Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty — More Than ‘Just Dresses’

It won’t be florals. It’s about what’s happening in my mind, and I just can’t think in florals”

— Alexander McQueen —

I’m admiring the ripped, distressed and mud-stained, torn, nude synthetic fabric of a dress adorned with wooden beads and painted ivory. This impressive and slightly sinister creation is part of Alexander McQueen’s Eshu collection (autumn/winter 2000–2001), which is currently on exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum, in London.

“It’s like he was tormented”… squeaks a fellow visitor with an underdeveloped nasal voice behind me.

I’m thinking: “No shit, mate… The exhibition is called ‘Savage Beauty’. That should be your first clue… among other things.”

Other things like when, as an apprentice in the Savile Row workshop of Gieves & Hawkes, Alexander McQueen, bored one afternoon, wrote “I am a c*nt” in the lining of a jacket destined for the Prince of Wales.

Fair enough, at the time (1985) he was only 16 years old… but still, the signs were always there… like his famous quasi avant-garde catwalk shows.

From the moment McQueen launched his career the fashion industry watched his catwalk presentations with wide-eyed, titillated horror, peering from between their fingers at locks of human hair sewn into jacket linings… metal body corsets, Latex-fused skirts that look as though they’ve emerged from some embryonic swamp and a ravishing ball-gown constructed from layers of silk and real roses… or, on one memorable occasion an obnoxious post-show moonie from the designer himself.

Dress, Sarabande, spring/summer 2007,  nude silk embroidered with silk flowers and fresh flowers. Photograph © Sølve Sundsbø

Dress, Sarabande, spring/summer 2007,
nude silk embroidered with silk flowers and fresh flowers.
Photograph © Sølve Sundsbø

Alexander McQueen loved to menace and taunt. He did it with a brutal poetic charm… a primitive honesty. He was child-like and terrifying.

His vision of beauty was never orthodox. He worked with fat models and amputees. In one show his models were caged and spray-painted live on stage until their dresses resembled a Jackson Pollock… in another they were trapped in glass boxes with thousands of butterflies, forced to walk in dangerously high shoes that made their feet look like the claws of an alien species of shellfish, encircled in rings of fire. He winched open their mouths with silver jewellery that looked like tiny spears, their eyeballs veiled behind white contact lenses that made them look like androids… he took his audiences deep into dark worlds teeming with haunted creatures.

McQueen’s creations expressed an exquisite emotional narrative — a conversation about inner conflict without words, a primal spiritual transaction between creator, participant and spectator. Undoubtedly part of his enigma was the fact that these intricately conceived spectacles were only ever witnessed by a select few people — journalists, friends and retailers (pedestrians chosen to briefly walk on the sidewalk of McQueen’s wonderland).

Now, five years after his death in 2010, for the first time ever the extraordinary work of Alexander McQueen is accessible to everyone, thanks to the Savage Beauty exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum. It is the largest retrospective of the late designer’s visionary body of work, spanning his 1992 MA graduate collection to his final Spring/Summer 2010 Plato’s Atlantis collection.

From the moment you enter the exhibition, you are pulled into the inner world and mind of a creative genius, as Alexander McQueen’s Cockney twang echoes through the venue in a recording of his voice saying: “I am going to take you on journeys you never knew were possible.”

You get a true sense of the depth of his depression and anxiety as you journey through his collections on display. It’s present in his use of colours, textures, masks and spiky, pointy jewellery and horny, thorny headpieces … his obsession and perfectionism is clearly visible in iconic creations like the grotesque Duck Feather dress — made of hundreds of thousands of perfect shiny, pitch black duck feathers.

He was an archetypal Romantic. His affinity with the Flemish masters, Gospel singing, Elizabethan theatre and its cross-dressing heroines, contemporary performance art, punk, Surrealism, Japan, the ancient Yoruba, and fin-de-siècle aestheticism are bouncing off the walls. A visual orgy.

McQueen once said: “There’s something… kind of Edgar Allan Poe, kind of deep and kind of melancholic about my collections.” This is most noticeable in The Cabinets of Curiosities — the centrepiece of the exhibition. It brings together curiosities — curious in the darkest, sadomasochistic, most wonderful and fetishist sense — produced for McQueen, including horse bit mouth guards and gimp masks drafted in sumptuous leather and embellished with black pearls.

