It is a very cool and breezy Sunday afternoon, but I am sweating a lot more than I should. I am frantically trying to figure out a specific feature on this Zoom app, and I am losing this particular battle with the dastardly technology. I’m always being invited to Zoom meetings; I’ve never been the one to have to do the inviting, let alone figure out how all parties can record the conversation so I can transcribe after. The person I’m supposed to be interviewing is already on the call, quite visibly amused at my minor struggles (I would be too, if I wasn’t so embarrassed). Va-Bene Elikem Fiatsi (performance moniker: crazinisT artisT) is one of the most creative, most compelling, most fascinating people you will ever meet, and I am both excited and nervous about this. Also embarrassed (did I say that already?), because I really should have figured this out before the call. sHit (Va-Bene goes by many pronouns including ‘sHit’ – a merging of ‘She,’ ‘He’ and ‘It’) very kindly helps me out though, giving me a quick tutorial, all the while gently brushing their beautiful hair.
The tutorial is effective, because in no time we are set and ready to begin. Va-Bene immediately jokes about what tipped the scales in my favour when it came to them accepting to do this interview: I introduced myself as Kafui when I sent my DM requesting the convo (which likely meant I was of the Ewe ethnic group, from the Volta Region in Ghana. Just like them). They clarify that this is said in jest but lament their heavy schedule as it means they cannot accept as many interviews as they’d like. Of course, I feel lucky. I’ve wasted a few minutes of their time already, so we dive into things quicker than my brother does Sunday fufu and his favourite chicken groundnut soup.
Kaf: So so honoured to meet you! I don’t want to waste too much of your time so I’m going to go right into it. How do you like to introduce yourself? Who is crazinisT artisT?
Va-Bene: So…crazinisT artisT is a multidisciplinary artivist and a director of PerfocraZe International Artists Residency that brings together artists of all forms of disciplines for exploitation and exploration. crazinisT is also a transvatar, a trisexual and an avatar. This is crazinisT if I should describe myself in simple sentences.
Kaf: These are simple-seeming sentences but there’s a lot you’ve said in there! Would you be comfortable breaking things down a bit? You mentioned being an artivist, avatar, trisexual, transvatar…
Va-Bene: For sure. Let me begin with ‘artivist.’ I call myself a multidisciplinary artivist. In this sense, I’m talking about combining my artistic practice and my activism because that is where my calling came from. The kind of artist that I am today was based on a call for human survival, for freedom, for justice and for liberation, and to fight against all forms of violence. So that was the first calling. It was a shift from my pastoral work because I was a preacher. I was preaching the gospel.
Kaf: Oh really?
Va-Bene (laughing): Yes! So, this shift, after renouncing Christianity and religion, I feel is my new belief. Apart from this, I don’t need art. I personally cannot separate my activism from the work I do as an artist. That is why I combine them to become the word ‘artivist,’ which I think a lot of people are also using now as well.
Kaf: I sometimes describe myself as such too.
Va-Bene: Exactly. Now, about seeing myself as a transvatar. The first calling was to see myself as an avatar. Initially, I only considered myself as an avatar because I hate authentication. I hate validation. I hate approval. So, I don’t want my stuff to be fixed into any box even as a non-binary person. I don’t think that being a trans person means I have to live a particular way, as if there is a better way to be trans. Sometimes it feels like there are some people who are more trans than others.
Kaf: I understand this.
Va-Bene: I don’t need this because transness is not about competition. It’s about how people feel. How they want to appear, how they want to be comfortable in their own body. So, I started looking for words that could really define my fluidity. Initially, I was not even describing myself as a trans person. No way. I just called myself an avatar. I can be anything at any time. I can be a woman, I can be a man, I can be this, I can be that…I want to feel myself in the moment that I’m feeling. I exist because and as I exist. That’s how the avatar idea came. Along the line, people started calling me a trans person and I agreed to it. People call me trans, I’m okay. Trans activist, I’m okay. Trans woman. I’m okay. Even if you say I’m a trans man, I’m okay (laughs). I started looking at my transness as another form of being an avatar, and that’s when I started combining the two identities, and there came ‘transvatar.’
