2 Stories

Wanja Muguongo &
Tigist Helen Schmidt

Stories of our Lives

Tigist & Wanja for NeueJournal

Very few times does the intention of a narrative film get told with such honesty that one forgets it’s not a documentary. Such is the case with Stories of our Lives, a poignant and raw film that has been regarded too controversial to screen in Kenya. Created by members of the Nairobi-based art collective, The Nest Collective, the film is an anthology of five real stories from members of the LGBT community that have been adapted to live in the big screen. The stories highlight the difficult spectrum of oppression that members of the community face, and, consequently, how this develops each person’s lives. Following the screening of the film at NeueHouse Madison Square, we caught up with Tigist Helen Schmidt, one of the founders of Salem Productions, and Wanja Muguongo, one of the founders of the UHAI EASHRI organization, to discuss identity, sexuality, and the perils of patience.


NeueJournal: How does this movie balance true vs. fictional elements?


Wanja Muguongo: It was a project about people telling us about them being queer and what that means to them. They are all true stories told by folks in their own words. It’s the kind of stories you really can’t make up.


Tigist Helen Schmidt: It’s a very specific experience that you have in Kenya and in every country. But then in that specificity there is also the universality, and that’s why people can relate to that. I think that’s what the beauty of film can portray. The film is very simple and very intimate in many ways. It’s black and white, so there’s not a lot of lighting and artificial set building. It’s on a shoestring budget, which makes it even more documentary-like; you actually forget that you’re watching a so-called feature film and you’re just watching people telling stories. And that’s all it is.


Still from ‘Each Night I Dream’

NJ: What is this movie’s overarching message about gender and sexuality?


WM: What’s powerful about it is that it was queer Kenyans gathering the stories of other queer Kenyans and then making a film out of it. It wasn’t meant to be anything except the stories of people’s lives. These are people of different genders who experience and express their sexuality in different ways.


Still from ‘Athman’

THS: That’s why you feel so drawn to all of them – it’s so real. Even when you do address gender, and homophobia, and all these different things, it comes always from a personal place first. I feel we pigeonhole films a lot, and always say “it’s an issue film.” It becomes this gender film. This queer film. This African film. We’re trying to push forward from these binaries. Everybody just wants to live their life the way they want to live their life. In the film, you really get to see that. That’s all people want to do. They don’t want to be on the frontline. They just want to love who they want to love.


NJ: What is the trait you most deplore in others?


THS: Falseness. When there’s a certain kind of phony-ness, I don’t even know what to do with you. It puzzles me because I can’t get through that person. There’s no basis for any conversation. There’s nothing there.


WM: The one trait I deplore the most in people is apathy. Somebody who has absolutely no analysis about anything. I don’t know how to relate to somebody who has no politics around anything. There’s so much about the world that’s messed up. How can you just live in it without thinking about privilege, about power, about race, about sexuality? Even if I disagree with you I’d much rather you be someone who has something for me to disagree with. Live your life in a way that shows that you care about where you are.


NJ: What trait do you most deplore in yourself?


WM: I wish I got less upset by things because it’s not healthy. It’s exhausting. It can sometimes make me a very difficult person to deal with.


THS: I have a hard time letting go of things. Its very difficult for me because I’m very skeptical afterwards. And it’s a conscious decision to let go. That’s the thing. I’m like, “I’m going to let go now,” and I don’t.


NJ: What is your greatest fear?


WM: I’m afraid of dying poor. I want to live on my own time and it’s very hard to do that when you’re poor.


THS: My fear is not living my true highest self in this lifetime. Not being present. I want to make every moment count. Every encounter count. The sea helps I think. There’s something so cleansing about salt water. And even just the breeze, and the sun, and the sand.


NJ: What are some of your favorite African writers?


WM: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is an amazing writer and thinker. My favorite book is This Thing Around Your Neck, because it’s a collection of short stories, so I don’t have to choose any one in particular. Binyavanga Wainaina is another one. The first article I read of his was “How To Write About Africa,” and it’s so easy to see that he was pissed off. He was actually responding to something he had read. The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin is a very interesting book about this guy who has four wives, and the stories about his four wives. There are very many that I could go into. I love Teju Cole…


THS: Teju Cole is definitely one of my favorites. He gave me the German version of Open City, and it’s a completely different read than in English. It has a lot more gravitas. I can’t put it down. To me it’s very visual and very cinematic in many ways. It’s very descriptive and depicts loneliness in a way that I think you don’t really see in black male characters in New York City. There’s also Dinaw Mengestu. He has this amazing book called Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, and it’s about the Ethiopian-American experience that I can relate to so much. It’s very real, very beautiful, but also heavy in many ways. It hits home.


NJ: What living Africans do you most admire?


THS: There are so many nameless and faceless Africans, specifically African women, that I’ve come across doing a lot of philanthropic work. It breaks my hear that our attention goes to certain people and things that really don’t deserve our attention that much. They’re truly my heroes, and they’re the ones that inspire me day to day.


