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Lee-Ann Olwage’s The Queens of Cape Town 16
The Queens of Cape TownPhotography Lee-Ann Olwage

These photos capture the in-between moments of Cape Town’s drag pageants

Lee-Ann Olwage’s photographs elevate South Africa’s own take on drag performance

In the aftermath of apartheid, South Africa’s 1996 constitution became the first in the world to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation. As the country grappled with the urgent question of national identity and what it means to “belong”, the new legislation promised equality and safety for all.

But while the new laws granted protection to sexual minorities on many levels, it has remained dangerous to be publicly identified as queer in South Africa. Becoming aware of this paradox is what led photographer Lee-Ann Olwage to get involved with Cape Town’s drag community. “I became interested in spaces where people can go and be celebrated for who they are,” she explains.

Olwage focused on pageants happening in Cape Flats, a barren and windswept stretch of land where most people of colour were moved to when Cape Town’s city centre was declared “white-only” under apartheid.

The contestants include cis, genderqueer and trans-bodies, mixed-race and black people. Still, Olwage explains, “for black drag queens it’s almost impossible to get into that scene and be recognised in the same way as the mixed-race drag queens are.”

Besides attending shows regularly, the photographer joined a group of queens on a trip to Miss Drag South Africa, an annual national pageant that last year took place in Port Elizabeth, a nine-hour drive from Cape Town. “This was when I really got deeper into the work,” Olwage says. “After spending four days with some of the queens that I had met before, I began to understand who they are, what they are like when they're off stage.”

Olwage began visiting their homes and getting to know their backgrounds. “Some of them have very supportive families. But for many individuals that is not the case at all,” she says.

Belinda, who is Xhosa, told her that there was no word in her language to describe being drag or transgender. “The words they need to use to explain to their family who they are, are very derogatory,” the photographer says.

For people like Belinda, “coming to these pageants is almost the only place where they can 100 per cent express themselves in this way,” Olwage concludes. Participants go to great lengths to portray their desired persona, whether they are enacting the blue-skinned, tentacle-headed alien opera singer from The Fifth Elementor celebrating their culture in heritage-themed contests.

“The more I spent time with people the more I realised how they wanted to be portrayed, what it is they wanted to say with the images” – Lee-Ann Olwage

In fact, Olwage wants to portray the specific context of South African drag culture which, she feels, is often erased by mainstream depictions of drag. RuPaul’s Drag Race has made the art of drag available to a broader audience and demonstrated the diversity that drag art can encompass. Yet, ironically, drag going mainstream has also created archetypes of what a drag queen looks like.

“There's a very problematic aspect to that”, the photographer says, “in Cape Town, people now compare our local drag queens to RuPaul’s, and financially, economically, they’re not on the same level. They expect girls to come on the stage and have those extravagant costumes and be that polished, where, our culture, is unique to us.”

In the series The Queens of Cape Town, Olwage shows that South African drag is not a pale imitation of American pop culture, but rather a context-specific art form that reflects the realities of living in present-day South Africa as a queer person of colour.

If Olwage’s approach first leaned towards documentary, the drag queens eventually became very involved in making the work. “After every pageant, I would get a hoard of Whatsapps saying ‘please can you send me my pictures?’ ... It became a lot of admin but it also gave me the feedback that I needed to keep evolving the work,” she explains. “One of the first things that came out is that some of the lighting was too harsh, so that's something that I changed.” 

“The more I spent time with people the more I realised how they wanted to be portrayed, what it is they wanted to say with the images,” the photographer explains. “As the work evolves I'm stepping more into the role of creating a space people can come into and almost direct their own pictures.”