Va-Bene Elikem K. Fiatsi, aka crazinisT artisT
Ho, Ghana, 1981
Bio-political pronouns: sHit/sHits
Like any other subject in art, bodies are political.
Exposed, fetishized, emulated, concealed, discriminated and made object of laws that aim to limit their agency, bodies are the ultimate personal possession that fears the luring of oppressors.
When belonging to more than one oppressed minorities, a body can become a powerful statement that urges a whole community to meditate on its own founding values, its demons and its crookedness.
crazinisT artisT is a multidisciplinary artist from Ghana, that uses their body to awaken uncomfortable discussions about civil rights in Western Africa.
Born and raised in a deeply Christian country, crazinisT artisT (stage name for Va-Bene Elikem K. Fiatsi) has developed their practice around extreme body stimulation, such as being covered in mud or pulled by chains. They are also exhibiting their body naked or dressed in female clothing, to provoke a reaction that is in the spectrum between sympathy and disgust.
Without denying their rooting into Ghanaian culture, crazinisT artisT aims to represent a segment of marginalized population of their country. They believe that queerness is wrongly deemed as a product of white colonialism, and thus harshly condemned, whereas history proves that it has always been a crucial part of Ghanaian sexuality.
In the Asante courts, young men dressed in female clothes were concubines to the king and were killed upon the passing of their master.
In Dahomey courts, eunuchs played a counseling role in relationships with royals.
Nzema people had the institution of same-sex marriages, called agyale, “friendship marriages”.
Nankani people allowed marriages among women when there was no male candidate to preserve the lineage.
Fante people believed that attraction to either men or women was based on the quality of one’s soul.
The criminalization of same-sex relationships and intercourses dates back to 1860 and the advancement for LGBTQIA+ rights has been hindered ever since.
Consensual intercourse among two people of the same sex can be punished with up to three years of imprisonment, even if there is some wiggle room for lesbian couples (since no penetration is involved) and the same acts are not punished in heterosexual couples.
The lack of protective laws gave rise to discriminatory acts such as evictions of LGBTQIA+ tenants, physical aggressions, lynchings, and even burnings. The police rarely ever intervenes to shield queer people from aggressions, enabling the systemic oppression of LGBTQIA+ people.
This led the anonymous activities of LGBTQIA+ groups to overlap with the struggles for basic human rights.
crazinisT artisT takes upon their shoulders the task of working as a symbol for a whole abused minority.
Their practice aims to untangle the prejudice according to which gender identity and sexual orientation are the same thing. They believe that one’s sexuality cannot be inferred by merely looking at someone’s clothes. The fact that patriarchal structures creep in the assumptions we form around people is, in the artist’s opinion, a symptom of ignorance, that can only be eradicated by promoting equal rights for every citizen in Ghana.
A recurring color in their practice is red, which signals both the palpitating life of a group that is constantly silenced, but also the blood of their physical suffering.
In the performance Passing Through – Acts of Radical Empathy, which took place in Gallery 1957 (Accra, Ghana), crazinisT artisT is portrayed by the photographer My Dear Fagot (stage name for Fagot Koroviev) in red clothes and posing as some classical paintings.
In this way, not only is their gender fluid body normalized, but it also appropriates the artistic spaces traditionally reserved to cisgendered bodies.
On that occasion, on the walls of the gallery was also projected footage of Fiatsi in European airport checkpoints.
The video shows the reaction of security officers when they are shown Fiatsi’s passport, which bears information that contrasts with the outer appearance of their body.
The checkpoint itself stands as a metaphor to describe the artist’s body, which collocates itself on the border between male and female, facing rejection from both parties.
The performance completes a series initiated in 2017, Rituals of Becoming.
In both performances, the artist is present inside the gallery in a room called The Red Sanctuary, and here they perform rituals of ablution and getting dressed in typically female garments.
Throughout the performance, the artist’s non-binary body is exposed in their nudity, forcing the visitors to feel as if they have interrupted a private moment in which the sacredness of self-care is the most vulnerable.
crazinisT artisT aims to evoke in the audience a purely human sentiment of compassion, before the internalized cultural censorship calls for contempt.
Moreover, the shame that in Ghanaian society is expected of queer people, is in this case fully projected on its counterpart, the heteronormative, Christian society.
Another recurring medium of crazinisT artisT’s works is mud.
With its thick, dense texture and the pungent odor, mud combines both positive and negative meanings.
Mud is the epitome of dirt, therefore employing it in their art means for crazinisT artisT to appropriate and transform the idea of moral filth associated with the queer community in Ghana.
Mud is amorphous and affords to be mixed with other substances: likewise is the artist’s gender identity, and their desire to blend in the rest of society. The desire for fusion with the rest of humankind does not limit to matters of gender identity, but it goes beyond, dreaming for the equality between black and white, poor and rich, disabled-bodied and able-bodied, as the performance The Borders showed in 2014.
Lastly, dried mud becomes a shield for a vulnerable body. It conceals the targets of discrimination, such as the skin and the genitals; it preserves the body from being desecrated, as if it had already been buried in the earth.
Mud appears in Fiatsi’s art often associated with chains. They universally symbolize imprisonment and violent subjugation, which is what crazinisT artisT experiences as a marginalized citizen.
In their performances, chains rest directly on the naked body, for the body itself is a cage. Its gender-fluid features make it the arena where discourses of hatred are carried out.
In several performances (such as reThinking-naZa 01, Kumasi, Ghana, 2016), crazinisT artisT requested the collaboration of security officers and asked them to act as protectors while the artist would walk naked and covered in mud and chains. Although the primary motive for the KNUST (Kwame Nkrumah University of Science & Technology) security to accept the artist’s invitation might have been the control of disorders among students, through their recruitment in the performance Fiatsi managed to proactively defuse military neutrality in the protection of LGBTQIA+ people against violence.
