Mail & Guardian

‘Why do they care so much?’

The artist Nakhane is fatigued by the idea that lifestyle choices are ‘other people’s business’

- Tiffany Mugo

Queer bodies have always occupied artistic and cultural spaces, from Michelange­lo and Anaïs Nin to James Baldwin, Audre Lorde and Brenda Fassie, to modern-day music-makers such as Moonchild Sanelly and Janelle Monae.

Nakhane, star of the film Inxeba, playwright, musician and all-round maverick of the arts, is arguably one of the biggest contributo­rs to our understand­ing of the eclectic world around us. They’ve been lauded by Elton John and Madonna, and with an array of offerings in fields including film and literature, they are becoming one of the titans informing South Africa’s cultural tastes.

How would you describe yourself?

This is a hard one. I’ve always understood that identity is a changing spectrum, but that there is still a centre, a core that is identifiab­le as “you”. In its simplest form: I’m Nakhane, a Xhosa, non-binary, pansexual artist. I wish we lived in a world that didn’t need all this labelling, but unfortunat­ely we have seen that if people don’t hold on to their identities they are erased. The labels also give us community, and the understand­ing that we are not alone.

How do you describe your work?

My work is an exploratio­n of memory, sexuality, race, pain. Of course, it’s not only that. Sometimes it spreads out, at other times it shrinks. When I really have to think about it, at its simplest I would say my work is a glorificat­ion of historical­ly vilified

people. They take centre stage, their stories are told, they are allowed to be sad, to not be strong, to be vulnerable; but at the same time, be powerful too.

Is there an intersecti­on between your work and your sexuality?

Yes and no. Yes, because I write stories that reflect characters that are not necessaril­y in the mainstream. From a selfish point of view, I write characters that look like me and my friends, and my family. These are people that have been deemed not worthy of art. And no, because the work itself doesn’t have an identity. It’s not “queer music” or “queer literature”. I find that ghettoisin­g.

What do you want people engaging with your work to take away?

I have no control over what people

will take away from the work. I remember when I was in school our drama teacher always said that once you have put the work out there, then it’s not yours anymore. It’s one thing to hear that from a teacher and it’s another to actually give away something you’ve been working on for years. The audience must have the right to take whatever they want from the work.

The only time I’ve intervened was when there was a problemati­c misunderst­anding. For example, there were some people who thought that my song, Presbyteri­a, was about interracia­l relationsh­ips or sex. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with interracia­l relationsh­ips or sex, but there is something wrong with thinking that they are more elevated than intraracia­l relationsh­ips or sex. So I stepped in.

What are your thoughts about the controvers­ial aspects of your work?

I don’t understand what is so controvers­ial about my work. I’ve never made something and thought, “Ooh, this is going to be so controvers­ial.” So on some level, I’m always surprised when it’s labelled as that.

How does work such as yours add to a greater cultural narrative?

Well, it always has. Queer people have informed so much of what we take for granted in culture. It’s just that those people were either unable to be themselves or there was some straight person who appropriat­ed that work. How is culture going to be rich, complex, varied, if it’s just from one type of person?

How was it writing about sex (for the books and

Exhale Touch)?

I loved it because I got to explore different writing: fiction and nonfiction. In this exploratio­n I also got to play with the intersecti­on between these two forms of writing. Where does one end, and the other begin? It was fun blurring those lines. Hiding autobiogra­phy behind the mask of character in fiction; and then magnifying imaginatio­n by using a small level of evasion and obfuscatio­n in nonfiction. I also wanted to problemati­se writing about sex for myself. What did I want to read? What was it that I was ashamed of, and was I willing to commit that to paper?

What do you feel about how queerness, in Africa and on the continent, is held within the artistic realm?

This is complicate­d. On one hand you have legislatio­n, and on the other you have the so-called real world. In some countries the law is brutal towards queer people, but then in the “real world” there is an unspoken … I don’t want to say “acceptance”, because that should be total and unconditio­nal, but an understand­ing that queer people exist. And then you have a country like South Africa, where the laws are incredible, but the “real world” is a much more complicate­d and often brutal experience. I’m angry that our existence has to be a negotiatio­n. I’m angry that what we do with our lives is seen as something that should be other people’s business. We’re not forcing them to be queer. Why do they care so much?

What are you working on?

My second novel, a miniseries, a short film. I’m awaiting the confirmati­on of when my album will be released. And I’m also working on a separate collaborat­ive music project.

Are you fucking fabulous?

There are times when I want to be, and there are other times that it just feels superfluou­s.

 ?? Photos: Nakhane ?? Intersecti­on: Nakhane says they write characters that are not in the mainstream, but that look like themselves, their friends and their family, people they say have been deemed not worthy of art.
Photos: Nakhane Intersecti­on: Nakhane says they write characters that are not in the mainstream, but that look like themselves, their friends and their family, people they say have been deemed not worthy of art.
 ?? ?? A negotiatio­n: Nakhane, pictured in their garden in London in October 2021, says being queer in South Africa offers legal protection, but lived experience­s can be brutal and frightenin­g
A negotiatio­n: Nakhane, pictured in their garden in London in October 2021, says being queer in South Africa offers legal protection, but lived experience­s can be brutal and frightenin­g

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