Breaking Down Binaries and Labels:
A candid look into the life of one of South Africa’s few Indian queer artists.
By Melanie Vandiar and Vikar Singh (SCORA)
In 2014, The African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights adopted resolution 275, Protection against Violence and other Human Rights Violations against Persons on the basis of their real or imputed Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity.
The resolution condemned increasing incidences of violence and human rights violations, and urged states to end all acts of violence and abuse, by both state and non-state actors, and ensure proper investigation and diligent prosecution of perpetrators, and establishing judicial procedures responsive to the needs of victims. However, many people in Africa continue to live in fear murder, rape, assault and arbitrary imprisonment.
In South Africa, the strong cultural and patriarchal systems have been the direct cause of violent hate crimes against sexual and gender minorities. The receipts of these lashes, mostly young Black Women, ultimately accumulate to nameless statistics, with most of these crimes remaining unsolved without any convictions.
In Cape Town, lives a dynamic and charismatic individual, who dedicates his life and career in the performing arts, to break down these gender norms and aims to destroy these boxes and establish a zeitgeist of freedom!
We recently caught up with Tazme Pillay, to delve deeper into his life and gain insight to normalisation of gender nonconformity in the 21st century.
SAMSA: How was life for you growing up?
Tazme: Growing up is honestly a blur for me; I remember being a highly imaginative child, and it was likely that this reliance on fantasy has led to much of my memory of this time being somewhat cinematic to me. Family was a major role player; the dynamics of relationships around me as well the constant cultural pressure of growing up in a traditional Indian home has shaped much of my self-expression and identity. I think a lot of my bravery in the way I choose to express myself has come from a natural instinct to rebel against the conventions imposed on me growing up. I wouldn’t change anything about it though; it’s all helped build the layers and levels of me that I am right now.
SAMSA: We should celebrate the person we are, regardless of race, sexual orientation, gender identity and weight. How was your journey becoming the person you are today?
Tazme: Self-celebration has always been an inherent thing for me; perhaps as a defense against the forces reminding me of how strange I was. That rebellious streak again I suppose, I think, to relate this back to growing up, much of the growing up I did happened quickly and early when I realized that it was my body, my mind and my life that I had to live [sic]. So, I became unapologetic about living it, as you should be. Although it would be wholly untruthful not to acknowledge the difficulties faced by social pressures and the established norm one experiences in a community like the one I grew up in, there is a time when you want to fuse yourself into the cultural conventions that are lauded as “normal” and in some way, purer than your binary points of view. But that doesn’t lead to a happy or healthy experience for anyone. See, for good art to be made, you must be put in a place of discomfort, so you fight for the validation of your identity. That makes your work fierce; the creative response being established from very real stakes. Which is what I did, and what I keep doing. It’s not being selfish, but self-serving; understanding that you need to trust yourself with being yourself. As my father told me every day; “Always be yourself”.
SAMSA: Have you ever experienced any form of teasing or bullying growing up or even now, and how have you overcome it?
Tazme: There was this thing that people always told me about playing with girls. That in school, I had too many friends who were girls. I needed more friends who were boys. That’s bullsh**, I didn’t need more boys [sic]. And in retrospect, I surrounded myself with the girls because I felt safer. Protected. Bullying was an experience that often left me bewildered. Thankfully, I’ve never faced the physical kind. But there was the taunting, the jokes, the rumours… In fact, now that I’m talking about it, I think the most bullying I’ve faced in my life was within the LGBTQ+ community itself, especially here, in Cape Town. The constant cliques, the degradation of the “femme” identity and the appraisal of the patriarchal archetype as ideal. I don’t stand for that. I respond through my work, through my existence. By choosing to exist and act as the very thing that these indicators of insecurity arise from, I guess I exist as a way for these people to look those fragile parts of themselves straight in the eye and maybe deal with it. I want bullies, bigots, people who are suppressed and repressed to look at me and feel such overwhelming freedom that maybe they have to react in a way that’s not so nice. I want what I do, to challenge them, but also to grow on them. It’s by changing a link or two in the chain of ignorance that we can come to a more aware state of being. Not by writing those links off all together.
