With works presented across three locations at documenta fifteen in Kassel, Germany, Aotearoa-based art collective FAFSWAG’s contribution encompasses portraiture, video, VR and interactive documentary. The works on view challenge the colonial narratives that have long structured approaches to race and gender, drawing firmly from the members’ experiences as queer POC in the South Pacific. 

Here, Berlin-based artist and writer Will Fredo discusses the decolonial gestures inherent in FAFSWAG’s contributions to the major quinquennial art event, which champion unapologetic self-expression, queer joy and the power of futurity in rejecting colonial inheritances.

If colonialism was a game, then one of its main rules would be to destroy the psyche of the generation it oppresses so that destruction continues upon its future generations. That is, until said future generations gather the tools to end the vicious cycle. Colonialism is an all-encompassing system that exercises power and oppresses through the hierarchy that it imposes on the world. In a colonised society it is the segments of the population that sit at the intersection of the power dynamic that have the most potential to critique the systems that constrain the whole. At least that’s what Queer art collectives such as FAFSWAG are exercising through art, fashion, collectivity, Queerness, solidarity and technology. 

“Decolonized as Fuck” reads the print on the back of a camo jacket worn by a person looking towards the ocean in a video by Tanu Gago, a founding member of FAFSWAG. This image alone succinctly embodies the ethos by which the collective live and work. Formed in 2013 in South Auckland, the Moana Oceanic arts collective consists of several artists who are unapologetically Queer using art and activism in order to effect social change in their communities. Gago is one of the current 12 members and his video at Stadtmusuem Kassel is one the many works being shown at documenta fifteen, the major quinquennial international art event curated this year by the Indonesian collective ruangrupa in Kassel, Germany. FAFSWAG showcase a selection of existing and new works, spread across the city in three venues: Hessisches Landesmuseum, Hübner areal and the Stadtmuseum.

This year’s iteration of documenta is guided by the concept of ‘lumbung’, an Indonesian word that translates as ‘rice barn’. It means a collective pot or accumulation system used in rural areas of the country, where crops produced by a community are stored as a future shared resource and distributed according to jointly determined criteria. Using lumbung as a model and process, documenta fifteen is a collective resource pot, operating under the logics of the commons. FAFSWAG is an apt collective to take part ​​in this lumbung approach, given their history of collaboratively creating events and platforms specifically for Queer Brown bodies in Aotearoa—spaces where these bodies can not only exist but also challenge the colonial conditions in which they were born and reconceptualise their existence, history and experiences. 

Reclaiming agency is something that is paramount to today’s Bla(c)k and Brown youth. Not only have we realised that we can do this, but also that we have tools that our parents and ancestors did not have. FAFSWAG do this at documenta fifteen through various means; one of them being portraiture, which is presented as several photographic series produced individually as well as collectively. At Stadtmuseum Kassel they occupy a whole floor, which welcomes visitors with a selection of portraits the collective have developed along the years. The year of the production of the works is often not mentioned; I read this as a way to exercise futurity, where past, present and future are one, where they are the bridge between the ancestors and the future generations. 

The first series, Whānau Wall (Portraits) (without year)[01] 01. By Vaimaila Baker, Steve Canals, Falencie Filipo, Tapuaki Helu, Elyssia Wilson-Heti, Ria Hiroki, Nahora Ioane, Ilalio Loau, Moe Laga, Mahia Te Kore, Khiyara Tinai, Pati Solomona Tyrell, Auckland Vogue Community and Jaimie Waititi. (whānau meaning family in te reo Māori), is presented as a tableau of several small portraits. In this series we find a bearded person wearing a wig, with the word “FAGGOT” written across their bare chest with red lipstick, staring at the camera while flipping two fingers up; a group on a stage with a background that reads “THE POWER OF INCLUSION”; four femmes in bikinis at what looks like a pool party, surrounded by inflatable creatures and rainbow flags; a solo femme in a mini dress in a backyard, holding a glass of red wine while mowing the lawn; and three performers in ceremonial clothing sitting on the floor as part of a performance. 

Whānau Wall (Portraits) does two things. On one hand it challenges the history of Western portraiture that has historically portrayed Pacific people as objects and not subjects—objects to be consumed by the white gaze, a gaze that’s always weaponised, on white people’s terms, to satisfy their racist fantasies. On the other hand, the series does what I would call post-decolonial reconfigured futurity. By this, I mean that by making images of the collective today, living their full Queer lives, they are not trying to restore their existence to pre-colonial times, but rather attempting to reconceptualise a pre-colonial reality by Queering it. Simultaneously, they offer a future where Queer people of colour can live their full lives with joy, agency and self-respect.