There are limited definitions for trisexual people, of course, which usually say we are people who are willing to try anything sexually. For me it’s about putting myself in things that I’m passionate about. If I’ve fallen in love with you and you’re a cis man or cis woman or whoever and I feel like we can go for it, we go for it, but it will surprise you that sometimes it will take me like a year to have sex. Sexuality is just a percentage of our lives, it’s not our whole lives.
Kaf: Yes. Yes. Whew, thank you for this. You describe who you are and what you do as a ‘calling.’ May I ask why?
Va-Bene: In 2013, I fully renounced Christianity and denounced God. I started expressing how I felt, and my family began to feel uncomfortable about my orientation and rejected me. So, I’m an abandoned child. School, friends…I lost a lot of people. But I was willing to lose everybody. This is when I started looking at it as a calling because again when you go into missionary cultures, for their calling, they are willing to lose everything. They’re willing to lose families. That’s why we have Catholic priests and nuns who don’t want to marry and who can leave their families and just live for the church. So, for me, it’s a calling to live my life for art.
Kaf: Amazing. Let’s delve into that a bit more. I would describe your art as radical, would you as well? How did you start, and how did it evolve into what you’re doing now? Also, what are your preferred modes of artistic expression?
Va-Bene: In KNUST (Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology – Kumasi, Ghana), I studied Painting and Sculpture. So, I initially did a lot of painting and installation pieces as projects for class. Around 2013, when I fully denounced Christianity, I started braiding my hair while keeping my moustache but with lipstick and went out on the street as such. Of course, I started to face a lot of dangers. It was then I said to myself ‘I have to die for my activism. If I die it will be on the street. I have to die doing art. I have to die fighting for humanity.’ I didn’t initially qualify my work as performance. I qualified my work as just an intervention. It could take any form. So, when I went on the street and people attacked me, I knew I was creating a kind of intervention because the more they attacked me, the more we had conversation. I felt like I was negotiating a path for people yet to be born. I was doing this, without being afraid to die.
Understanding that what I was doing – living my life just existing on the street – was performance, I started calling most of my works ‘performance art.’ So, my art shifted from painting to a kind of confrontation or intervention to something I could qualify as performance art. At the same time, because I have no limit to these practices, I best define it as multidisciplinary artivism because I sometimes feel like there is no way I can even define my practice. My practice is as fluid and as much of an avatar as I am. However, I do generally work within this scope of performative practices: video, film, photography, performance art and art installation.
Kaf: Where would you say you have received the worst response to a public performance, and what did you do?
Va-Bene: I think the worst is the live art, which happened to me in Cape Verde. I was detained in Cape Verde for three days because of my identity and I was stripped naked by the security. Like I said, these kinds of live performances are not necessarily in the framework of an exhibition. It’s hard for people to understand, but our lives are performances. In Ghana, as a homophobic country, you can cross-dress as entertainment and everybody is okay with it. In the university, male students can go cross-dressing on the streets, go to the female halls, do all sorts of things…and it is accepted because of how it is framed: as entertainment. If all these male students resort to dressing ‘as women’ forever, it becomes problematic to the public. So this is where my live art comes in. I won’t perform trans identity on a stage, I won’t perform transness or gender fluidity on stage. I’m going to live it as my life and you find a way of dealing with it.
I have also had performances where women would come and try pulling my genitals. I don’t know what runs through their minds. Because I often lay naked performing, I just become an object to them. I become a toy. So, people come, and they want to pull my genitals, they want to use a piercing object to pierce my body, to see if I’ll respond. LGBTQ+ people are objectified, we are not seen as humans. So even when somebody kills you, that person is not seen as a murderer. That person is performing a certain responsibility to society. No matter the military or police intervention, they’ll never find justice for the trans person who is murdered by so-called straight people. These are the realities I try to reveal in most of my works.