Alexander McQueen

The Cabinets of Curiosities is also a further testament of McQueen’s delicate and tortured soul. His collections often reflected opposites such as life and death, lightness and darkness. It’s this polarity that created the emotional intensity of his runway presentations — the interplay between victim and aggressor. The accompanying soundtrack to The Cabinets of Curiosities is grainy, low-resolution footage from McQueen’s most spectacular shows, making the entire experience an almost overwhelming sensory feast… (I think he would’ve secretly enjoy its impact.)

I never thought that fashion would succeed in moving me to tears. However, Savage Beauty, is not just about dresses and ‘pretty’ things — it’s about life, creation, history, pain, hope, frustration, anguish and above all, Alexander McQueen’s death — his suicide at the age of 40, is etched deeply into every immaculate creation on display… and so is our loss.

Yes, he was tormented.

It’s savage. It’s beautiful… and probably the closest anyone will come to experiencing the essence and creative genius of Alexander McQueen.

Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty is showing at the Victoria & Albert Museum, in London until 2 August 2015. Even though exhibition times have been extended, due to popular demand, limited tickets are available.

Margaret Thatcher Queen of Soho


“Where there are discos, may we bring harmonies.”

— Margaret Thatcher, Queen of Soho —

What started out as a 15-minute sketch at Theatre503’s Thatcherwrite season — a series of short plays based on the life of Margaret Thatcher staged in response to her death, in 2013 — have expanded deservingly into a full hour of boisterous and hilariously funny drag cabaret.

Margaret Thatcher, Queen of Soho, is led by the brilliant Matthew Tedford who presents The Iron Lady as a gay icon all dragged up in a two-piece tweed suit, feather boas and stony gin-and-tonic voice.

While watching this uproarious account of Lady Thatcher’s rise from divisive politician to ‘cabaret superstar’, I could not help but to wonder: Why did nobody make this observation while she was alive? It was all there, right in front of our eyes… the pearls, the signature handbag, the unsightly practical flat heels… even the hair screamed drag queen with a capital ‘D’.

Any who, those were different times.

Unlike the satirical backdrop of Thatcher’s drag act in G.A.Y., in the real world under Thatcher’s iron fist 1988 was a riotous time of discontent. The gay community in particular suffered a heavy blow with the introduction of Section 28, a controversial law prohibiting the ‘promotion’ (read ‘education’) of homosexuality in schools.

Thatcher was not our friend.

However, Margaret Thatcher, Queen of Soho, attempts (and certainly succeeds) to rewrite the pains from the past into something more of a fluffy pantomime as it imagines Thatcher making a wrong turn on the eve of the vote for Section 28. Maggie gets lost in Soho and accidentally finds herself in the glittering and gloriously camp club, G.A.Y., where she erupts into song and dance, performing hits like ‘It’s Raining Men’ and Bonnie Tyler’s ‘We Need A Hero‘.

A cabaret superstar is born!

But will the Iron Lady change her mind about the homophobic Section 28 before it’s too late?

Dame Edna has an unlikely rival in Matthew Tedford as he delivers Lady Thatcher with panache while capturing her every mannerism with alarming precision — and that in itself is ‘revenge’ enough… the sequins, hotpants and mustached wingmen flanking Maggie simply make this punchy political satire deliciously sweeter.

Margaret Thatcher, Queen of Soho is a camp odyssey about gay rights, the 80s and disco! It is a brilliant make-believe reconciliation between the gay community and a lady who suddenly is for turning. (If only things were that simple back then…No regrets!)

Camper than Christmas, glamorous, outrageous and even a bit horrifying. Comedy genius! A guaranteed laugh-a-minute — unless you’re a Daily Mail reader… or a Thatcherite… and there should be a special award for the line “Where there are discos, may we bring harmonies.”

Bitchy and regal, Margaret Thatcher makes the perfect drag queen all thanks to Tedford and his supporting cast. I suspect a full West End transfer is on the cards.

Margaret Thatcher Queen of Soho plays at the Leicester Square Theatre until 21 March. Click here to book tickets.

