thus serves her as a political instrument. As Nyamza described it, her dance productions focus on narratives of “Black women”: translating traditional images of “black femininity” into movement, they address physical violence while working through the historically prefigured ways in which bodies have been placed on display.
With over 120 participants, the virtual launch of “Facing Ethnic Drag” was a significant success in its own right. Next year, the conference will finally continue in real life at the mdw from 23 to 25 June. Some of next year’s contributors already attended this year’s event, opening up the outlook for 2022 with brief presentations in the style of elevator pitches. In addition to further artist talks, lectures are planned on the history of blackfacing and gender in pop music (Eric Lott, New York); on the translation of this form of performance into digital space (Katrin Koeppert, Leipzig); on its survival in contemporary representations of Arab masculinity (Raz Weiner, London); on Jesuit drag and coloniality (Karin Harrasser, Linz); on the relationship between masquerade and film (Nanna Heidenreich, Vienna); and on carnivalesque practices on the street and in audiovisual media (Aurelie Godet, Paris, and Nathalie Aghoro, Eichstätt). Over the coming year, “Facing Ethnic Drag” will continue to open up a wide field of future engagement with intersectional perspectives from the arts and other producers of culture and in public space.
Translation: Michael Taylor