Kaf: Hmmm. Let me attempt to get a brighter angle as well. What would you say is the best response to a performance?
Va-Bene (chuckles): The way I see it, the best response I’ve ever received is still from that same experience and those same people in Cape Verde, because it was a response to fears that they are unable to contain. It was one of the best responses ever. It revealed them naked, revealed their vulnerabilities. With my museum performances and gallery performances, I don’t see the responses as genuine, no matter how beautifully I’ve done the performance, and I’ve performed all over the world. I don’t really recognize my organized performances as the best ones. I would call the ones where I have faced my death as the best ones.
Kaf: That is…really heavy Va-Bene. Following these thoughts, what would you say are the major themes your art intentionally seeks to address?
Va-Bene: The important themes in my work are ones around gender identity, injustice, violence, discrimination, anti-blackness, racism, religion and religious extremism. If you look at all my works, these are some of the conclusions you can come to.
Kaf: You use your nude form for a lot of your art. Why is the human body such a big part of your work?
Va-Bene: The body is important to me because I’m dealing with living beings. So, for you to be connected to me, you need to experience the threats to life that this body is facing. You need to experience the vulnerabilities of this body. It is only then that you can even evaluate your own self and your privileges. Using my body is a way to break the frames we are stuck in as humans.
Kaf: …and be vulnerable
Va-Bene: …and be vulnerable. Assuming I put what I do in a sculpture, the same people who attack me will appreciate the sculpture piece. The same people who go to the museum and admire a lot of nude bodies are the same people who, when they face an actual black body…the physical nude person, are disgusted. So, for me, the use of my body is a way to remove these subjects from the frames that people accept and put them in a frame that will make them feel uncomfortable. Discomfort is a good thing and I like to employ it in my practice. I push people to discomfort and it is only then that it can actually drain them to the extent that they will start to reflect and start to question themselves.
Kaf: Do you see yourself leaving some sort of socio-political legacy behind?
Va-Bene: For sure. I think one way or the other, I’m changing the way we should be looking at things. I’m reclaiming spaces for people like us who are yet to be born. I used to go through airports like Kotoka International Airport [in Accra], and face humiliation and prejudice. Now when I go through, some of those people who have already encountered me several times acknowledge me and give me that respect. So, hopefully, if they meet another trans person, this will not be new to them. As of 2016, I was the first trans person they had ever encountered. They did not know how to react. Now, these people know what to do because I have educated them a lot. I have time for a lot of people. Especially people that oppress us. Even in the airport when they detain me, we are in conversation for hours challenging each other. Two years ago, one of the officers at the airport literally called the other security personnel into a room and told them: ‘Can you all sit down? She wants to educate us,’ and they began to ask me questions about gender and sexuality. This is the work I try to do because one way or the other, I am leaving some kind of trace behind. I’m leaving questions in the minds of all these people that they may carry to their homes and discuss over dinner. Maybe one day if one of their children becomes like me, they already know that they have seen this before.
I feel like what I do is very cancerous, and I love it. We always look at viruses as having a negative impact or destroying something, but for me, I want to see myself as a positive energy infesting people who are already suffering from diseases, because I look at immunisation and vaccines as viruses. And this is how I look at myself, like a virus, a poison, cancerous, and that way it’s like an energy for me.
Kaf: And you’re affecting the diseases of homophobia, of anti-blackness…
Kaf: You mentioned that you have time and patience for people who are literally questioning your existence. How do you balance that knowledge and your very existence with your right to live?
