It’s only fitting that on being asked if he’s seen anything good lately, Xavier de Sousa asks whether his answer has to be in this country. A performance maker and producer, de Sousa is the founder of Queer Migrant Takeover, a series of events by his company Foreign Actions Productions celebrating the plurality and common ground of multicultural LGBT+ experiences.
Which means it’s the kind of space where you can wander from a room showing durational video pieces made by Polish, Swedish, Iranian, British and Rwandanan artists to a DJ set featuring Latinx music. Then you can have your fortune told by the Istanbul Queer Arts Collective, who might tell you, from the card you draw from their dirty selection with the expression EÅžEÄžIN AMINA SU KAÃ‡IRMAK – to blow water up a donkey’s vagina – on its back, to be careful not to overdo it.
The biggest Queer Migrant Takeover event so far, ‘Deeper Routes’ at London’s RichMix, involved a vegan calde verdo soup dinner for all guests besides an array of performances and provocations from artists and activists. And it’s as a provocation – or, as he prefers it, “an artistic intervention” – that de Sousa intends for Queer Migrant Takeover itself to function. In this way he tends to cast his role as a curator of sorts. “The way you contextualise what you yourself do is what makes the work more one thing or the other; here, I don’t want to see or for there to be a separation between political action and artistic impulse. It’s an artistic event with political intonations, if you like.”
Queer Migrant Takeover unites both people who would unhesitatingly define themselves as artists and those who’d avoid the term. “As well as people I knew and wanted to work with again or for the first time,” de Sousa explains, “I wanted to bring in people who don’t often populate these kinds of contexts – so activists, and people wanting to find a home in this country, and people who are on that fine line of being kicked out of the country or not.”
As their biggest event so far, Deeper Routes is an impressive testament to this combination’s potential. The first collaboration between activist group LGSM (Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants, who in excellent ACT UP style have always tended towards the theatrical) and SPIT! involved the endless reciting of homophobic and transphobic slurs before an LGSM banner, in a spirit true to Joshua Hubbard’s The Faggot Manifesto, also performed later, as well as a monologue highlighting the inequality and hypocrisy in the distribution of PrEP (“Because PrEP is a deal with the Devil, and he likes to barter with the wealthy and the affluent first”).
Though the ‘open discussion’ led by Joon Lynn Goh suffered slightly from contributors not quite equally sharing the time with each other or the floor, the sheer diversity of knowledge and levels of engagement among attendees is what de Sousa aims for with every QMT event. “Though I think we straddle a boundary which is unique, there are some amazing and similar artistic events: Steakhouse Live, for instance, or Birmingham’s Fierce Festival.”
QMT was developed to build on the potential for balancing priorities – both encouraging activism and political organising while creating and giving a platform to queer art – which de Sousa sees in community-based events. “Sometimes there’s a danger in festivals ranging too far into the political side, and forgetting the artistic means attracting only a certain kind of person, which results in a lot of reticence to bring the political in on the part of festival programmers.”
And by its very name, reticence just isn’t the look for Queer Migrant Takeover. In recent years, migrant is a label de Sousa has come to feel comfortable claiming personally, too. “For various reasons, though I became much more aware of my status as such over the past few years, before Brexit and the rise of far-right anti-immigrant feeling. I knew I wasn’t technically part of this country. I’ve never been allowed to vote, I have to prove I have the right to work in this country every time I want to get a job, and people look at me when I present my Portuguese ID card. That always made me feel aware, but it was never a real problem until recently.”
Alongside Queer Migrant Takeover, de Sousa interrogates his own and other people’s sense of nationhood and belonging with his own long-running solo show POST, kicking off Shifting Landscapes in Leeds. “In its last section, I invite people to come to the table and have food and drinks with me, and talk about loads of stuff, and in one performance that discussion went on for two hours! People just didn’t want to leave. And a big point of this conversation was how the British people in the audience and at the table didn’t really understand why someone saying to you ‘Oh, you’re not from here, you’re from somewhere else’ is a problem. It’s used as a conversation-ender.”
From his experience, de Sousa can count the number of times in this year alone he’s been introduced to people and they haven’t tried to guess where he’s from. “It’s a gotcha! kind of thing to them. When told that I’m Portuguese, not Spanish, they tend to say ‘Oh, close enough.’ But it’s a whole different country! I’ve started to say ‘Are you Welsh? Close enough.’ I look back now and realise I tried to get my accent as British as possible to assimilate. Now I hate assimilation, but for me it was a survival tactic when I first moved here.”
It might seem as if we’re more comfortable nowadays with words like assimilation and with pulling apart aspects of identity, but de Sousa is dismissive of the idea that this means things have substantially changed: “The fascists are more vocal too, like everyone else.” Though Queer Migrant Takeover is meant as somewhere accessible to those who aren’t necessarily anti-capitalists, he’s determined it should resist “capitalist influence” as far as possible. “We’ll never accept sponsorships, and we’re certainly not making any money from this. The day I do that is the day I finish. We want to focus on providing better education, teaching each other about the world and history, colonialism, monarchy and empire. Capitalism examines how to use history and systems to your advantage, which just isn’t the way we want to be looking at things.”
He’s clear-eyed about inter-community issues which still need to be addressed in queer circles, the racism, sexism and conflict between religious beliefs, even as he rejects the existence of a real ‘queer migrant community’ as something idyllic and stripped of texture. Dealing in specifics is what does justice to our cultural differences and richness. “We need to keep resisting box ticking exercises which lead to no real reform of programming – it’s tokenistic. It leads to circular programming of the same few artists who are, for example, both non-white and non-British.”
Having come up against the inaccessibility of Arts Council England funding to migrants and conditions confining touring work to Britain, de Sousa emphasises that Brexit is not the main or only factor in what Queer Migrant Takeover does or its concerns. “Brexit is a made-up word by fascists.” He’s derisive of Theresa May’s seemingly ill-fated plans for a ‘Brexit festival’: “What kind of work would be turned out? What does it mean when we centre ‘British values’? Let’s look at the composition of the teams involved, the predominance of white, British and southern artists, and the way something like this will eat up money. It’s short-sighted. I could be here a week talking about this, to be honest.”
In the last part of this year, de Sousa found out that QMT had managed to secure ACE funding, well into the preparations for Deeper Routes, and hopes that this means that their events, especially in London, can be free. Such a goal feels counter to everything about London and the UK which can be uncomfortable and unwelcoming, in general and to migrants in particular. “Sure, we give out free and discounted tickets, and we do what we can to make it easy for people. But more than anything,” de Sousa says, “We want things to be homely.”
For more info on Queer Migrant Takeover, visit Xavier de Sousa’s website here.