SAMSA: What has been your greatest lesson over the past two decades of your life?
Tazme: Always be yourself. My dad said it to me once when he and my mom were going through a hard time. And it’s literally defined the way I’ve chosen to exist. It is when we are convicted in the expression of ourselves that we become powerful and stronger. It’s literally believing that how you feel about yourself and your identity is completely valid and natural; that makes you.
SAMSA: What do you hope audiences take away from your artistry?
Tazme: I suppose, for people to be able to interpret their stories and their histories through my story. I don’t want to, and cannot possibly, speak for everyone and every queer experience. But through my story, and through the interpretation thereof in my work, perhaps people can find common ideas and threads, and they can see their stories existing on stages and spaces too. I think that can be cathartic. To see yourself acknowledged or to allow yourself the space to be acknowledged. I want my work to shock you into asking questions, and then have you think about why you’re asking them. I don’t have the answers, but perhaps I can inspire them.
SAMSA: What has been your greatest challenge?
Tazme: Understanding and learning that I have to let go of what people think. Those people who in some sense don’t allow you the space to grow and explore yourself and your identity. I’ve only recently come to understand just how radical some of my ideas and work can be to people in my immediate surroundings. But as I have said, I don’t make work to make you feel comfortable. Letting the opinions of others, especially people you regard as family, respecting them, knowing them, affect your work will get you nowhere. I can’t edit myself to make someone else more comfortable and, why should I? That would be dishonest. You must make art that is honest to yourself; in a sense, be self-serving. Honor yourself. Allow your words to come through unfiltered; they may just inspire someone to feel braver about themselves and their world.
SAMSA: What has been your best achievement?
Tazme: I did this performance recently where I climbed Lion’s Head in Cape Town, this big mountain that’s basically a temple of patriarchy, carrying buckets of blood and covered in chicken hearts. At a point, I got really emotional. Looking out into the city while I lugged up all this burden, I thought about those people down there who have their existence erased each day by the constant reinstatement of heteronormative, patriarchal codes of conduct. I mean, Cape Town is basically a heteronormative code of conduct. And I felt this sense of responsibility. So, I’d say my greatest achievement so far, is visibility. Refusing to be invisible, erased. I don’t stay quiet. I’ll be here to make all the noise for all the lady/boys and remind people we are here to slay. But then, I also think it’s a bit early to answer this question; I haven’t really achieved anything that significant.
SAMSA: What can we expect from Tazme Pillay in the future?
Tazme: Who knows? More noise I guess. Hopefully noise that the right people will hear. Noise that will make an impact. A change. I hope to think that my work will continue to develop and evolve. Perhaps I’ll immerse myself in a new space for a while, re-inspire and allow the creativity to come. You can also expect lots of glitter and some fierce outfits.
SAMSA: We’ve heard that you play the protagonist in an upcoming movie ‘Shadow’. Can you tell us more about it and your experiences in a film production?
Tazme: It’s a short film, written and directed by film maker, Dayakar Padayachee. It’s about a teenager, named Tyrone and it deals with many issues, including issues of sexuality and living in a conservative environment which I somewhat related to because he is an Indian boy and comes from a very conservative family living in Durban. Working with the team and cast was amazing, and a really great project to be involved in.
SAMSA: We live in a country that generally allows us to be who we are – what is your message to gender nonconforming persons?
Tazme: Let’s go dancing; you know you’re a fabulous, beautiful and immensely brave beings. So, fu**, let’s go celebrate that!
SAMSA: What are your hopes for society in the future?
Tazme: I hope to see a society that is more open to notions of identity and the slow destabilization of patriarchal normativity. It’s a slow process, but I would love to see it start in the LGBTQI community here; so maybe we can actually come together instead of placing each other in a ridiculously regressive hierarchy. The gaytriarchy must fall.
SAMSA: Who has been your greatest inspiration?
Tazme: David Bowie, and my Dad.
SAMSA: Complete the sentence: Binaries can best be theorized by…