A large, golden figure appears, naked, in the middle of a suburb of Ghana. It barely moves, but it’s alive. It has short, curly hair and glasses. Angels don’t wear glasses, or have huge breasts. People begin to surround the creature, pushing each other in order to take photos and record videos with their phones. They zone in on the area between its legs, until someone asks: “Are you a man or a woman?”
It’s Dean Hutton, and she loves being asked that question. “I always answer that I’m both, or neither. I also like to see the way people treat me according to my answer, because it changes.”
Dean Hutton is a renowned South African photojournalist who currently dedicates her time to social art and street performance. At 40, she’s started a Fine Arts degree at the University of Cape Town and is constantly surrounded by young people. She claims to bear witness to a great social and political change in her country, emerging from a new paradigm established by the most oppressed: black women, students, social outcasts or, simply, those who defy the norm.
If Dean uses her own body to think, to express herself, it’s because every second of her life has been a brutal struggle. Dean was born white in the height of Apartheid. She was born a female who didn’t feel female, in a country where they carry out corrective rape to “cure lesbians”.
Johannesburg, 1976. Our protagonist was born a girl the same year as one of the bloodiest episodes in South African history. A protest of students from Soweto, the suburb to which the black population of Johannesburg was confined, marched through the streets. They opposed a new government law that tried to ensure that there, in the overcrowded and rundown schools for black students, they would teach in the language of the white colonists, Afrikaans.
The protestors threw rocks at the police, who responded with gunshots. 566 children were killed.
Before Dean Hutton became Dean Hutton, she grew up in a big family: “Many families were without work, they didn’t have any education. They were conservative and very racist.” Although she “didn’t have the vocabulary to express it [yet]”, she knew that all that hate was bad. She hated the hate towards black people.
Since 1984, the white minority had imposed a system of racial segregation called Apartheid (“separation” in Afrikaans) in South Africa. The Afrikaners, descendants of the Dutch and British colonists, established a racist system in which the black population could neither vote nor occupy positions of power, where mixed relationships were banned and where there were ambulances, schools and even banks assigned to each skin colour.
She knew what was happening in her country. It was impossible not to. But at the same time, she was a minority in her own home, and her house was hostile territory. “I wasn’t racist and this made me an outsider in my own family, it was as if I had a disease.”
I wasn’t racist and this made me an outsider in my own family, it was as if I had a disease
At just 16, she ran away from home. After spending some time in her aunt’s care, she wanted to search for a “safe home”. In her mind, this could only become a reality in a centre for lone children. But not just any centre. The South African girl wanted to live in a multiracial children’s shelter. “At that time it was very rare for a centre to mix whites and blacks, but I found a place. There, I blossomed.”
A few days before her 18th birthday, she still didn’t know if she would be able to vote in the first democratic general elections in her country. Nelson Mandela was South Africa’s first black presidential candidate. His victory, with 62% of the votes, was overwhelming.
It was 1994 and Apartheid had reached its end. At least officially. “Being able to vote was fantastic. Although I had been raised with the privilege of white skin, I felt trapped. I had never felt free.”
Photography, an exercise in power
When you look at someone, your brain automatically forms an image of that person. But when you photograph someone, you’re creating a representation, you’re exercising power. A low angle shot can make a subject look powerful; taking the picture while they sneeze will make them look drunk or sick.
The queer artist studied photography. She tirelessly documented the streets of Johannesburg and, little by little, developed an interest in social issues. Her talent led her to become the chief photographer at one of the most important newspapers in the country, the Mail & Guardian. But all the professional success, recognition, prizes and exhibitions did nothing to quell two troubling thoughts that plagued her mind:
She understood that photojournalism could be another way of imposing identities onto others: “Photography can be an exploitative activity.” And that this was exactly what everyone else was doing to her
1. “What did it mean to be black in a democratic country?” Nelson Mandela was president and she documented misery and injustice.
2. She didn’t feel free, not yet. “ I didn’t feel comfortable with my feminine identity, I didn’t feel comfortable with any identity.”
Camera in hand, she understood that photojournalism could be another way of imposing identities onto others: “Photography can be an exploitative activity.” And that this was exactly what everyone else was doing to her. “I didn’t like the projects in which the subject didn’t know how they’d been portrayed. I made the decision to only document someone if I could establish a true connection with them.”
In this period, she questioned her privilege as a white photographer in a country where inequality continued to reign. Meanwhile, her identity as a woman was diminishing.
