By Chloe Hyman
International Women’s Day is an increasingly intersectional affair in The Netherlands, where the Mama Cash Feminist Festival kicked off in three Dutch cities on the weekend of March 8th. Programming at art spaces in Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and Utrecht provided platforms for queer people, POC, and sex workers to discuss issues pertinent to their identities, through panel discussions and interactive tours. Live performances were plentiful too, and their participatory nature embodied the spirit of International Women’s Day; emboldened by the atmosphere of self-love, visitors were free to jump up and dance, tell a story, or strut down the runway.
Intersectionality and participation are central to the mission of Mama Cash, the first international womxn’s fund. Founded in 1983 by a group of feminists in Amsterdam, the Mama Cash fund has grown to support thousands of womxn, trans, and intersex people each year. The fund provides financial and networking aid to 150 self-led feminist human rights organizations annually, and the proceeds from the yearly Feminist Festival help finance these grants. Further, some recipients participate in the festival, which is a wonderful platform to raise awareness for their human rights initiatives. This year, the Mama Cash Feminist Festival sold out completely, aiding future grant recipients and ensuring full audiences for every panel and performance.
The Infinite Kiki Function
My weekend began Saturday evening at the Mama Cash Feminist Festival X Infinite Kiki Function, a ballroom competition held at WORM, an experimental art space in Rotterdam. Co-hosted by the Kiki House of Angels and the Kiki House of Major, this competition—known as a ‘kiki’ in the ballroom community—invited individuals of all identities to compete in a variety of creative categories.
Some of these, like Old Way to Vogue Femme Beats, paid homage to 1970s queer Black ballroom culture, which originated in New York City. Performers in this category embodied the ‘Old Way’ of voguing, at regular intervals sliding from one sustained angular pose to the next. They were accompanied by vogue femme beats, a more contemporary musical subgenre characterized by high-energy beats and frequent crashing—the ideal instrumentation for a perfectly-executed dip. In other categories, like Dyke Realness, Trans Activist Realness, and Transfemme Aesthetic Resistance, the MCs Ms. Maybelline Angels and Karmella Angels welcomed intersectional identities to the runway.
These added categories illustrate the inclusive nature of ballroom culture today, but their incorporation is not always seamless. Questions arose when artist Mavi Veloso took to the stage for Trans Activist Realness and shimmied her silk dress up to her navel in a tantalizing body reveal. The judges questioned whether the entrant adequately fulfilled the category’s activist requirement, and Veloso was quick to defend her performance as activist art. The judges faced a dilemma: what are the parameters of trans activism? After a few tense minutes, Ms. Maybelline Angels announced that the discussion would continue after the kiki, and the judges awarded the grand prize to the performer Alex 007, who walked the category carrying a sign reading, “My existence is resistance.”
Later, Rae Parnell—House Mother of the House of Major—would elaborate on the judges’ decision. He explained that ‘realness’ has historically referred to an individual’s ability to pass as a cis woman or a cis straight man. Thus, trans people who can’t or don’t want to pass are not able to walk categories that place a premium on a participant’s ‘realness.’ Of course, such categories were not invented to be exclusionary, but to exalt the qualities that might save a person from anti-trans violence. In recent years, the ballroom community has broadened the meaning of ‘realness’ to make space for non-passing trans people. Newer categories like Trans Activist Realness de-center passing and unclockability; the only quality judged for realness in this event is the entrant’s performance of their activism. According to Parnell, this was the aspect the judges found lacking in Veloso’s otherwise stunning performance.
Though this conflict charged the air in the room with feeling, it was not uncomfortable to witness. Moments of discord should be embraced in spaces of activism, as they enable us to better support and elevate marginalized voices. The ballroom community acted in kind, using the conflict to communicate the community need for a category judged a particular way. Furthermore, Trans Activist Realness is a relatively new category, so it’s understandable that the culture must shift to make space for its presence. Parnell calls ballroom “a living organism,” and we are watching it evolve in real-time.
In addition to intersectionality, the Infinite Kiki Function exhibited a commitment to fostering audience participation. Though most performers signed-up prior to the evening for their chosen events, the MCs frequently invited the crowd to join in. When they first announced Dyke Realness, not a single person hit the runway, but after some encouragement, people leaped off their chairs to show the judges what “lesbian energy” really looks like. By my count, the category boasted the largest number of contestants out of any event that evening.
