'Call me Kewpie' – celebrating a daughter of District Six this Heritage Day

2018-09-24 10:01
Kewpie exhibition. (Tammy Petersen)

Kewpie exhibition. (Tammy Petersen)

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The story of one of the most famous daughters of District Six is zooming in on queer culture in Cape Town's historic inner city, before the culture that permeated through its vibrant streets of the cosmopolitan community was permanently erased.

Kewpie: Daughter of District Six celebrates the life and times of the drag artist and hairdresser, born and bred in the lively neighbourhood before the Group Areas Act forced her out of the suburb she called home.

The photographic exhibition, hosted by the District Six Museum and Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action (Gala), features a selection of photos dating from the 1950s to the early 80s of Kewpie and her girls.

From an archive of over 700 prints and accompanying negatives, about 100 photos are on show.

The Kewpie photographic collection found its way to Gala through Jack Lewis, who recognised the unique value of the photographs depicting the day to day life in District Six "from a moffie perspective", Gala director Keval Harie said.

"This exhibition is therefore pivotal to continue discussions surrounding gender identity, transphobia and homophobia in South Africa and Africa. But mostly it is important in our contemporary struggle of access and representation."

Queen of the coif

Kewpie's younger sister Ursula Hansby says she couldn't recall ever seeing her larger-than-life sibling as a big brother.

"She was just different. Special. There was no way to put Kewpie in a box," the 71-year-old recalls.

Their home and values were by all means conservative, she explains, making it even more difficult for Kewpie to "colour outside the lines".

But colour she did.

Ursula Hansby laughs as she recognises Kewpie wear

Ursula Hansby laughs as she recognises Kewpie wearing her 21st dress in one of the exhibition photos. (Tammy Petersen)

"My father could never accept who Kewpie was, and didn't make a secret of it. But Kewpie lived her life. She was unapologetic."

When the family moved ahead of the forced removals in the 1960s, 20-something Kewpie stayed behind, refusing to join the Fritzes in Bellville South.

She remained within the inner city, eventually settling in Kensington, about 10km from the CBD.

Hansby remembers that Kewpie found her calling when she was employed as a hairstylist by a friend of her father, who later moved to Durban.

The drag artist who once often performed at the packed Ambassador Club then branched out on her own, starting two salons: Yugene's Hairtique and Salon Kewpie.

"Clients walked in with taai koppe [unkempt heads of hair] and left with the most luxurious, sleek dos. No job was impossible for Kewpie," former stylist and housemate Sammy Samuels recollects.

"Hair was blow-dried from the roots and was perfect to the tips. And no matter how short, she had a roller for all lengths."

Customers streamed to the salon where Kewpie – sporting fashionable hairstyles and impeccably dressed – would ensure that every client was served, even if her doors had to stay open until 03:00 the next morning.

Call me Kewpie

Ever the extrovert, Kewpie had the ability to light up a room, her brother-in-law Alistair recalls.

Kewpie at the Marie Antoinette Ball at the Ambassa
Kewpie at the Marie Antoinette Ball at the Ambassador Club. (Supplied)

"The only time I ever saw her down was when she parted from the love of her life, Brian. Oh, she adored him. They were together for many years, until he decided that he wanted a wife and children. She never fully got over the heartbreak of losing him."

But the show went on, Alistair says.

"She lived her life and was always surrounded by people. She loved her family and adored our grandchildren.

"As they got a little older, the little ones asked her: 'What must we call you – Aunty Kewpie or Uncle Kewpie?' She replied: 'No, just call me Kewpie'."

Her unapologetic view of life was infectious, lifelong friend Mogamat "Kafunta" Benjamin says.

"She inspired me to be myself. I met her at a party the night I dressed in drag for the first time. I was wearing my grandmother's shoes and my neighbour had borrowed me her lurex dress. When Kewpie laid her eyes on me, she said: 'Let these young queens leave because they are going to take our men away!' Benjamin laughs.

"She was my mentor. I loved her. She told me to just be me. Kewpie encouraged me to play netball, want ek moet nie skaam wees om my rokkie te wys nie [I mustn't be shy of showing off my dress]. Her inspiring legacy had to be shared."

Mogamat “Kafunta” Benjamin on opening night.

Mogamat "Kafunta" Benjamin on opening night. (Tammy Petersen)

When an aging Kewpie needed placement at an old age home, her name was automatically placed at the bottom of the waiting list, Alistair tells News24.

"Nobody had any idea who Eugene Fritz was. When my wife asked if they didn't know Kewpie, she jumped to the top of the list!"

One last party

But Kewpie never saw herself as a pensioner, instead running errands for the older residents and, of course, styling their hair.

"She would leave for the shops at 09:00, but get back at 16:00. Everyone knew her and wanted to chat and have her visit," Alistair says.

Eventually diagnosed with throat cancer, Kewpie died in 2012 at the age of 71.

But she didn't go quietly, Benjamin maintains.

"We had one last party a month before she passed. And you better believe that she still did the splits for us."

An overwhelmed Ursula, seated in the front row at the exhibition launch on Thursday, said she had no idea how loved her sibling was.

""Kewpie was generous, kind. Everyone who needed a home knew where to find one. Hungry people knew where to go to be fed. That was just her nature. I am amazed to see how many people cared about her."

And had she lived to see her name in lights, Ursula believes Kewpie would have given the audience a performance to remember.

* The exhibition runs until January 18, 2019 at the District Six Museum Homecoming Centre in Buitenkant Street, open Monday to Friday from 09:00 to 16:00.

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