Fiatsi is a Ghanaian artist, therefore chains can’t but also bring the footprint of slaves trade to America.
In the castle of Elmina, erected by the Portuguese in 1482 as Castelo de São Jorge da Mina and consequently used as a station for the Atlantic slave trade both by the Dutch and the English, pilgrims from all over the world come to reconnect with their long-lost African roots.
Elmina is one of the many forts on Cape Coast, internationally renewed as some of the most powerful reminders of the violence perpetrated on black people, to which even US President Barack Obama paid visit in 2009, to homage the memory of the Afroamerican Diaspora, which began from that “door of no return”.
In 2015, crazinisT artisT gathered about 60 participants to take part in a 12 hours performance, where they stayed inside the Elmina castle without food nor water. The Return of the Slaves is a participated reflection on the concept of “dungeon without walls”, which is the system of internalized reification of human beings, as a consequence of the trauma produced by slavery, violence, diaspora and the complete deprivation of possessions and human rights.
On July 3rd, 2020, amid the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement prompted by the death of George Floyd, and the isolation imposed by the COVID pandemic, Fiatsi celebrated the fifth anniversary of the performance by inviting their audience on a Zoom call, that became a collective panel talk on all forms of oppression.
Other media that complement Fiatsi’s meditation on oppression are weapons. In their opinion, violence escalates to the resolution of physically eliminating a body when it relies on the conviction that some bodies are inferior.
Weapons such as knives or hunting rifles are tools that we would use to defend ourselves from an animal that we fear or, more likely, to suppress an animal that we plan to eat. It is not a case, that crazinisT artisT titled eAt me… a performance in which they lie naked on a dining table stained with blood.
Rifles are present in the performance Table of Negotiation, which took place on August 25th, 2019, in occasion of the Chale Wote Street Art Festival in Accra, in collaboration with the German artist John Herman.
Suspended in a Vitruvian circle, the two mud-covered artists are chained on two chairs that face one another. In the middle, two rifles represent the object of the dispute. In an impossible attempt to reach them, each party of the contention wears themselves down, facing the fear of being subjugated by their opponent.
In dZikudZikui-aBiku-aBiikus III, Fiatsi stages a riot, filled with fire and shattered objects, in front of a church. crazinisT artisT reflects on the symbolism of the Crucifix to expose the gap between the original preaching and the contemporary guidelines of Christianity, that encourage the marginalization of queer people.
The title is a combination of the Ewe word “dzikudzikui” and the Yoruba word “abiku”, which indicate in both cases the most vulnerable individuals of a society, who are believed to be owned by death.
crazinisT artisT traces in this way a historical path of language violence, a tendency set by self-declared “purists” to blame the victims for their condition of individuals excluded by society.
As critical of religion, crazinisT artisT has included Christian imagery in many of his works.
pieta-afriCan resurrection is one of their most debated performances, where no element is left to chance.
In front of the Bible House in Accra, which is located opposite to James Fort prison, crazinisT artisT laid their body, whose blackness had been intensified with black paint, on the white body of Italian artist Natascia Silverio, in a pose that recalls that of Michelangelo’s Pietà.
All the elements aimed to convey the artists’ spur, directed to Ghanaian citizens, to embrace their African identity. This is the statement that accompanies the photographs of the performance:
Their performance questions the disabled mind and the dependent throne of governance in many African nations. The human body is the most powerful natural technology powered by the brain. However, all its energy can only be a waste when this brain is deactivated. The performance appropriates the structural form of the Pieta from renaissance sculpture of Michelangelo to explore the death of African possibilities. Africa is never dead, it is only in a deactivated mode, full of inferiority complexities and disbelief of self-empowerment.crazinisT artisT & Natascia Silverio, pieta-afriCan resurrect, 2015
In an interview with Beate Scheder, that appeared in King Kong Magazine in January 2017, crazinisT artisT revealed that their stage name is shaped on the idea of a religious fervor for art, an infatuation that leads to craziness. That is why the word “crazinisT”, with a capital T at the end -instead of the beginning- of the name, is the crasis of “crazy” and “Christ”: art is Fiatsi’s new spiritual creed.
With that in mind, in 2018 Fiatsi inaugurated an art residency program in their studio in Kumasi (Ghana). Unlike many other programs, pIAR does not require a participation fee, but a minimum commitment to stay 28 days and collaborate closely with crazinisT artisT.
Running a no-profit organization, with the scope of promoting cross-country collaborations with performance artists in Ghana, fully reflects Fiatsi’s commitment to a political opening to differences.
Whereas this all-round devotion to art, and exhibiting a gender-fluid body may seem commonplace in other liberal democracies, it is rather groundbreaking and risky in Ghana, where the government proactively restricts the rights of LGBTQIA+ people.
Fiatsi’s performance art is a courageous act of selflessness. In giving up their registered name, their gendered identity, and therefore their social safety, crazinisT artisT makes their vulnerable body available for a bigger cause. The artist is emptied of their ego, to make space and amplify the voices of a substantial bunch of lives that matter.
- crazinisT artisT
- Gallery 1957, Accra, Ghana
- Dayna Mahannah, Rituals of Becoming: crazinisT artisT Reveals, in it to wing it., March 15th, 2017
- Alice McCool, Meet the Performance Artist Challenging Gender Norms in Ghana, i-d magazine, March 23rd, 2017
- Andrei Zozulya-Davidov, Rituals of Becoming according to crazinisT artisT, F.Y.!, March 31st, 2017
All the pictures and videos featured in this article are property of the artist