The Fearless Collective
The line-up on Sunday across all three participating cities demonstrated a similar commitment to participation and intersectionality. I was most intrigued by the program offerings at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, which promised an art-filled International Women’s Day experience. Geographically speaking, the festival began outside the glass walls of the Stedelijk. Early attendees arrived to see members of The Fearless Collective—a public arts organization—busily painting the museum façade. They watched as artist Shilo Shiv Suleman traversed her glass canvas on a moving scaffold, carefully bringing her portrait to life. Visitors were also invited to participate in the work by adding their own protest slogans in the bottom right-hand corner of the mural. Later arrivals, including those who slept in after attending a late-night Kiki, were greeted by a complete rendering of the artist’s subject and her penetrating gaze.
English-speakers had the opportunity to learn about the mural during the English-language panel, which included Suleman—the founder of The Fearless Collective—and a number of different arts organizations. Following a spirited opening address delivered by the Dutch Human Rights Ambassador Bahia Tahzib-Lie, Suleman shared the story of the Fearless Collective.
Since 2012, The Fearless Collective has travelled from the artist’s home in Bangalore to underrepresented communities in over ten countries, where it works with locals to transform public spaces through art-making and storytelling. Each public art project draws on community values, practices, and histories to foster collective healing. Murals are painted to reclaim public space, flooding sites of fear and trauma with affirmative messages chosen by the community—proclamations of strength, sacredness, and beauty. Suleman spoke of recent murals, like that erected in the Indigenous village of Olivencia in Brazil, which celebrates the contributions of women to their society. She also recalled the construction of the first known public tribute to queer masculinities in Beirut, which her organization made possible.
The artist also discussed the significance of her mural on the Stedelijk façade, which echoes a mural recently painted by the collective in Delhi, India. Both public artworks call attention to the peaceful protests led by women in the Shaheen Bagh neighborhood of Delhi, in response to the 2019 passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act targeting Muslim Indians and other minorities. That both are public multiplies their strength; the thousands of tourists who flood Museumplein each day—to see the Rijksmuseum, The Van Gogh Museum, and the Stedelijk—will encounter Ish Inquilab (my love is the revolution). These international visitors will learn the story of the Shaheen Bagh protestors, and will no doubt be affected by its message of resilience and beauty. Perhaps they will find strength in this message and gain the courage to stand up for themselves and others in their own communities.
Las Reinas Chulas
Suleman was joined onstage by a number of other speakers involved with Mama Cash. I was particularly excited to hear from Ana Laura Ramírez Ramos, a project coordinator for Las Reinas Chulas, a human rights group that works with women, youth, LGBTQ+ communities, and indigenous people to workshop cabaret performances, and educate through the medium of cabaret.
Ramos explained how cabaret, a heterogeneous mix of song, comedy, and storytelling, lends itself well to personal expression and community building. She also emphasized the comedic aspect of the medium, which promotes self-reflection, enabling performers and audiences alike to think critically about their identities. Throughout the creative process, participants often find themselves wondering, “How did I swallow so much rubbish?”
Ramos explained how cabaret, a heterogeneous mix of song, comedy, and storytelling, lends itself well to personal expression and community building.
Armed with their frustrations and an acerbic sense of humor, the participants of a Las Reinas Chulas cabaret workshop create characters rarely seen in Mexican telenovelas—autonomous women who enact positive change in their societies. In recent years, many of the participants have been lesbian and bisexual women, and their onstage personas reflect the experiences of queer women in Mexico. By virtue of their visibility, these personas are a threat to patriarchal systems, but Las Reinas Chulas are not content to merely disrupt the status quo; every story seeks to engage male audiences in a societal restructuring. Ramos and her collaborators look to the men in their lives for inspiration—men who feel comfortable living in a male-dominated society. They have found humor to be a successful rhetorical tool in various communities for infiltrating cultural barriers and communicating feminist messages to men in the audience.
Las Reinas Chulas also offers a number of educational cabarets for school and university groups, including the diverse series ‘The New Monographs.’ In these thought-provoking musical skits, professional performers provide information on safe sex practices, dating violence, abortion rights, and a number of other issues. Another intriguing program is ‘The Observatory Publivíboras,’ an awards show parody, in which ad campaigns are recognized for their outstanding contributions to sexism, racism, and classicism.
The Sex Worker’s Opera
Another notable presence on the English-language panel was the Sex Workers Opera, a theatre company that promotes narratives written by sex workers, represented onstage by Movement Director Siobhan Knox, and Music Director Alex Etchart. The company’s titular work is a devised theatre piece assembled from one hundred stories submitted by sex workers from 18 countries, incorporating song, dance, poetry, and visual projections. A film adaptation is also in the works, and the performers regularly conduct workshops for sex workers and allies.
Speaking at the Stedelijk, Knox and Etchart discussed the inclusion of sex workers at International Women’s Day celebrations, emphasizing the intersectional relationship between sex workers’ rights and feminism. They explained that most sex worker advocacy groups push for decriminalization rather than legalization because the latter requires sex workers to obtain legal paperwork and pay expensive licensing fees—hurdles for migrant workers and other marginalized groups.
