Sara Jordenö is a NYC and Gothenburg based Swedish visual artist and documentary filmmaker. Her projects often engage with under-represented and marginalised communities, and her newest film, KIKI, is no different. In a collaboration with Twiggy Pucci Garcon, Jordenö follows the lives of seven LGBTQ at-risk youth in NYC and takes a look at their role in the underground Kiki Ballroom scene over the course of four years.
KIKI is playing in Stockholm cinemas now.
Hi Sara. I thought you could start by explaining just what the Kiki scene is, and how it’s related to the Ballroom community.
The Kiki scene is part of the larger subculture of Ballroom, which was born in Harlem over 100 years ago. It is a very important performative art form created by LGBTQ people of colour. It is underground, under-recognised, and not properly documented, considering its significance and tremendous impact on popular culture, from Madonna, to Beyonce, to Rihanna. The Kiki scene is an off shoot of Ballroom, created as a safe space for youth, who practice this art form, of which voguing is the most known. The Kiki scene is a youth-led artistic and activist community and an intervention to empower and aid at-risk LGBTQ youth of colour. The members in the Kiki scene ranges from 13 – 28, and together these youth support each other in a tremendous way. The art form of ballroom becomes an outlet for all the struggle they encountered, and the scene becomes an alternative family system that is often much more supportive than their biological families.
The documentary shines a light on the systematic oppression many of the members of the Kiki scene face, as LGBTQ youths of colour. It was interesting to see how the Houses become a safe space away from all the homophobia that’s encountered elsewhere in Harlem. Do you think that the Kiki scene can only really flourish in cities as turbulent as New York?
No, absolutely not. There are Kiki scenes in many other cities in the US, as well as internationally. It is really a movement that is spreading. Washington D.C has a big Ballroom scene, Atlanta too. Systematic oppression is everywhere, and NYC is probably a much safer space for LGBTQ folks than say Florida or Texas. LGBTQ people are often moving to the cities where there are larger gay communities, it is a survival strategy.
At the other end of the spectrum, Stockholm has always been seen by the rest of the world as a bastion of liberal attitudes and progressive politics. What sort of problems do LGBTQ youths face in a country like Sweden? Is there a space for the Kiki scene?
I want to remind everyone that the Kiki scene is not just created by and for LGBTQ folks but for people of colour. Many but not all come from lower income families. The oppression they face is characterised not only by homo and transphobia but also racism and classism. They exist in the margins, and there are many people in the margins in Sweden as well. I believe that the idea of Sweden as a tolerant society where everyone has equal rights is completely false. There is systemic racism in Sweden. Not too long ago Sweden violated the human rights of transpeople by legally making them get sterilised to be able to transition. LGBTQ people are still not being treated equally, for example when becoming parents. We can learn from the Kiki scene, from the politics of the margins, and I think people in the Kiki scene could have great exchange with the many strong movements that exists in Sweden now, voices from the margins that will no longer accept white supremacy and aggressively pervasive heteronormativity in Sweden.
I know there’s various voguing events in Stockholm. There was even an international voguing contest here, last March. Is it fair to say that the voguing community in Stockholm is more about creative expression rather than creating a protective community?
I can’t answer to that, since I am not part of that community. What I do know is that important leaders from the NYC ballroom scene, such as Jack Mizrahi, Leiomy Maldonado and Dashaun Wesley all have been invited to Stockholm. This is important. I think it is a wonderful thing that a dancer in Sweden studies and practices the art form of vogue. But we should never forget the origins of vogue and that it is an art form of resistance. It is political. This is one of the main points of our film KIKI.
I read in an interview that you had your own difficulties growing up as a queer woman in Sweden. Do you think a Kiki scene, or some sort of equivalent, would have been beneficial to you at that time?
Yes, I think so. I was part of a feminist network that helped me get through these things when I was young. My biological family is very religious and considered homosexuality a sin. Twiggy’s family is also very religious, so we really connected through those experiences. And I was also subjected to sexual violence as a child, just like Divo in the film. But there is a huge difference between us: I have white privilege, with all that comes with that. I was never at risk of being homeless, and the fosterhome I was in was very supportive. I have never been harassed or risked being shot by a police officer. That said, I feel that the Kiki scene is giving me something now, as a 41 year old queer woman. This is because it is a community that understands that to be able to heal, you need to talk about and share your experiences of oppression. I have gotten support in the Kiki scene, and making this film has also been healing for me.
The Houses we see in your documentary are extremely flamboyant and loud. There’s a lot of big personalities. From your experience making the documentary, how inclusive is the Kiki scene? Bearing in mind some of these people have been though immense personal trauma, is there also a place for people who don’t wish to get involved with the Balls?
It is a very inclusive community and people are recognised not only for their ballroom skills but for their leadership and community service. There is a fundamental rule that you should contribute. The leaders are also very good at making young members see their potential. Many young members, when they first enter the scene, are not the big personalities you see in the film. They evolve, they grow and find themselves. The scene is transformative. And most important: individuality is encouraged. There are all kinds of bodies, all kinds of expressions, all kinds of talents.
Following the recent Orlando massacre, it was amazing to see how bold the global response was at pride festivals. One thing that’s emphasised in your documentary is the fact that the Kiki youths are all vulnerable by very nature of their status as LGBTQ people of colour. With this in mind, how durable are the Kiki communities following events as distressing as those that happened in Florida?
The individuals in the Kiki scene are extremely resilient, with Twiggy’s words: “We’re strong as fuck”. But they should not have to be. They should have the same rights as everyone else, they should be able to walk on the street or go to a club without being afraid of violence, they should have the same opportunities as everyone else in education, in politics, in filmmaking and art. Twiggy lost a friend in the Orlando massacre, and he lost many many friends during the four years we worked on the film. When it comes to Orlando, there might have been a response from the LGBTQ community, but where was the rest of the world? The straight white world is so fascinated with black and LGBTQ culture as pure entertainment. Where is their support when people are getting killed because of their race and sexual orientation? It’s like Jesse Williams said in his speech at the BET Awards “… Just because we’re magic doesn’t mean we’re not real”.
KIKI is on in select Stockholm cinemas until the 25th of August.
Words by Daisy Fernandez
Tues 23 Aug: 16:20 18:45 21:10
Wed 24 Aug: 16:20 18:45 21:10
Thurs 25 Aug: 16:20 18:45 21:10
SF Filmstaden Sergel
Tues 23 Aug: 15:50 19:10
Wed 24 Aug: 15:50 19:10
Thurs 25 Aug: 15:50 19:10
SF Filmstaden Söder
Tues 23 Aug: 15:10 17:40
Wed 24 Aug: 15:10 17:40
Thurs 25 Aug: 15:10 17:40
Zita – Folkets Bio Stockholm
Tues 23 Aug: 18:00 20:00
Wed 24 Aug: 18:00 19:30
Thurs 25 Aug: 18:00 20:15