In Italy They Are All Men

“It doesn’t matter what you do in the bedroom as long as you don’t do it in the street and frighten the horses.”

― Daphne Fielding ―

In 1926, Italy’s dictator at the time, Benito Mussolini, reintroduced the penal code to enforce the rule of Fascism in Italy. The Rocco Code (1930, in force from 1 July, 1931) added more crimes to the list of those punishable with the death penalty, and reintroduced capital punishment for some common crimes. However, when Mussolini came under fire for not including specific laws against homosexuality, he declared “In Italy, they are all males

Unlike the Nazis, who treated gay people as an evolutionary degeneration of the Aryan race and persecuted them under Paragraph 175 of the German penal code, Mussolini’s fascist regime saw homosexuality as a characteristic typically found among the Germans and the English — an affliction from which the virile Italian male was immune. (Today we hear similar arguments from countries like Uganda and Nigeria, saying that homosexuality is un-African…)

As a result, Italy’s strategy was to ‘cover up’ the issue of homosexuality by creating a hostile climate in which open displays of homosexual affections were not tolerated. It was not until 1936, with the outbreak of World War II, that a more visible intolerance towards gay people (men in particular) occurred. During this period, the fascist regime sentenced gay men (often based on mere rumours or accusations) without due process, all in an effort to mimic Hitler’s racist and homophobic policies.

Italia Sono Tutti Maschi (In Italy, They Are All Males), is a beautifully illustrated graphic novel by Luca de Santis and Sara Colaone, which tells the story of the confinement of homosexuals during the Italian fascism regime. There are very few books depicting this part of our history and the authors have gone through great lengths to faithfully reproduce extracts from letters, reports and interviews with survivors — one of which inspired the central character of the book, Antonio.

The elderly “femminella”(effeminate) Antonio, also called Ninella, suffered the painful experience of political exile because of his sexuality. Torn from his family and his work as a tailor, after falling into a trap by the police, Ninella was sent to San Domino — an island in the Adriatic where gay men were exclusively interned.

On San Domino, Ninella makes friends with other unfortunates like him: the foul-mouthed Paterno, the petulant priest Don Nicholas, the slimy dealer Dante and the disguised Attilio, called Chinchilla. Over time Ninella receives the attention of Brigadier Dudiez, his supervisor, and he also falls in love with the young Mimi.

Even though Italia Sono Tutti Maschi is historically factual, it is never didactic. This true story is touching and intense and because of the subject matter, Italia Sono Tutti Maschi is a challenging but memorable and impressive read.

Italia Sono Tutti Maschi, is a must-have for all LGBT history enthusiasts. It has been hailed as one of the most important examples of Italian graphic novels that deal with historical themes. It was first published by Kappa Publishing, in September 2008, and has since been translated in French, German, Polish and Spanish. An English translation is not available yet.

Italia Sono Tutti Maschi is a touching and intense true story

Italia Sono Tutti Maschi is a touching and intense true story

Images: Open source editorial images
Text: FR Lubbe, Little Red Shoes

The Circle — Switzerland’s Forgotten Homophobic Past

“Nobody can give you freedom. Nobody can give you equality or justice or anything. If you’re a man, you take it.”

— Malcolm X —

World War II was a bleak time for LGBT people in Europe. Gay men in particular suffered open and often brutal persecution by the Nazis, with many perishing in concentration camps.

However, given Switzerland’s policy of political neutrality and tolerance it’s no surprise that homosexuality was decriminalised in 1942. This meant that, even during WW2, Switzerland had a thriving Gay community. In fact, many people are not aware that during the 30s, 40s and 50s Switzerland was by far a pioneer in terms of gay rights and allowing homosexual relationships.

Having said that, as LGBT people we know all too well that legal ‘privilege’ and social tolerance is a far cry from complete acceptance… even today, many of us still find ourselves often pulling on the shorter end of the social hypocrisy stick. A case in point is the docudrama The Circle (Der Kreis), which is due for release later this year.

