Sistaaz of the Castle. A series on Cape Town transgender sex workers featuring Celine Dion.
A Project by SistaazHood, Jan Hoek & Duran Lantink
South Africa’s transgender sex workers are the style icons that you never knew you needed
“For me and the rest of the ladies, this magazine is the answer to our prayers, to get that house which we can call home, that our stories are told over the world and that we are listened to.” We’re speaking to Netta Marcus, consultant for SWEAT, the South Africa-based NGO that advocates for the human rights of sex workers, and one of the seven stylish transgender stars of (not your average) fashion magazine, Sistaaz of the Castle.
As glossy as it is trippy, Sistaaz of the Castle sees longtime collaborators, photographer Jan Hoek and designer Duran Lantink, showcasing the undisputable fashion prowess and resilience of some of the city’s most vulnerable people. But rather than focussing on their hardships, the publication celebrates the beauty and humour of the SistaazHood, who look fabulous despite living in on the streets. ‘The Castle’ which the magazine takes its name from, refers to the embattled collective itself, rather than a physical space. They’ve set up their makeshift home in numerous locations around the city but sooner or later, get unceremoniously moved on by the authorities.
Founded by Marcus – who has herself been a sex worker for 24 years – and the late Cym v Dyk, SistaazHood began life almost ten years ago as a support system for transgender females who often shared the same issues of stigma, alientation and the loss of family.
“I had been working in the gardens [an inner-city suburb] and saw three young girls in and out of the toilet who were around 13 years old,” Marcus remembers. “I told them to come sleep with me on the Gallerie’s stoep, so they did and then we moved to the castle [along the walls of Cape Town’s Castle of Good Hope]. At the time SWEAT wanted to create a space for transgender female sex workers, so myself and Cym were asked to educate the staff and management on transgenderism. I got a job there to facilitate a group and to do some outreach to those on the streets.”
Having created this support group, Marcus developed it into something altogether bigger and more familial. “I had this thought – how can we support each other if we don’t know anything about each other?” she reflects. “So I decided to invite the girls to my place where we had a party with our lollies and wine glasses. Then when everybody got tipsy and started to share their stories, they all wanted to come and stay with us. Our main aim was to find shelter for transgender females.”
Now numbering 39, the Sistaazhood are like any other quote-unquote normal family, sharing clothes and secrets, celebrating each other’s birthdays and keeping each other safe. “The challenges we faces are still that the law enforcement are targeting transgender females by dumping our belongings and sometimes there are personal documents and medication, including our antiretrovirals.”
“For me and the rest of the ladies, this magazine is the answer to our prayers”
The line between fantasy and reality is ever blurry in Sistaaz of the Castle, with the dreams of the girls of prime importance and written as though real. While their realities might have a similar story – poverty, drug use and rejection – their dreams are as different as the women themselves. Celine Dion speaks of how she is soon to be releasing a fashion line with her namesake. Flavirina talks of becoming Burundi’s most famous supermodel. Gabby reflects on the opening of the gilded Lady Marmalade Brothel and Joan Collins wants to have a child. These clever fictions come to life in the magazine’s fantastical fashion shoots.
The Sistaaz were able to entrust their inner selves to Hoek and Lantnik due to the mutual respect and affection they have developed through working together over a long period of time. The Dutch duo first became aware of the Sistaaz in 2014 and, blown away by the ingenuity of the Sistaaz’s style, got on a plane to Cape Town. They’ve continued to collaborate with the group ever since. Naturally, the street savvy Marcus took some persuading, as she explains in Sistaaz of the Castle: “At first I thought it was a scam. But when I saw what the girls were getting out of it, how it made them feel and how people responded to it, I started to like it a lot… When they see the photos, people are learning about us and treating us better.”
Throughout this magazine the Sistaaz talk much of their DIY fashion style. Gabby speaks of “lineshopping” (taking pieces from washing lines) and Sulaiga of compiling looks from thrift stores and donations, where creativity is key to looking good. Their approach is one that couldn’t be a better fit for Lantink, who is making a name for himself with his upcycling and collage techniques and featured in the Positive Fashion exhibition at this month’s London Fashion Week.
Beyond the magazine, Hoek’s series of images were selected for this year’s Labs New Artists III exhibition at Red Hook Labs in Brooklyn, and the collaboration continues apace with the hope of soon staging a fashion show in Cape Town. If anyone deserves one, it’s this inspiring band of Sistaaz.