Features Published 16 March 2016

Nando Messias: Homophobia, marching bands and ‘The Sissy’s Progress’

While some try to find their voice, Nando Messias has discovered his walk. Ahead of his performance 'The Sissy's Progress' at Toynbee Studios, he discusses his experience of homophobic violence - and why he will not be silenced.
Nando Messias

Why did I wait ten years? That’s the question I’m most often asked when I explain that my latest work, The Sissy’s Progress, is an artistic response to experiencing a homophobic attack in 2005. I think the question touches on the very nature of creativity, and what performance might actually mean.

After getting assaulted back then on my own doorstep, I tried to convince myself immediately that it was over. London is extraordinarily tolerant, there is no need for angry, protest art. What happened to me was an isolated event, surely? The least said”¦

But the more I thought, the more I realised I was afraid of making sensationalist work. I don’t want to exploit suffering””whether my own or others’ (I was born in Brazil, after all). Don’t get me wrong: I have paid a price for anti-queer prejudice in more ways than one throughout my life. Of course it’s been more than just physical violence, and it’s played out in my artistic process.

I find queer rules of engagement exciting, the possibility of destabilising the order, especially if said order excludes somehow. I always wanted to play the Blanches, the Ophelias and the Medeas. But high theatre had not written the parts I dreamt of, so I’d have to write them myself. I had always wanted to dance the part of Giselle, Odille and The Dying Swan. Again, ballet restricted the queer, so I would have to choreograph the roles that I never saw on stage. I’d have to carve out a space for myself and I would need to do that with authority. How to find that sense of authority?

Time is no healer: artistry heals. In the decade since the attack, I have been able to detach myself gradually from the event. It’s become material for a piece of performance work, material to be analysed without victimhood.

It was a balmy summer evening. Still daylight, despite the late hour. I had the idea to cut the cab ride short and walk part of the way home. As is often the case, only in hindsight would I see what a fateful decision that walk was. As I turn the corner, I bump into a gang of eight young men who spot me instantly. ‘Make way for the gay,’ they say, amongst general laughter. I feel humiliated. I try to keep my dignity by fixing my gaze in front of me and walking on. I don’t stop and try my best not to display my fear.

Perched on my head, is a veiled hat. Black. The veil covers my face, which in turn is made up: a black flick of eyeliner, blinding mascara and a rather bluish shade of red lipstick. Over my trousers, a skirt and on my feet (sample size, mind you), a pair of sober black court shoes with stilettos heels. In my right hand, a clutch and inside that, the mobile phone I promptly used to call the emergency services. The clutch ended up in the bin. I would no longer be able to see it without shuddering. The phone was smashed when snatched from my hands. Or did it break when I hit the ground on all fours?

My memory is blurred. Their faces are fuzzy and I struggle to piece together the order of events with absolute clarity. But isn’t it so theatrical? All of it: the clothes, the makeup, the shoes. Even the disorientation makes for fertile material.

After the event I tried to analyse why I had been selected for such violence. Yes, I could walk the streets without make-up, with more conforming clothing, but I was still an object of abuse. I’ve had it all my life: even if I comply with my attire, they still seem to know somehow. Being an artist, I analysed it and discovered something with absolute clarity: take away all the cosmetic effeminacy and what remains is the somatic effeminacy, the walk.

I explored this walk in studio. What makes my walk effeminate? What particular element of it drew the negative attention of a group of men? The mince, the gait, the soft shoulders”¦ I try to correct these apparent mistakes. Can I successfully pass, go unnoticed? Perhaps power lies in invisibility. I fail. Trying to walk like a man is just inauthentic. I am so not cool with it. My research leads me instead to a community of queer walkers.

Reigning in the walk is a form of self-imposed violence. By engaging in the exercise, I feel I am echoing the demands of the gang of boys who bashed me and, to a larger extent, of society. Neither let me pass.

No, I couldn’t correct my walk. Worse, I became unwilling to correct myself. That is how I discovered my power.

Nando Messias performance @ Toynbee studio. Photo Loredana Denicola

Nando Messias performance @ Toynbee studio. Photo Loredana Denicola

In researching the history of walking performances, I find it right under my nose. Jack the Ripper tour guides lead hundreds of punters every day down my street, even stopping at the very spot where I was attacked. It has a marked history of violence.

My investigations lead me to find a home with queer walkers: the flâneurs, the dandies and the voguers. They too disturb the placid order of urban life, awakening passersby from their near slumber and somnambulous, quotidien pace. These figures challenge assumptions and push buttons by performing a somewhat theatricalised version of the simple act of walking.

I don my choreographer’s hat. The walk, my walk, informs the movement I create for the piece. My encounter with violence changed my stagecraft, particularly my work with music. The live marching band is a representation of my body. It is loud, powerful and demands attention. Its intentions are unpredictable.

How to advocate effectively? Don’t be a victim and take time to hone the creativity.

The police officer who investigated the assault described my clothing as out of the ordinary (I was hardly outrageous for East London). He wanted me to protect myself from attracting attention when I leave the house. His advice? Wear a cape. It should be capacious enough for me to be exuberantly dressed on the inside and inconspicuous on the outside. A cape? Jack the Ripper himself might get less attention than a man creeping surreptitiously through twenty-first century London enveloped in a flowing cape.

That police officer was in fact very sympathetic. Of course it expresses a victim-blaming mentality and a complete incomprehension of sissy subjectivity. But it amused me and it gave me the key to my performance strategy.

In creating The Sissy’s Progress, I feel I have taken that officer’s advice in adopting strategies, including sartorial ones. Needless to say, I am doing the exact opposite: I am bidding not for less but for more visibility in public, precisely where it is dangerous. I will not be silenced. I will not seek to fit in by toning down my behaviour, my manner, the way I dress, my sheer bodily sissiness.

If visibility is the subject of the piece, walking is its vehicle.

The Sissy’s Progress is on at Toynbee Studios on the 17th and 18th March. Book tickets here.