Der Kreis - Due for release on 23 October

Der Kreis – Due for release on 23 October

The Circle (German with English subtitles) tells the true story of a Zurich gay club and magazine, called Der Kreis, which was founded in 1942. Der Kreis — a membership-only group — published a bimonthly illustrated magazine with pictures, stories, articles and gay art. There was official state censorship back then, which allowed full-frontal nudity in drawings but not photographs. The magazine by-passed censorship laws by printing illustrations and drawings, and racier texts were written in Shakespearean language, which the censors and even Karl Meier, the founder and editor-in-chief of Der Kreis, couldn’t read. The magazine was delivered in neutral envelopes, with Meier closely guarding the subscription list.

Along with the magazine, Der Kreis also organised get-togethers and special costume balls where their members could meet and mingle. To further protect the identities of their members, membership cards featured just numbers and no names, and most of their social events were held underground. Suffice to say, despite the fact that the law offered relative security to the Gay community in Switzerland, it was largely based on a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach and social intolerance remained a hold-over. It’s safe to say that personal attitudes took longer to change than the laws of the land.

The film’s director, Stefan Haupt, beautifully reconstructs this era in careful detail as he follows the real-life story of schoolteacher Ernst Ostertag — a naïve young French-literature teacher — and drag singer Robi Räpp — a hairdresser by day. The couple met and fell in love at one of Der Kreis‘s costume balls, in 1956. Shortly afterwards, both Ostertag and Räpp are targeted when police implicate the underground activities of Der Kreis and its gay subculture in a spate of murders among gay rent boy.

The police threats to the Gay community and raids on Der Kreis increase (similar to the witch hunts seen in some countries today) when the murders start to make headlines, resulting in acerbic and homophobic articles appearing in the mainstream press. This puts Ostertag at risks of being exposed as a gay man, putting his unconfirmed job as an educator in jeopardy — a potential embarrassing scenario for Ostertag’s bourgeois and stiff upper lip family.

The young Robi Rapp as portrayed by Sven Schelker

The young Robi Rapp as portrayed by Sven Schelker

Young Räpp, on the other hand, finds comfort and support from his widowed German mother, who worked as a cleaner and a theatre wardrobe lady. She embraces and accepts her son’s homosexuality and even helps to make the dresses for his drag performances.

The film eloquently illustrates the many hurdles a same-sex couple who simply wanted to be together had to jump through in the 1950s. The documentary element comes into play when Ostertag and Räpp are featured, in their old age in the present time, throughout the film in talking-head segments as they reminisce about leading conflicted public and private lives. They reflect on the impact of living in a society that, while nowhere near as officially punitive as Nazi Germany, still persecuted those whose lives were deemed inappropriate.

During one of the interview segments the couple argues about how long it took Ostertag to finally introduce Rapp to his parents. Ostertag did not come out to his family until his 70th birthday, even though he lived with Räpp since the 1950s and it’s rather poetic that in 2003 Ostertag and Räpp become the first Swiss couple to register as same-sex partners. Their struggles and having lived through decades of changing attitudes is at the very least a testimony that they are in some ways the guardian angels of the collective memory of the Gay movement of German-speaking Switzerland.

The Circle boasts a stellar cast, with Matthias Hungerbuehler as Ernst Ostertag, Sven as Robi Räpp and Marianne Saegebrecht, who is excellent in her bit part as Räpp’s mother. The film won the Teddy Award for best documentary with LGBT themes as well as the Panorama Audience Award at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival. It is due for release 23 October 2014.

Exhibit B: A Racist Failure Or An Uncomfortable Truth


“…until you heal the wounds of the past, you will continue to bleed…”

— Iyanla Vanzant —

Exhibit B, is a haunting installation (performance art piece) that critiques the ‘human zoos’ and ethnographic exhibits committed during white colonial rule in German South West Africa, British ruled Southern Africa and in the Belgian and French Congos.

The director of Exhibit B, white South African artist Brett Bailey, sets out to confront the disturbing phenomenon where Africans were brutally objectified as scientific curiosities or merely locked up in cages for the amusement of wealthy Victorian Europeans. He described his work as “a human installation on imperialism in Africa and racism”.

Bailey translates this perverse spectacle into twelve tableaux, each featuring motionless ‘characters’ placed in settings that, rather than portraying “the native in his natural surrounds” as human zoos did, show the cruelty inflicted upon modern-day asylum seekers in the European Union in a not so subtle ‘secondary storyline.’

