The Sissy’s Progress: Nando Messias

Image Credit: Loredana DenicolaImage Credit: Loredana Denicola

Nando Messias’ work straddles performance art, dance and theatre. His performances combine beautiful images with a fierce critique of gender, visibility and violence. He has performed at Hayward Gallery, V&A, Tate Tanks, Gate Theatre, Toynbee Studios, Riverside Studios, Roundhouse, Royal Vauxhall Tavern and ICA, among other spaces in Britain. He has worked internationally in France, Austria, Germany, Slovenia, Portugal, Brazil, Chile, the United States and Japan.

After receiving a provocation by Gareth along the themes of his new work The Sissy’s Progress Nando responds…

The walking body is a moving vessel which carries meaning and is a place for the creation of identities. It is political and subjected to the penetrative gaze of others. Sometimes this is pleasurable and sometimes it is painful. We are undone by it like blood red ribbons in the wind. Walking down the street, we are exposed to violence.

This is beautiful, Gareth! I’m surprised how well it describes the piece and the research behind it. ‘Walking’ was the linchpin of the piece. Whereas the attack I suffered on the street was the catalyst of the piece, the act of walking served as its main theme. After the attack, I went into a period of reflection. I wanted to understand what it was in me that drew the violent attention of a group of young men. I wanted to understand, rationally, what made me stand out in public. Why was I a target of violence? Take away all the accouterments attached to my body at the time (veiled hat, lipstick, mascara, high heeled shoes and a skirt over my trousers) and what remains is the body, the moving body, the walk, the fact that I walk ‘like a girl’ or like an effeminate man. As you said, sometimes the gaze the queer body attracts is positive and sometimes it is negative. In my personal process to understand and decode my own difference, I went into studio to try to break down this ‘sissy’ walk. Is it my hips that shake too much from side to side? Is it my shoulders that are too unstable? What constitutes this walk? I tried to constrain it, restrict it, make it less visible. In doing that, I understood intrinsically that in trying to contain my difference, I was myself repeating the violence I had experienced on the streets. I was trying to make the sissiness in it disappear.

This was a painful realisation. The next step was to admit and accept that the solution lies not in trying to hide my difference but, rather, in going the opposite direction, i.e. the solution lies in embracing what others see as a mistake, as ugly, as embarrassing. I latched on the this image of turning up the volume on my difference. I tried, therefore, to make my walk MORE visible rather than less visible. I started to think about what it would mean to be hypervisible on the streets. This is where the marching band comes in. Among other things, they are a representation of this idea of turning up the volume. My body and my walk are not only visible on their own in the performance. This time, the accouterments are not only the make up and the heels but also brightly coloured helium balloons and a ball gown. If this fails to invite the gaze, the sound of the moving band, the live music from the brass instruments will also invite attention.

Our wild beauty attracts many predators in these dark woods, wolves creep from behind the rocks.

The queer body is excluded and cast aside to make space for others, left beside the road bleeding what some may say is a poison, toxins that threaten society and turn children ethereal. Will this expulsion of our bodies/lives continue or will real change happen?

Violence, abuse, rape and law hang over our heads like a heavy guillotine ready to drop. Will we ever escape, or shall we just hope and blend in? Hope that the gaze passes through rather than lingers. Our beauty shines with pride? Or tinged with precariousness?

We perform rituals and create spells to protect ourselves from such violence. A special form of magic devised in bedrooms with the radio blaring. What happens when the personal becomes public? The inside becomes outside? The healing balms which heal the fragmented self are shown and exposed to the wind?

I think it is Heather Love who talks about the importance of mourning the lives of those queer people we have lost. She advocates the importance of looking backwards into our queer history as an essential strategy when attempting to move forward. I personally feel like the queer body serves a specific purpose. We guard the boundaries and delineate the limits of normality. Boys learn how to be masculine by NOT acting like a sissy. We present an alternative to the binary. In that way, the non-normative body, the queer body is already part of the system it is trying to avert; the same way that transgression, in a Foucauldian sense, is always already part of the power system it is trying to break.

My dream is that queer bodies would continue to exist AS queer, that they would manage somehow to resist being normalised. In my utopia, however, our difference (albeit still not normal), would exist in a world where we wouldn’t have to look over our shoulders with a constant fear of being targets of abuse.

*Featured/thumbnail image: Nando Messias in The Sissy’s Progress which will be shown on the 17th and 18th of March: Toynbee Studios, London.