Kewpie at the Marie Antoinette Ball at the Ambassador Club, 1967

KEWPIE: Daughter of District Six

In telling this story, the exhibition draws on Kewpie’s treasured personal photographic collection of more than 700 prints, built up from the 1950s to the 1980s. This collection is held at the Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action (GALA) archive in Johannesburg.  The exhibition displays just over 100 images from the larger collection.

This collection found its way into the GALA archive through Jack Lewis, a film director who, together with GALA’s founder, Graeme Reid, recognised its value. They were instrumental in motivating Kewpie to think about the importance of leaving a legacy and the role that the archive would play in its preservation. Kewpie provided captions for the photographs when the collection was acquired in 1997, and these are displayed in the exhibition.

Kewpie was born Eugene Fritz in 1941 and  grew up at 13 Osborne Street, District Six. From a young age, Kewpie showed a keen interest in hairdressing and started training at Salon André in Hanover Street before opening her own hairdresser, Salon Kewpie in Kensington.  Kewpie was also a talented dancer who often performed to packed audiences in local charity cabaret events. She was a well-known socialite, an integral part of the nightlife and queer culture of District Six.

This exhibition explores the life of Kewpie (1941–2012).

Members of this queer community sometimes identified as gay men and sometimes identified as women. From what we know, Kewpie’s gender identity was fluid, and she did not strictly identify as either male or female. Kewpie and her friends generally used feminine pronouns, and would refer to each other as ‘sisters’ and ‘girls’. They were sometimes known as ‘moffies’, which can be an offensive term, but in District Six its use was not necessarily derogatory. However, many people objected to being called ‘moffie’, preferring ‘queer’. Kewpie herself recalled that “we weren’t called as gays, we were called as moffies then. But it was beautifully said, not abruptly.”

The initial idea for an exhibition came from GALA in 2017 who approached the Museum to co-curate this extraordinary collection. Jenny Marsden, a volunteer researcher for the organisation, ensured that the collection was brought out of storage and back into circulation.   

Kewpie indicated that different friends took the photographs contained in the collection, but for the majority of photographs authorship is unknown. Many of the photographs would have been taken by professional photographer Billy Biggs, whose wife Sylvia was Kewpie’s good friend. Billy often photographed Kewpie in his personal capacity, recalling that “Kewpie always wanted me to take her when she’s happy. Like in making the split, sitting on the ground with her legs like this. Kewpie was goed da in [Kewpie was good at that].” The collection also includes photographs by studio and street photographers.

Additionally, the exhibition features photographs from the collection of Kewpie’s sister Ursula Hansby, and the District Six Museum archive.

The Kewpie Photographic Collection is a valuable resource documenting a thriving and celebrated queer culture within a community that has since been scattered, showing the value of personal archives in telling potentially lost stories.  The collection reinforces historical understandings of District Six as a close-knit community where diversity was valued, while highlighting a lesser-known aspect of District Six history.

Many of the themes and ideas explored in the exhibition are relevant to contemporary activism and dialogue on LGBTIQ rights in South Africa. Histories of queer lives like Kewpie’s challenge the popular notion that homosexuality is un-African. They show a community and culture where gender non-conforming people, who often face prejudice and exclusion in contemporary South Africa, were largely accepted and loved as human beings with the right to express themselves as they wished. The struggle for LGBTIQ rights continues and Kewpie’s story helps to show the way forward.

As much as the exhibition is celebratory of her life and resilience, it is also a manifestation of collective loss, pain and struggle opening up highly emotive spaces for dialogue and reflection on the intersection between the past and the present.For the Museum and its memory work, this exhibition provides a space for reclaiming dignity, and for visitors to participate in the act of remembrance as a form of solidarity. Bringing the story of Kewpie into sharp focus opens up space to reflect on contemporary LGBTIQ activism and its connections to the broader human rights movement.

Kewpie on a neighbour’s stoep in Francis Street

De Smidt Street: ‘The Late Garbo’ (left) and Brigitte Bardot (right)

“Kewpie in front of the salon, Kewpie’s hairdresser’s”, 1970’s.

Cissie Gool’s house in Mount Street. Lameez, Olivia, unknown person, Cora, Kewpie, Bassey.

Kewpie was Cissie Gool’s hairdresser, and Cissie let Kewpie host a party at her house when she was away one weekend.

Samantha with a floor mat over her as a cape in Rutger Street. Yusuf, the son of Kewpie’s neighbour Asa, is watching.

Kewpie at Trafalgar Park.

In Mrs Biggs Yard in Kensington. ‘The Gang Minus One’ (the minus one is Patti). Left to Right: Mitzi, Sammy, Liz, Kewpie, Angie. C. Mid 1970s

Brian and Kewpie in their 20s in Rutger Street c. early 1960s

Darling Street ‘Movie Snaps’ photograph. “I was on my way to work in the morning at Salon Kewpie in Kensington.” (Kewpie) c. 1967/68

Kewpie in Invery Place

Kewpie, Kay Kendall, Mitzy (seated in front), salon interior.

Kewpie in Osborne Street, about 19 years old. C. 1960

Kewpie in her late teens wearing a fashionable hairstyle of the time.

At Kogel Bay. Left to Right: Sammy, Kewpie, and Liz. 1971 

Kewpie at the ‘Roaring 20s Night’ at the Ambassador Club. C. mid 1960s

Brian, Sammy, Brigitte and Mrs Mills at a De Smidt Street party “famous Mrs Mills, always with us … [famous] for singing and dancing with us” (Kewpie) c. late 1970s

District Six Huis Kombuis Food and Memory Exhibition

To commemorate the 50th year since the declaration of District Six as a White Group Area in 1966, we curated an exhibition as a backdrop to the launch of the District Six Museum’s Huis Kombuis Food and Memory Cookbook. 

It was opened on the 11 February 2016 and remains open to the public at the District Six Museum Homecoming Centre till further notice.

Photographs by Jac De Villiers