The other photographic series presented in the gallery are separated by lush green plants. They may seem less radical in their visual language but bite in other ways. Only I can name me (2021), by FAFSWAG member Elyssia Wilson-Heti, is made up of four portraits of two femmes in silver slip-dresses and red-velvet capes, sporting flower crowns, sometimes solo, engaging in a ritualistic practice in front of an altar. They face each other, they play with the symbolism of fruit and of water. Blue water and red water, much like the classic binary choice of the blue pill and red pill in the movie The Matrix (1999). But because their identification is nonbinary, and as the title makes clear, only they can write and break the code that defines them. 

Presented on a monitor around the corner of the same gallery is the interactive documentary series fafswagvogue.com (without year), one of the highlights of the venue. The work is ambitious, innovative, multi-layered and gorgeously absorbing, and in many ways redefines the genre of documentary in form and content. It can be experienced online under the title’s URL and is developed as a video game of sorts in which the viewer-user can select which player-voguer they want to pair up with and see them ‘battle’ in a location of choice. The visuals are HD crisp and the fashion choices, as per usual in vogue balls, are exuberant, eclectic and unique. At the end of the face-off the viewer-user can choose a winner, about whom follows a short clip featuring a specific moment in their life. 

fafswagvogue.com is reminiscent of Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat or Tekken—fighting games popular in the 80s and 90s when most of FAFSWAG were kids. In this context, the realisation of the documentary series in this style can work as a form of restorative time-travel for Queer people like us, whose childhoods were stolen by heteronormative societies where we had to hide—if not kill—whole parts of ourselves in order to survive in a layered hostile environment—both white and anti-Queer. In fafswagvogue.com the artists don’t have to pick a character with a gender they don’t identify with so they can pass. They don’t even have to pick a character—they are their unapologetic selves as protagonists and on their terms. 

The documentary part of the work is composed of short videos that follow intimate and offstage parts of the lives of each performer. It’s unlike the traditional form of documentary about marginalised people, in which [white] convention insists that marginalised people of colour don’t have ontological meaning or cultural capital in the arts unless they expose their alleged suffering. You won’t find self-victimising narratives about how oppressed they are, or saccharine stories of how oppressed people are so inspiring for succeeding against all odds. Instead, we are shown quotidian stories of going shopping for fabrics for a ball; rehearsing; feeling like a superhero while voguing; discussing whether voguing is political; dancing on the street to apprehensive male onlookers; talking about how they felt in their first balls, whether the ‘Realness’ category is problematic and whether they should create their own categories, or how siva Sāmoa resembles vogue movements.

“When I think about Vogue music I think about my confidence in life, I think about my sexuality, my sensuality and what beats [do] for me: it amplifies all of that,” says Khaos in their dedicated documentary. Ballroom culture originated in the Black and Latinx Queer communities of Harlem, New York, as a way to create spaces where they could express themselves freely. The fact that Black culture, and especially Black music, is liberatory is not a coincidence. The distinct drumbeat of vogue balls comes from Africa, where historically it was used as an instrument of female power. For example, the drums of the Ashanti people are based on the organisation of the economic and political power of the matrilineal lineage of female inheritance.

Vogueing is now immensely popular in Queer communities across the world, so questions of cultural appropriation have arisen. But, as with everything, context is queen. For instance, in Colombia, also a European settler-state, conversations are happening about what it means to appropriate Black culture when you don’t identify as POC (as they would be seen in the USA) but rather white-mestizo, and what does that mean for inclusion and anti-Blackness in the balls. In FAFSWAG’s work, the question of cultural appropriation also applies, but in this case perhaps it’s more appropriate to use Édouard Glissant’s concept of creolisation rather than appropriation, as the members identify and are socialised as Brown or POC in their local contexts. According to Glissant, creolisation refers to the process by which elements of different oppressed cultures are blended together to create a new culture.

With this the collective raises the questions of what is at stake in processes of appropriation and creolisation—who gains and loses what, and how can we deal with that. And, above all, how voguing is a rather political practice. On the same note, it’s important to point out that, while FAFSWAG have gained recognition home and abroad for decolonising themselves through art, it’s not their job to decolonise Aotearoa. It’s the colonisers’ responsibility to decolonise this colonised world—in the face of the humanitarian and environmental apocalypse, it really is decolonise or die.

The question as to whether or not what FAFSWAG are doing is political is a most relevant one. In the West we’ve inherited a culture that recognises the political in art when it presents itself as ‘serious’, straight-faced, didactic, dull, humourless, joyless and grey. The collective show us that (while it’s not a rule) Queer people will be political while being fun, funny and joyful. We’re often called bent and gay for a reason. For Queers, serious and play are not opposites. Party is a matter of survival. Neuroscience explains this with the concept of cognitive ease vs cognitive strain. When we experience something entertaining our brains are at cognitive ease, meaning they operate automatically and quickly, with little effort. Whereas when we experience something complex and convoluted, our brains pay more conscious attention to information presented, but also find it harder to comprehend it. It’s a matter of urgency. As the Colombian philosopher and politician David Racero pointed out in his book Reset (2019), politics are done in entertainment shows, not in political shows. By this he means that real politics happen in lived experiences, not in the simple exposure of legislation. 

