Ugo Woatzi: The Greatest Performance

Artist Ugo Woatzi

Words Tom Czibolya

Change is only possible when it comes from inside the society – Brussels-based visual artist and photographer Ugo Woatzi’s gentle, surreal images contain a heavy message about giving up and finding ourselves in today’s society. In conversation with Container Love, Ugo told us about his upbringing in rural France, the disturbing beauty of camouflaging ourselves, and why he thinks that as an artist, being political is not a choice but a duty.

“I love when an artist is political, especially with photography, because this is a genre that’s actually capable of changing norms in society.”

How did you and the people around you handle your own queerness while growing up?

For me, it wasn’t very easy. I grew up in a small village in the South of France. A very traditional, very patriarchal place. Even though I knew I was somehow different since I was very young, it was quite impossible for me to express it anywhere. I didn’t have the space for it at school and I didn’t have the space for it at home either. I didn’t have any references, not a single queer person I knew, nothing. I was struggling with my own doubts, alone, since I didn’t have anyone I could talk to. Being alone, it was very difficult for me to even understand what I was going through. I thought to myself, this feeling can’t be normal, that I must be sick.

I’m thirty years old now. When I grew up, the internet wasn’t a thing yet, there was no social media. Nowadays, it’s still very difficult for kids to be themselves in environments similar to where I came from, but at least they are not living in a vacuum anymore. They can get information or even communicate with each other online. But this wasn’t the case for me.

I was pretending to be straight. I tried to date girls, not saying anything to anyone. I left my village when I was 18 and moved to Toulouse, a bigger city. I joined a theatre company where I met a lot of nice and open-minded people who are still my friends today. One of them was openly gay. He was the one kinda opening my eyes and helping me a lot to discover what I wanted to be as a person.

What’s your first memory related to queer content?

It must have been some pages from a magazine I’ve seen, pictures of half naked guys. I was attracted to these images, but didn’t know why or how to deal with it at the time. Years later, I discovered the movies of Pedro Almodovar. I still love his films so much, his work remains a great inspiration to me when it comes to the queer identity.

How conscious of a decision is it from your side keeping your art political?

When I started studying photography in Johannesburg, South Africa, I became fascinated with the works of Samuel Fosso and Zanele Muholi and the idea of channeling a political message through photography, through telling my own story. I was experimenting with self portraits and as they brought me back to previous chapters in my own life, I realised that there are a lot of people experiencing things in a similar way as I do.

I love when an artist is political, especially with photography, because this is a genre that’s actually capable of changing norms in society. With my pictures, I wanted to create something that kids in similar circumstances to mine can relate to.

“I always felt like I was performing, acting as someone else. And still now that I’m older, there are days when I feel like I lost a little part of myself or times when I’m not sure who I am anymore.”

As a queer person is it one’s duty to give the world a proof of existence, a statement that we are here and we want to be visible?

I think it’s everyone’s personal choice. I don’t believe it’s something every queer person has to keep at the back of their heads at all times, although I do believe that our existence is indeed political. As a child, the moment I realised I was different was the moment I knew that I was ready to fight for so many things. From that moment on, it was clear to me that my life was going to be political.

It’s not easy. Sometimes all I want is to forget about a lot of things that happened to me, but as soon as I go out and realise that many people are still not okay with who I am as a queer person, I know there is work to do.

Do you consider queer art counter culture?

Yes. I’ve never studied art thus I didn’t have many references when I started off creating my own artistic practise. I think there is something very utopian about creating the base for your own art. To me, it’s a way out, an escape. So I can detach. After many, many years of struggling with acknowledging who I am and what I represent, I asked myself the question: why not create my own world instead of breaking myself trying to fit into boxes.

How important is symbolism to you when it comes to your photography?

My photography is a mix between surrealism and metaphors. I use flowers, but I use a lot of textiles too. To me, textiles are the perfect symbols of both camouflaging yourself or to show the world your true personality. I’m trying to embed small references into my work, but these can’t be looked at through an artistic lens, as they are usually more attached to my personal experiences and memories.

What’s your way of coming up with compositions?

There is a lot of improvisation in what I’m doing although the majority of my images are carefully staged. My photography is centred around a simple question: how do we perform in everyday life? How do we perform with our bodies, in different spaces, how do we perform in our heads and of course, how does society perform around us? Most of my models, I know them for a long time. We talk, we share stories and we try to imagine what kind of images we want to create together.

“Genuine stories are what can bring us closer together, not people talking over the heads and in the name of others.”

Why do you think that life is a performance?

As I was growing up, I always felt like I was performing, acting as someone else. And still now that I’m older, there are days when I feel like I lost a little part of myself or times when I’m not sure who I am anymore. I performed for 18 years of my life, always adapting to others, to the spaces I was living in, pretending that I was someone I wasn’t.

Not so long ago, I went on a trip with my best friend. She’s a girl and it’s just too funny, because everyone thought that we are a couple. It’s only because society is built on these patterns, these preconceptions that evolve into expectations. In this case, it was a very interesting camouflage, honestly, since it made me able to dress and act however I wanted and still operate under the disguise of a heteronormative social setting.

What’s your take on inclusivity within the queer community?

When I started off, I was mainly exploring masculinities therefore most of the people I photographed at the time were men or people who identify as men. Deconstructing the idea of masculinity, denouncing the rules of how to be a man was something that yet again came from my own background.

It’s important to me to work only with what I know well enough. I want to be very honest with my art and this is only possible if I reflect on things that resonate with me on a personal level. Nowadays, I’m trying to find narratives that are a bit more fictional, to get that extra space and freedom that is needed to get into new territories, new identities and accepting the fluidity of them.

Sharing your own stories and finding out that it carries a meaning for people you never met or talked to, complete strangers, is a beautiful thing. Genuine stories are what can bring us closer together, not people talking over the heads and in the name of others. Especially, since photography can so easily turn into a tool of violence.

How do you imagine the normalisation of queerness in the mainstream?

Queerness is a surface and when I see big brands being part of the Pride and making big statements, I always think it’s cool, because it gives more visibility, but at the same time it doesn’t solve any of the issues we are facing. Public space is still very unsafe and there are still a lot of countries where queer people are suffering and even dying only because they’re queer. I think gestures and visibility are important, but you just can’t change people’s mindsets, the norms themselves artificially, from above.

Change has to come from inside society. This is why I do workshops at schools, giving a space to kids to express themselves freely or just to sit together and talk about topics that they can’t discuss elsewhere. Those kids, they will talk to their friends, they will talk to their families and this is how real progress is done. It takes time, it takes effort, it takes one step at the time.

If you go and visit small communities you quickly realize that a lot of things haven’t changed. We should never forget how lucky we are to live in countries where society is already more accepting and where the state is here to defend us. But we shouldn’t take this granted and we should never forget that the rights we have now are still dreams for many queer people globally.