For instance, Saartjie (Sarah) Baartman the so-called “Hottentot Venus” who was “discovered” by British ship’s doctor William Dunlop and exhibited for 5 years as a ‘freak’ in theatres and halls (because of her unusual physical features) in England and Europe and who, after her death in 1815, was dissected and her remains put on display, stands in Exhibit B expressionless on a turning plinth.

Brett Bailey - “Exhibit B”

Brett Bailey – “Exhibit B”

In another tableaux, modern-day black asylum-seekers are presented as “found objects”, although they stand before the audience as living and breathing human beings. Bailey serves his masterstroke at the end of the installation, when the pictures and the biographies of the ordinary black men and women who perform in Exhibit B are displayed… symbolically bringing them into the room along with the aching echo of their ancestors.

Exhibit B has already been shown in 12 cities, involving 150 local performers — participating ‘actors’ are all from the area or city where the installation is hosted. The installation has been seen by over 25,000 people with and overwhelmingly positive responses from participants, audiences and critics alike.

Peter Brook described Exhibit B as “an extraordinary achievement.”

The Belgium newspaper LE SOIR called it “terrible and magnificent… should run for several months so that all government ministers and scholars can attend.”

La Libre Belgique wrote: “How can one small exhibition about our colonial history hit harder than an entire year full of activities around the fiftieth anniversary of Congolese independence last year?”

The South African newspaper Mail & Guardian — one of the strongest voices against the Apartheid regime and once suspended in 1988 by one of Apartheid’s strongest proponents, then State President P. W. Botha — said: “That Bailey has managed to negotiate this problematic and highly sensitive arena with almost faultless judgment is deserving of extraordinary praise.”

Exhibit B was never supposed to be a comfortable, white-washed guilt-ridden portrayal of imperialism as it is taught in schools across Europe. Let’s be honest: how many school kids know anything about the impact and legacy of slavery? And even if they (we) read the most detailed facts of colonial history in a book, they’d (we’d) quickly forget about them. Whereas a thought-provoking and confrontational work of art, like the uncompromising Exhibit B, takes the hard-hitting, gut-wrenching truth and harpoons it straight through your entire being. It rips at your heart. It fucks with your head. It changes you… that’s if you are able to see (witness) it.

Brett Bailey - “Exhibit B”

Brett Bailey – “Exhibit B”

Unfortunately, Exhibit B’s five-day run at The Vaults in London was cancelled on Tuesday 23 September. After a vociferous campaign, Barbican officials decided to end an impasse with demonstrators, by cancelling the five-day run. The campaigners claimed to have obtained more than 20,000 signatures against what they called “institutionalised and complicit racism”, challenging Bailey’s right as a white South African to speak about racism in the way he does.

Leading the campaign against Exhibit B (#boycottthehumanzoo), activist and journalist Sara Myers, said: “I want my children to grow up in a world where the barbaric things that happened to their ancestors are a thing of the past. We have come a long way since the days of the grotesque human zoo – we should not be taking steps back now.”

Adding his voice, Simon Woolley, coordinator of Operation Black Vote, said: “This [Exhibit B] was a vanity project. Having people objectified in this humiliating way was always going to cause a fierce reaction.”

Among the strongest supporters of Exhibit B are the actors involved. Prior to Tuesday’s protest, in an effort to deflate the tension, the actors said in a statement: “We find this piece to be a powerful tool in the fight against racism. Individually, we chose to do this piece because art impacts people on a deeper emotional level that can spark change.

The exhibit does not allow for any member of the audience, white, black or otherwise, to disassociate themselves from a system that contains racism within it. We are proud to be black performers in this piece; to represent our history, our present and ourselves by playing the various characters taken from the record books.”

Still, the actors failed to pacify the angry protesters, who cried victory when Exhibit B got cancelled on the eve of its premiere on accounts of fear for the safety of the performers, staff and spectators.

Since then, many of the performers in Exhibit B lashed out at those who accused them of complicit racism. Actress Elexi Walker said: “It’s ridiculous to think I am being racist because I am involved in a piece that highlights the his tory of black people.” Chris Nekongo, another performer from Namibia, said: “In Namibia they are shocked to see that in a country like England this is happening. What happened in the past needs to be told in the present and the future.”

