As Ghana’s government turns against its LGBT+ citizens, an artists’ residency offers a haven

Artist and trans woman Va-Bene Elikem Fiatsi says she’s ready to go to jail or die rather than give up and flee the country

Va-Bene Elikem Fiatsi’s hair is being unbraided by many hands. This is happening on a big screen, in a dark room, in front of a group of onlookers. It was filmed, she says, after she attended Ghana’s parliament to listen to a debate over a new anti-LGBT+ bill. Representatives of churches were invited. “They started comparing us to armed robbers, terrorists, paedophiles,” she says. “It was so exhausting to listen to all that… without having a chance to respond.”

So, Fiatsi created art. A video she made, which captured the ritual of her shedding her long hair and her extensions being removed, is her way of sharing and shedding the negativity she has gone through. And her body, her appearance, is her art too. It’s evidenced in the life-size photograph of her wearing only heels and a headdress, draped in red fabric, hanging on a wall of her home; or in the dark room filled with her clothes and make-up, collected over a decade. Her existence in this west African country is art, but also evangelism, she says. And she is ready to go to jail or be killed rather than leave.

Fiatsi, who works under the name crazinisT artisT, is a trans woman and the head of an artists’ residency in Kumasi, a city of more than three million that was once the capital of the Ashanti Empire. The residency is called perfocraZe International Artist Residency, or pIAR. Every month, eight new artists come to a property rented with money Fiatsi earns from her art. She sees it as a “community space” where people can reinvent themselves, live together and create work that challenges the society around them. The wall at the entrance reads: “We are all the same.”

Fiatsi is now crowdfunding to purchase a more permanent property that can act as a “safe sanctuary” for everyone who enters.

‘A kind of evangelism’

Fiatsi was born in 1981 in Ghana’s Volta Region, close to the border with Togo. She became a Christian preacher and high schoolteacher: her subjects were religion and moral studies, English, and vocational studies.* These days, she sees her activism and art as a “kind of evangelism”.

“Art is a belief. It’s a culture. It’s a doctrine. You need to get to the people and you need to convince them to believe and trust their own processes… You do so much to be able to reach one person,” she says.

Artists who apply to pIAR know that they will work directly with her. Her hope is that they may become more open-minded, she says, but there are artists who have moved into the house, “they stay like one week, and after that, they realise that I am an LGBTQ person and I have a lot of queer people around, gays coming here, then they freak out. They have internalised homophobia. So then they just escape, because they can’t deal with it.”

The same has happened with young people employed as cleaners. Their negative reaction is likely because of Christianity, Fiatsi says, which makes many Ghanaians view LGBT+ people as “evil”. She condemns the church as “the bed of homophobia in Ghana”.

Still, Fiatsi “won’t hesitate to admit an artist who might have been known to be homophobic, because I believe the process will actually deconstruct and break them down until they begin to learn and unlearn… I believe that this mentorship programme [will] help some of them to reinvent their own ideas, and to develop new languages around their work”.

The residency officially began in early 2019. Eight artists attend per month from January to August. Towards the end of each month they put on an exhibition. At a recent one, a mix of artists from Ghana, Germany and Malaysia, attendees and journalists watched a series of performances focused on themes including the manifestation of God; the link between children’s toys and electronics; and the politics of food.

“It’s a school that is not found in schools,” says Ghanaian artist Kwame Brenye, who spent hours carrying out a traditional ritual in a performance that involved him going in search of a particular leaf and never breaking character, despite thunder and pouring rain. “You think in a way you never thought you could. You are made to live and love the performance and it becomes a part of you.”

At the moment there are more attendees at the residency from Europe and North America than Africa – something Fiatsi says is because of the lack of cultural funding to support African artists with developing their work and travelling for opportunities. Fiatsi herself has paid for the flights for people from Cameroon, Togo and Nigeria, so they could attend.

She also carries out an intensive operation to make sure Ghanaian artists know about the opportunity. “I have to be scavenging, I have to be hunting on social media on many platforms to be able to reach out to Ghanaian young artists and invite them personally… They don’t know what a residency is.”

Her ultimate aim, she says, is empowerment. To that end, she also runs a mentorship programme. Twelve Ghanaian artists will be under her mentorship for 12 months this year.

There are many others who solicit her advice. Trans people and LGBT+ Ghanaians regularly contact Fiatsi through social media asking about everything from how to deal with their family members to how to get employment. Fiatsi sometimes offers them free accommodation while they sort out their careers and figure out a way to become independent, because financial security offers them the best chance of being able to live how they want, she says.