This questioning of the political also happens in the way FAFSWAG play with binaries such as high and low culture, high and low tech, ancient and futuristic, masc and femme, child and adult. And that’s what makes the practice of the collective hyper contemporary, in the way they collapse time and space and make Global South–South connections, given that ghettos in the Global North constitute the ‘South’ of the ‘North’ (by way of Arjun Appadurai’s notion that there is an East in every West). Technology is specifically a tool that the collective use and explore in order to create new realms for their histories and dimensions. 

The venue Hessisches Landesmuseum hosts their augmented reality work ATUA (2022), which was conceived with producers Piki Films and Wrestler, and premiered at Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. As we enter the first floor we encounter a lone sculpture at the centre in the form of a large black plinth covered with white illustrations. This is then engaged with using a tablet with a camera that, upon finding the right angle, will reveal the AR work on the screen. The home screen greets you with “I will never be lost, for I am a seed sown in Rangiātea” in English and te reo Māori. Rangiātea is a physical and metaphysical place somewhere in Te Moananui a Kiwa, the Pacific Ocean. And accordingly, the AR work consists of a story told by a purple body wearing abstract markings, floating in the air accompanied by its own virtual plinth.

The narrative tells a non-linear story in the style of spoken word, replete with references to Māori culture, most of which were unknown to me. “I am Te Kore, a mighty chaos, the void”, we read on the screen. The void as a space of abundance and limitless potential. The meaning of some terms is beyond my comprehension but together they describe a world that is transcendental and dream-like. More familiar to me are the words takataapui, fa‘afafine, akava‘ine, fakaleiti, mahu and fakafafine—terms that relate to the third gender and that constitute the FAF in FAFSWAG. 

Another line reads, “I am the breaking of binary and source code.” Language is of utmost importance. It was by using language and discourse that Western Europe justified and promoted oppression, enslavement and genocide. The Enlightenment, for example, was an intellectual and philosophical movement that constructed and promoted the intellectual and pseudoscientific basis that justified Western imperialism and consequent subjugation of the non-white world. Understanding how the Enlightenment contributed to the racial logic that still informs the world today is tantamount to understanding the exclusion of BIPOCs in particular from (art) history. For instance, Kant outlined four different races based on biology and climate: White; the Negro; the Hun; and the Hindu. Of the “Hindus”, Kant argued that they “never achieve the level of abstract concepts”. And he acknowledged that “the yellow [Asian] Indians do have a meagre talent” and that “Negroes are far below them and at the lowest point are a part of the American peoples.”[02] 02. As cited in: Kehinde Andrews: Thomas E. Hill Jr. and Bernard Boxill, “Kant and Race,” in Race and Racism, ed. Bernard Boxill (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 455. So, by reclaiming their native languages and finding the Queerness in them, the collective are actively decolonising themselves, while making connections to other pre-colonial non-binary gender identities. For example, in many African pre-colonial societies the concept of woman was not rigid. Sylvia Tamale, Dean of the Faculty of Law at Makerere University, Uganda, found evidence that among the Langi of northern Uganda, “the mudoko dako, or effeminate males, were treated as women and could marry men.”

FAFSWAG are also informing a new generation to come. As part of their artistic exercise in futurity they often feature children in their works. ALTERATION (2022), a new commission presented on an extra-large screen outside the venue Hübner areal, is a video that features many elements present elsewhere in their oeuvre. There are plenty of references to nature, the cycle of life and death, and ritualistic embodied practices. There is no dialogue, there’s a sense of suspense, aided by ominous, atmospheric hip-hop beats, dark hues, a choir singing. Some of the strongest and most beautiful images include a child with a flower crown; a femme lubricating a sword; a kid holding up the sword as if to usher in a new generation of fighters to come; a Queer couple in full make-up playing with stones and sand, and making figures; three femmes in ceremonial garments entering the ocean at dusk. There is a sense of fearlessness, of renewal, of passing on the baton of freedom and self-determination from today’s generation to those of the future. As I understand it, this is also decolonisation because the game is not yet finished—it has only just started, and we all play an important role in it.

01. By Vaimaila Baker, Steve Canals, Falencie Filipo, Tapuaki Helu, Elyssia Wilson-Heti, Ria Hiroki, Nahora Ioane, Ilalio Loau, Moe Laga, Mahia Te Kore, Khiyara Tinai, Pati Solomona Tyrell, Auckland Vogue Community and Jaimie Waititi. 02. As cited in: Kehinde Andrews: Thomas E. Hill Jr. and Bernard Boxill, “Kant and Race,” in Race and Racism, ed. Bernard Boxill (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 455.