Brett Bailey with a performer from Exhibit B © Pascal Gely

Brett Bailey with a performer from Exhibit B © Pascal Gely

Clearly, the line must be drawn somewhere. Accusing someone of being racist has become all too easy these days… especially when there is a white man in the picture saying or doing something a black woman doesn’t like —  god forbid that white man is also South African. To then take it even further, accusing another black person of racism when he or she clearly is not, not only kills the messenger but it also burns the letter of good news he holds in his hand.

My grandfather always said: “Don’t allow your outrage to make an idiot of you.”

Institutionalised racism and complicit racism — if I understand the protesters argument — is in this case consenting Africans (black people) portraying an important (and often forgotten or ignored) part of their history through performance, art and storytelling — I’ll add to that: with the aim to educate, inform and stimulate a healthy debate and conversation…

And this should not be tolerated? In fact, it should be shut down. Silenced!

Using the same contorted argument, shouldn’t we then also ban films like Mississippi Burning, The Color Purple, 12 Years A Slave, Amistad, The Butler et al? While we’re at it, let’s burn books like The Book of Negro, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Beloved and The Astonishing Life Of Octavian Nothing… Hell yeah, why don’t we write all black people completely out of history? Or would that be a bit too extreme? Racist perhaps?

Adding to that, to say that an artist (or any person) is not allowed to have an opinion in a debate about race because of the colour of his or her skin — as was implied towards Bailey by Myers and her troops in their petition — is the most blatant and flagrant example of racial mud-slinging if there ever was one.

This is something many black people don’t get (and get angry about when it is called out): Racism cuts both ways — it impacts both sides of the fence — which is why everybody has a right to sit at the table — black, brown, yellow, white. We all have a part to play and should be allowed to join in the conversation… I ask myself (and Myers with her flag-waving politics): Would there have been such a massive outcry and a protest to demonise Brett Bailey’s work if he wasn’t white… and South African?

Brett Bailey 's "Exhibit B"

Brett Bailey ‘s “Exhibit B”

Personally (especially as a white South African male who is used to being shamed for the Apartheid atrocities of my grandfather’s generation), I fail to see how Exhibit B can be misinterpreted: As a multi-layered commentary, the twelve ‘snapshots’ collectively confront colonial racism committed in Africa, the cold horror of Apartheid, European notions of racial supremacy and the plight of African immigrants and asylum seekers today.

It’s therefor not primarily just a work about colonial-era racial violence, abuse and exploitation but also (and possibly most importantly) an exposé of current racist and xenophobic policies in Europe — policies that have been shaped over centuries, starting long before the 19th century. The dehumanising stereotypes of otherness instilled in the consciousness of our ancestors have been transmitted subconsciously and insidiously through the ages… It’s a burden we all still carry today. Why sweep it under the carpet?

Exhibit B demands that we question these representations… and hopefully will make us gasp (especially us white folk) when we leave the installation and think: “Are these black performers not entertaining the audience here in the same way the did in Victorian human zoos?… Is it possible that in many ways nothing has changed?”

Exhibit B is about looking and being looked at. It’s about a mirror held up to our faces — black and white! It’s about embracing the past no matter how uncomfortable it makes us. It’s about enquiry, storytelling (truth-telling) and baring witness.

How is this a ‘bad’ thing?

By silencing this installation, it’s not just freedom of expression and free speech that takes a knock. Far more important and urgent voices are being drowned out too: Voices from the past lamenting the cold brutality of colonial slavery, voices in the present crying for help from where they are trapped in the grips of modern slavery and human trafficking (face it, most victims of these crimes are from race minorities), and voices from the future forewarning us that if we do not learn from the past by embracing it and take heed in the present nothing will change… tomorrow will not look any different from yesterday.

As far as I can see, there is no victory here because thanks to those blindsided protestors we are all still wearing our chains… be it of slavery or of a racist past… because we are still not allowed to talk about certain things.

Bret Bailey's "Exhibit B"

Brett Bailey’s “Exhibit B”

Credits. Images: No Copyright Owned – All from different online media sources Text: FR Lubbe, Little Red Shoes