In 2011, more than 30 years old, she took a trip to New York that changed her life. “I met a community of people of a non-binary gender, they identified as queer transexuals. They didn’t feel obligated to choose one of the two options”. She had found a way of expressing her angst, and knew exactly what differentiated her from her mother and her sisters: “I was fucking queer”.
Soon, she began to call herself Dean and her life gathered momentum. Choosing was not obligatory. In fact, nothing was. This newly discovered freedom changed her perception of the world: She now understood that human lives were constricted by destructive fears and norms.
Dean maintains that the suffering brought on by her identity crisis allowed her to better understand the racism in her country. But unlike sex or gender, you can’t reject your skin, you can’t run from it.
As Dean couldn’t deny her white privilege, she decided to use it for good. “White people like to say that they are African, but we spilled a lot of blood here. Every square inch of earth in this country has been robbed. If we admit to this, we can’t continue reap the benefits.”
According to Dean, white people are in debt to to the black population and they must work to save the country. However, she rejects any feelings of guilt.
According to Dean, white people are in debt to the black population and they must work to heal the country. However, she rejects any feelings of guilt: “It’s an emotion that paralyses, and that focuses the attention on you. It can’t be that in this country there are still those who own others. It sickens me to see how this continues to occur in South Africa.
The Rainbow Nation is to South Africa what the American Dream is to the United States. A founding ideal, a consensual concept conceived to unite the different communities that make up these countries. Many South Africans continue to believe in it. Dean does not.
“It’s a concept driven by public relations. It was created by the same team who helped Mandela to write A Long Way To Freedom. It’s a utopia that’s unattainable for everyone. Of course we are all equal before the law, it’s just that the rich are more equal. Land ownership for white people will always be a privilege. This is a different conversation. People want equality.”
Fascinated by the direction her new life was taking, Dean gradually abandoned her career as a photojournalist and veered towards art and street activism. She feels like a warrior, or a human shield. She believes the destruction of gender has the sheer force of a black hole: it has the power to absorb routines and structures, and, in turn, expel new ways of relating, of living and even new forms of social and political organisation.
She believes the destruction of gender has the sheer force of a black hole: it has the power to absorb routines and structures, and, in turn, expel new ways of relating, of living and even new forms of social and political organisation.
“I don’t believe that representative democracy is working for the poor. We have to find new forms of social organization. I’m not talking about socialism because I don’t believe in binary political systems. In a way, it’s about making the world queer without everyone having to identify as such”.
Dean currently practises what is referred to as radical sharing. It’s a more challenging way of life, but she feels as though she has been given a sort of mission: “We are witnessing the implosion of a system, I see it every day. The time for collaboration is ending and the governments will militarise. It’s unsustainable to commit to anything. And we don’t have many opportunities left to create change”.
In August, the Democratic Alliance, an Anti-Apartheid party traditionally represented by white people, won the regional elections in South Africa. Jacob Zuma, the current president of the country and successor to Mandela in the ANC party, suffered his worst electoral outcome to date.
Zuma has not only paid for his party’s corruption with a decrease in votes, but a group of women have taken it upon themselves to remind the public of a rape accusation for which he was tried and acquitted en 2006. These are their futile efforts to improve the conditions of women’s lives, and specifically, the strong rape culture that persists in the country.
“You will miss out on good men and marriage”, said the president to a group of South African journalists who were covering election day. Zuma’s sexist comments have since been condemned as politically incorrect, and the woman who claims to have been his victim, Kwezi, lives outside of the country.
In August, four women disrupted one of Zuma’s speeches holding placards which read #RememberKwezi”. Security agents removed the women and Twitter erupted with reactions to the incident. This occurred on Women’s Day.
— Kealeboga Ramaru (@maseramaru) 9 de agosto de 2016
“It’s incredible to be in this country right now. Students, black women, feminists, and the queer community are all coming together. Now they aren’t waiting for the power to pay attention to them, they act and collaborate spontaneously, just like what is happening in the BlackLivesMatter movement. We’re exploding onto a political space.”
There are those who accuse the young millennial, the so called Born Free Generation (those born after Apartheid), of being the least political generation in history. But Dean disagrees, “I’m on a campus and I see that they’re more political than any other middle-aged person. Maybe representative democracy isn’t for them, but there are many other options. I believe that new generations are growing exponentially, they’re queer from birth.”
There are those who think of queer movements as intimate revolutions that are relatively comfortable. Dean Hutton gets naked in the street, bravely exposing her body and her ideas to social rejection. Like a prophet with the body of the palaeolithic venus, the Venus of Willdendorf, the faceless statue with a robust body that dates back 22,000 years. “To accept that you are hated is the bravest thing you can do. That’s how you start a revolution”.