When asked, “Is the feminist future near?” Knox responded thoughtfully. She acknowledged the global trend toward oppressive policies, which are endangering marginalized communities around the world. But she also spoke admiringly of young activists, who she trusts will bring us closer to a feminist future. “We [are] constantly inspired by the next generation,” Knox said. “By young people who are more aware and active than ever before through social media and necessity.” Echoing Ramos’s comments about humor, she added that art and laughter have the power to “disarm hatred or ignorance.”
Feminist Tour of the Stedelijk with Sekai Makoni
The next English-language event of the day was a guided tour of the Stedelijk Museum led by English artist, speaker, and activist Sekai Makoni. Makoni’s artistic and academic work is characterized by an intersectional interest in Black Feminism, spirituality, and activism. She is a graduate of the Critical Studies program at the Sandberg Institut in Amsterdam and currently produces a podcast, Between Ourselves, in which she explores the experiences of Black women in Europe. In keeping with the artist’s integrated approach to contemporary art, this tour explored four different works through the shared themes of play, activism, Blackness, and togetherness.
We began at Barbara’s Kruger’s 2017 installation Untitled (Past, Present, Future), an immersive text-based work situated in a transitionary space between the museum lobby and exhibition halls. Visitors moving through this space are bombarded with English and Dutch sentences, printed in all capitals and plastered on the gallery walls and floors. A George Orwell quote takes center stage, informing us: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stomping on a human face, forever.” Other statements come from Kruger herself, like the simple request, “PLEASE LAUGH,” or the Dutch sentence fragment, “GEZOND VERSTAND” which translates to ‘common sense.’
Makoni guided our group through a basic visual analysis, beginning with observations about the work’s use of color, space, and light. Next, she asked us to consider Kruger’s intentions—what the artist hoped to communicate to viewers—and how the work’s formal aspects enabled that message to be delivered. Only after this collaborative process did Makoni supplement our ideas with a brief overview of Kruger’s feminist oeuvre, and the qualities that characterize 20th-century American activist art. By waiting to contextualize the work, Makoni created space for free-thinking and participation. That viewers interpreted Untitled correctly without a didactic lecture is a testament to the work’s clarity, as well as Makoni’s skill as an educator.
In contrast, Esiri Erheriene-Essi’s A Lineage of Grace (for Toni and Cindy) (2019) contained a number of visual references unknown to our (mostly European) group. Makoni adapted nimbly, identifying the American Civil Rights slogans pinned to the figures’ clothes, and the patchwork of figures from Black pop culture hanging behind their heads. She discussed the significance of political activist Angela Davis, whose likeness on a button is pinned to the baby’s onesie, and wondered aloud if the eponymous Toni might be a reference to Toni Morrison—the famous Black American author who died last year.
Inspired by Makoni’s lecture, an observant Hungarian woman in our group wondered whether the family might represent the progression of activism from generation to generation. Another attendee inquired about the significance of Black American activist symbols in a British context, given that Erheriene-Essi is Black British. In response, Makoni described the experience of a global Blackness—a recognition of shared histories that enables Black figures from different countries to feel significant to communities around the world.
Of the four works discussed on this tour, only Kruger’s came from the permanent collection, while the remaining three hang in the museum’s temporary exhibitions. A Lineage of Grace (for Toni and Cindy) is shown in an exhibition dedicated to last year’s Prix de Rome, for which Erheriene-Essi was a nominee. At the beginning of the tour, Makoni acknowledged the lack of female artists represented in the permanent collection—a common feature among modern art museums that Stedelijk director Rein Wolfs seeks to change. “We still have far fewer women than men in our collection,” Wolfs said on International Women’s Day. “It’s important to send a clear message in a strong and also an activist way. And for us, Mama Cash is a really good partner for that.”
Events like the Mama Cash Feminist Festival certainly raise awareness about feminist issues as they pertain to art, but the permanent collection can only be diversified bureaucratically through new acquisitions. I hope that Wolfs intends to expand the museum collection accordingly, but for now, I am impressed by the inclusivity of the temporary exhibit program, which enabled Makoni to create an enthralling tour.
I am in awe of all the artists and organizations that participated in the Mama Cash Feminist Festival. Their work demonstrates how art can be used as a tool for both empowerment and education—to uplift underrepresented communities through art-making, and then share their stories with the world. It was also remarkable to see so many groups with seemingly disparate causes converge on one sunny weekend. Organizations dedicated to LGBTQ+ and sex worker rights shared the stage with those advocating for communities of color, illustrating the increasingly intersectional goals of Dutch feminism and International Women’s Day in The Netherlands.