Dangerous time

Fiatsi is living through an increasingly dangerous time. If passed, Ghana’s new anti-LGBT+ Bill would introduce a prison sentence of up to five years for people identifying as gay, and a sentence of up to 10 years for anything seen to be promoting LGBT+ rights. The Bill also promotes “conversion therapy”. Last year, 22 Ghanaians were arrested for attending what police said was a “lesbian wedding”, while the office of LGBT+ Rights Ghana was raided.

Ghanaian activists say these homophobic developments have largely been driven by US evangelicals and groups such as the World Congress of Family and Family Watch International, along with politicians who are “wanting to distract from the wider issues that affect every Ghanaian, such as the rapidly weakening national currency, public sector corruption, and an abusive and abused court and police system”, as Alex Kofi Donor, the director of LGBT+ Rights Ghana, wrote in March.

The situation “is totally getting worse”, Fiatsi says. Before this, there were people who would blackmail or rape LGBT+ people knowing that they couldn’t report it, but since the Bill was proposed the backlash has “tripled”, she guesses. The Bill encouraged Ghanaians “to begin to take the laws into their own hands… People want to do the cleansing themselves. So if homosexuality is an evil practice, then [they think] we have to clean our homes.”

Fiatsi says it’s important to talk about the rights of all LGBT+ people, but “it’s also very relevant to begin to acknowledge that there are some people who are more vulnerable in this situation than others”, such as trans people, whose “gender is an affirmation of a non-conventional sexuality”.

In Ghana, she says, being a “trans woman is [seen as] a weakness. You become vulnerable, because womanhood is [seen as] a vulnerability. Womanhood is a weakness, womanhood is a lesser being.”

Coming out as trans is activism in itself, she adds. There are other trans people in Ghana but she says many who are “passing” remain silent, while Fiatsi is willing to speak out.

That’s why Fiatsi will stay in her home country. “Relocating from Ghana is the last thing I’ll ever dream about. Even if I’m chased with machetes and bullets, I may prefer to die in Ghana than to relocate to Europe,” she says.

“If I wanted asylum, I would have got it long ago. I owe it to Ghanaians, Ghanaian vulnerable, marginalised communities. Not only LGBTQ Ghanaians. [All] Ghanaians, even the homophobes, I owe them the responsibility to change them from thinking what they’re thinking. What I’m doing… it’s a way to help people reflect and think beyond the binaries and beyond the religious codes that were produced for them.

‘I’d prefer to die’

“It may happen that when the violence becomes so strong, there may be other things that make me leave. Especially if I know other people’s lives are going to be in danger… But if it will just be that Va-Bene [Fiatsi] would die… then I’d just prefer to die… Going to jail or dy[ing], it’s okay, I’m ready for that.”

In 2015, Fiatsi played dead, lying naked and covered in black paint in the arms of a white woman who wore only underwear, outside Accra’s Bible House – the publishing house for bibles. As a result, the festival they were taking part in – the Chale Wote street art festival – was banned from going near the Bible House again.

On Good Friday last year, in a performance titled Holier Than Thou, Fiatsi acted out a crucifixion, which she said was a remembrance of “those Ghanaians, blacks and queers, who suffered similar violence and death” to Jesus. “I wanted this performance to remind the Christian community of their contribution and participation in the ongoing violence suffered by both LGBTQIA+ and non-LGBTQIA+ people in Ghana,” she later wrote. “It is a call for reflection, empathy, compassion and unconditional love. May the souls of all queers, alleged thieves, alleged witches and many others who were lynched, beaten and stoned to death rest in perfect peace.”

This year, Fiatsi was travelling for work, but she marked Good Friday by sitting outside of Ghana’s embassy in Switzerland, wearing a long red dress, draped in matching cloth, and holding signs that read “Kill the Bill”, and “Freedom, justice, for all”.

“My art was birthed out of my activism,” Fiatsi says. “The more intense the fight, the more intense my practice. [It’s] because of the situations in which we find ourselves not only as queer people, but as Africans, and Ghanaians, and blacks. So my work covers a lot of subjects around marginalised groups and vulnerable groups. Even if LGBTQ situations have been brought under control in Ghana, there are a lot of other things to talk about as human rights activists… There’s no separation between [the] life I live as a human being, and my artistic career and my activism.

“My hope for the future is to create an all-inclusive, safe sanctuary, especially in Ghana, where people can be born again.”

*Article amended at 7.30 on June 20th, 2022