I have come to be an artist through a long journey of interrogation into the truth of how my body and performance as ‘femme’ is transacted. The initiation of this movement came via my experience in the film world where glass ceilings and a culture of male entitlement and privilege meant that I was continually forced to transact performances or readings of sexuality in order to get or maintain jobs. In protest of this dynamic and after seven years finding myself still professionally and financially unstable, I quit the industry to work as a stripper. It was my first conscious act of art – a performative protest that helped me further unravel the dynamics of how my body is obligated and performed in hetero-patriarchal economies as well as the nuances of content and gendered relations. This performance did not stop at the edges of the club. Holding the position of someone who worked in the sex industry had very specific, complex and often harrowing implications on my social life, in how people stigmatised me, sexualised me, and outlined many class, gender and labour assumptions that map societal inclusion and exclusion. I found myself having to “protest” how I was read, off duty, by default of my labourand the stigma attached to it.
I held a number of interventions to make these mechanics visible: Curating the Body — a series of conversations about performance and body held with artists at 4:30am when I came off shift; the Fantasy Friday Featuring Real Artist series, where I traded performances of intimacy and the mundane for the cultural capital of socially vetted artists; and the In Bed With Artists Residency where artists applied with a project to spend one or two nights in my bed. I wanted to bring attention to the artistry of the historic muse, the transacted femme, the sex worker. Her skill, intention, and intelligence of performance is no less than that of the artist, model or actress, yet she is demonised for taking back control of her sexual, gendered, and symbolic labour by becoming the main beneficiary of the work. Imagine the one who looks back, the silent, emotional, embodied labourer, finally remunerated for all her work as the cultural, aesthetic, historic producer.
Recently, South Africa had its short and largely ineffectual #MeToo movement and I was asked to testify. The testimony was tricky, and the nuances of power violations in relation to my perceived gender subtle. His misstep with me was turning meetings into dates, never addressing the intended purpose of the meetings. The power of testimony against him lay in the collective of accusations, many horrific and overt. In addition, this was a man of colour, and I was upset that he was the first public target. “I’ve experienced much worse with other directors,” I told the journalist. “Write it for me.”
My first boss in the film industry, when I was a young graduate almost ten years before, had come onto me while we were on a work trip, climbing into my bed uninvited. I had said “no” a number of times, he had persisted. I didn’t feel terrible afterwards. I continued to date him for six months following the initial incident because, given the abusive power dynamics in the office where he constantly yelled at his all-female, all younger staff, sleeping with him gave me some sort of relief — a free pass, some kind of agency. When I ended the relationship he threatened to withhold my pay, and made my life in the office a daily, living hell, confirming the labour he had actually been paying for. Maybe I was a victim. Maybe I was ambitious. It wasn’t physically violent. I did not, at the time, know the words “sexual coercion.” Nor did I have a vocabulary or conceptual understanding of systematic power and oppression. Only after sending the story to the journalist years later did I realize it read as a rape accusation.
The other reasons I started working as a stripper are also real, by the way: Always wanted to be a dancer; Wanted to explore the boundaries of my own taboo, the limits of my sexuality (never mind that these boundaries are defined by limits of gendered shame, passed down but not inevitable). More sassy, that I shouldn’t have to disclaim this decision. A part of me also definitely wanted to know that, should the world go to shit, I’d have the resources to survive. Like all the other women in war have been forced to do, to gestate paradox — but maybe, for once, in a way where I could come out on top. Did I forget to mention that we are already at war?
We didn’t publish the story about my first boss. I am scared of publicly recounting these stories so devoid of sass and joy. I do not want the world to read me or my work as only a reaction to this sadness and pain, and yet I cannot think of anyone unaffected by the systematic oppression of our current political-economic system. We are all working from a place of damage.
That is the truth of it.
Fantasy Friday featuring Real Artist Ed Young, 2017, Nico Athene. Photographer, Sarah Schafer.
The other truth is that pushing for optimism at the expense of all this pain, is sometimes a continued violence in the face of the dominant hegemony. It is a way to silence the voices of the oppressed, and the oppressed parts of self. It is a way of ignoring their grievances, making them productive once again in the economies that continue to oppress them without penance or restitution. It is a way for damaged and hurt bigots in power to deny their own shame and pain, and thereby enact it onto others, and get away with it. It is a way of denying the urgency of environmental degradation. Of human suffering. Of our own anger and sensitivities.
Yet another truth: the fear of being deemed less able for this sadness, or less than professional for talking publicly about pain, personal life, problems, and trauma fills me with a maddening anxiety. Yet it is also the imperative of the sex worker, whose body disrupts the moral assumptions through which we normatively delineate what is public and private and in doing so unmasks the power dynamics that control and contribute to our own oppressive projections — projections that enslave the femme and feminine, and undermine the value of domestic, social and emotional labour.
And another truth: that allowing the pain to live, be visible, and be seen, does not necessarily silence the other spaces for joy and creativity.
Recently, relating this ordeal to the journalist and looking back on my life, career, experience of access, safety and privilege through this lens, I fell into a bottomless grief.