Va-Bene: This is where endurance comes in and this is why I can never give up. I cannot be self-centered. I can choose to express in a way that allows me to pass [as cishet] and live ‘happily’ forever. I can just be silent without talking. But I don’t want to create a pass for myself. I can go through airports and places safely if I really want to, but I choose not to. Because I understand that the people I am confronting, I was once like them. This is where I came from. So, I don’t hate them. I’ll never hate them, and I’ll never wish them any evil because I was once like them. What is poisoning the system is not a physical thing we are fighting. It is mental. Our brains, our minds are in shackles. Our hands are free, our legs are free, but when our minds are in shackles, that controls everything. So, they tell you: ‘Hey, you can’t use your hands alone to work and survive. You have to go and pray to a god for your survival.’ ‘Look, it’s only obroni (a white person) that can show you your worth, that can save your life,’ or ‘black people are useless.’ The mind is in shackles, so it keeps telling us things like this. It doesn’t have the freedom to even go online and read. It doesn’t even give you the freedom to take your bible and read for yourself to find where it is written that non-binary people are demons. We are free-legged, free-handed people but imprisoned in the mind.
So yes, it’s really hard to keep saying the same thing over and over again to people debating your existence, but I think with endurance, we will get somewhere. This is why I also believe I will die in my practice because it’s so exhausting. Even if I’m not attacked and killed…being exhausted and depressed? The trauma alone? It will kill me in no time.
Kaf: And you’re okay with dying like that…because you’ve given yourself to your art…
Va-Bene: Oh yes, I’m okay. I’m so okay. That is the best death I could ever have. I would hate it if I died having malaria. I want to die because I’m fighting for humanity. So if I die in this context, I think it’s a success. Then I think my performance will have reached its peak.
Kaf: Whew. This is…a lot, and this is such exhausting work. How do you practice self-care?
Va-Bene: Sometimes I don’t even know how I do it. It’s just some kind of faith, some energy. I take the bible; I write in it. I have several bibles in my room here. I read them. I tear some of them. I put my anger into it. I’m giving myself victory. I’m empowering myself every day. When I can’t think straight, I watch fictional movies, I watch horror movies. I put myself in the situation of those who are dying in the horror movies and then I come back to life.
Kaf: Wow. That refuels you? That gives you the energy to come back?
Kaf: What about the horror brings you back to life?
Va-Bene: It makes me understand this is my reality. I cannot escape it so I mustn’t panic because it’s my reality. Understanding my own reality is an empowerment. Watching horror movies gives me that empathetic power to reclaim the vulnerabilities of everyone as mine. I see myself as that trans person who is being murdered. I see myself as a victim of COVID-19 who cannot afford to go to the hospital. I see myself as that HIV person who cannot pay for their drugs. When I watch all these movies, I see myself that way. I know I have a lot of privileges now – I’m an artist, I work, I travel the globe and I can fend for myself, but when I watch these horror movies, they send me back, so I don’t even look at my privileges.
Kaf: That is really quite remarkable. You’re also based in Kumasi now. Is there a reason you choose to live and work from there?
Va-Bene: I feel like Kumasi has a very interesting cultural hybridity. Kumasi folk seem to be very heavily invested in their traditional cultures. At the same time, it’s one of the most Christian communities in Ghana. So, for me, it’s interesting to see how they are synchronizing these two relationships. Because you will see people passionately claim that ‘yeah this is not African’ and they are Christians. I don’t know when Christianity became Ghanaian. So I’m interested in those aspects that have to do with them using Christianity to condemn the things of their own culture as non-Ghanaian or non-traditional. I was also just inspired by the vibes in the city. I came here for school, and I just decided to settle here and live my life here. I grew up in the Volta Region, and I think I needed a new cultural community to do what I’m doing. So, for me Kumasi is interesting in the way things are fused, and in the contradictions.
Kaf: This has truly, truly been an absolute pleasure, Va-Bene. Let me ask a typical but very important final question: is there anything you would like to say to queer people? Maybe trans, non-binary, gender non-conforming folk in particular?
Va-Bene: Well, I’ll just end by saying every single day, hundreds of us are being born. Hundreds of us. We existed long long before Jesus was born, so we should not allow Christianity or any religion to intimidate us. Once there are humans in any community, LGBTQIA+ people have existed there and will continue to exist. Our fight now is not for us to say we want to exist. Our fight now is for us to reclaim our spaces because we are already here. We are not negotiating our right to be born, or to exist; we are fighting to reclaim our spaces. Don’t let them tell you otherwise.