It was just before I left South Africa to attend two different residencies in the USA. To get from one to the other, I took a road trip with a friend who was suffering from depression. I struggled to know what to do with his sadness, partly because I didn’t want to be reminded of my own. I wanted solutions and I needed optimism. It was during this time that I started to have vivid daydreams of pregnancy, of carrying something that was part me, part the world’s. I even wished for it. If I was carrying something inside of me, if I was growing something through my body, I would be justified in the exhaustion and nausea. I would be vindicated in doing enough. My body, by default, would be generating a kind of hope. I took a hundred tests. They were all negative, but the symptoms were there. Dropped at SFAI for the start of my residency, I was left with a pregnancy of sadness. My time as a resident was spent gestating this foetus.
My return home to South Africa coincided with Trump passing laws in the US to invisibilize trans people – people who already, in the violent binaries of language that have been coded into biological and psychological essentialism, are continuously erased from popular discourse, social spaces, safe spaces, access to medical care, insurance, etc. In Johannesburg, I went to a screening of B*tch Makoya, a documentary outlining yet another murder of a trans woman in the Northern Cape. Trans women of colour are the most at risk of violence, stigma and abuse, their existence made visible often only through lens of necropolitics. In the film, Seo-Ketsi Mooketsi, whose courage in the face of this is both humbling and devastating, spoke of violence. “I struggle through violence,” she said, “I find trauma in violence, I find healing through violence.”
Fantasy Friday Featuring Real Artist Dean Hutton, 2017, Nico Athene. Photographer, Sarah Schafer.
A week later, in Cape Town, I went to the premiere of the body-swap movie High Fantasy. Four friends — two women of colour, one white woman and a black man go camping and wake up in each other’s bodies. It is an attempt to deal with the complexity of identity politics, land restitution, privilege, and entitlement that make up a lot of South African public discourse. Asked ‘what next’ at the opening night Q&A, director Jenna Bass replied “We have to figure out how to go on from here.” Responding from the audience, Kopano Moroga said, “We need to step out of the rhetoric of moving forward and production, and allow space for our country to grieve.” South Africa’s pain is immense. It has been gaslighted and silenced by hyper-capitalism, white-supremacy and hyper-masculinity under the myth of the rainbow nation and the push for symbolic reconciliation. It has done so at the expense of economic and cultural reform.
Back home, I diagnosed myself with burnout and started a course of antidepressants. Resistance is an act of endurance… sometimes. Sometimes it is not a choice. We are born into brave bodies and forced into courage as an act of survival. Sometimes, we need to find spaces where we no longer resist. Where we can rest. Where we can grieve. Sometimes we don’t want to endure. Even grieving in a world hell bent on growth economy is an act of bravery and endurance. I needed a break.
Analogue Optimism, 2018, Nico Athene. Fat, charcoal, chicken soup on canvas, Santa Fe
I am still an optimist. I desire to have a family in spite of it all, whatever that may look like. To bring children into this world, or, if not bring them, to raise them and love them and teach them that they are allowed their feelings, allowed to express themselves. That doing so honestly is in fact how they will avoid hurting others. That their pain is as valid as their joy. Their resilience and courage as valid as their sensitivities. That they, in their entirety, and beyond binary, are worthy.
I do not recognise myself according to the terms that define or give meaning to the position of “woman.” I am aware of the performance, the labour taken for granted, the transactional assumptions that create “woman” as a hypothetical, political-economic, essentialist position. I don’t need to reclaim my womanhood, or my queerness, or my other. I need to reclaim my humanity. I need you to see that my pregnancy is real. That this body already gestates a lot for the world, metaphorically and physically. That it is working all the time. And that its labour is extra-ordinary. It is sci-fi. The future is now.
I am pregnant with fear and love. Impregnated daily by them, both. My body is a crucible of paradox, and I, a mother of multitudes. I am birthing new work through this violence. I am birthing as an act of generation. It is painful and exhilarating. I am tired. I am traumatised. I am resilient and creative and imaginative. And I need to breathe between each push, to continue.
Nico Athene is a body of colliding personas: political and personal, immediate and distant, academic and under-qualified. Born and raised in Cape Town South Africa, she has two degrees under her formal identity, neither directly related to art. She worked a number of years in the creative film industry before giving up her ‘real name’ to become a stripper in a Cape Town club. She blames patriarchy and glass ceilings, figuring that if she had to do unpaid sex work in the form of gendered performances and flattery to get by, she may as well charge for it.
Athene’s practice explores real-time intimate improvisation between bodies, persons and personas, across online and domestic spaces, often using transactionalism and non-linear narrative as a challenge to stereotyped relating, and blurring the boundaries between public and privates to disrupt the moral and class assumptions that precede how an artist or artwork is realized. In 2017 she infamously held an artist’s residency in her bed. As her character ages she continues to explore the implications of domestic production as a fetishized practice, and ritual and nurturing as artistic generation. She is also working on a series of artistic abjections. She is interested in what it means to work from the ontology of the spectacle – as the traditionally silenced art ‘object’.
Athene has been an artist in residence at Arteles Creative Residency in Hämeenkyrö Finland, the Vermont Studio Centre in Vermont, Any Body Dance Lab in Cape Town, and Arts Letters and Numbers in New York.
You can follow Athene’s work on instagram: @nicoathene