WM: The one African I really admire the most died a few years ago; Wangari Maathai. Everything about her life inspires me. But I think the people who inspire me the most are the LGBT activist. People put up with a whole lot of shit, and to be able to do that and still live a life that is full and always pushing back against things, but still being a human being. That’s a thing that inspires me; people who are able to do the mundane things of life, even while doing all this other fighting.


NJ: What words or phrases do you most overuse?


WM: Interesting. I use that all the time.


THS: I say ‘you know’ a lot. I want to say, you understood? It’s really important for you to understand me. You know?


NJ: What do you consider to be an overrated virtue?


THS: Patience. My name actually means Patience in Amharic. My mother, she never had patience, so she gave me patience as a mantra – a daily reminder of what she needed in her life. I think there’s a fine line between being patient and being complacent, or passive, and actually putting up with certain things and certain behaviors of people that you don’t have to be patient with. You could actually walk away, or gracefully back out.


NJ: Especially as a woman, we’re always meant to be calm and accepting and not be drama queens. You have to not be patient sometimes. You can’t just accept everything.


THS: I think a lot of women are very afraid of expressing themselves fully because of preconceptions, like, oh she’s on her period… she can’t be all that… who does she think she is?


WM: I also find patience really overrated. I think we need to be a lot more impatient and angry. It’s a good thing, because then you shift things. I feel like the reason why so many things remain wrong over centuries is that there are not enough people that just get out there and say no. Very few accepting people ever changed anything. Most of the changes come from people who are really pissed off. It shows you care, and you want to do something about it.


Portrait Photography: Joshua Woods for NeueJournal 

The Haas Brothers

Freaks & Fearlessness
with Nikolai & Simon Haas

Hass Brothers21578 copy

The Haas Brothers function with a freedom, enthusiasm and fearlessness that socialization often degrades. This quality comes across the moment they walk into a room, and is, of course, evident in their art, where they hold back nothing back and shirk cynicism. Their refreshing mentality has made them two of the most sought after design minds in the world — recent collaborators include the likes of Lady Gaga, Versace and Peter Marino. With their new project “Afreaks” out this fall, NeueJournal caught up the Haas Brothers after their talk at NeueHouse Madison Square and they gave us some insight into their work, and the thinking that births it. 


NeueJournal: Where did the title “Afreaks” come from?


Nikolai Haas: It was was a 70s Prog Rock record made by this band “Demon Fuzz.” I always loved the cover — it had an African wrestler on the front. It was just beautiful, and we were going to Africa, listening to this record, and then we were just thinking about the idea of a “freak” and what it means to be a “freak.” What you realize is that’s like 90% of people.


Simon Haas: I’m not sure there is a statistic, but most people can say that they have been a freak at some point, or felt like one. We like to advocate for outsiders, and reclaiming words is a great way to take control of them, so using “freak” proudly is a cool way to do that. Our project also has some social meaning: It has a lot to do with women’s rights and racial rights, so we really wanted to title it something that reclaims the identity of “freak-hood.” Also, we wanted these things to be completely unbounded by any design constraints so being freakish means that it can be whatever.


NH: You probably identify as a freak


NJ: For sure! But what first attracted you to the beadwork of the women you met in South Africa, and how did you establish such intimacy with your collaborators, who now call themselves the ‘Haas Sisters’?


SH: We first stumbled across their booth at a craft fair while we were there, and their work it was so expressive. They made really beautifully done animals and we are really attracted to animals in our own work.


NH: We were attracted to the aesthetic too. We got their card and started to email back and forth, and I then I think eventually we were like, yeah, let’s do a project together.  We were in Africa again for work, so we decided to stay for an extra two weeks to try and make a little bit of a collection. We got really close with them super quickly. We started learning all these stories, gaining a tremendous amount of respect for these people. It’s a pretty racist place, and it’s hard for them to be taken seriously, even just as humans, so no way could they ever be taken seriously as artists.


SH: They expected to be told what to do, but it was really important to the project that they were expressing themselves and not just fabricating. It took them a while to come out of their shell, but then they were actually competitive with each other, because each person had different techniques and but also because they are all very economically depressed. They didn’t trust us either because we are white. So we just worked with them, treated them like we would treat anyone else, put them on salary and asked them to experiment. They actually started calling themselves the “Haas Sisters” because we got so close.


Artwork: Haas Brothers – Monkeybiz, Tail-or Swift and Tail-or Splif, John Lith-Cow


NJ: Sex is a theme that seems to penetrate almost all of your work. How has your sexual identities as people informed your creations?


SH: I think that because I’m gay and he’s straight, and we’re really open with each other, we have both experienced the other one’s reality. Also knowing each other as children, like pre-sexuality, and then watching what sexuality does to your personality. Being straight actually requires a certain amount of theatrics, and so does being gay. So, I think we can see that layer added to the original personality.


NH: I feel like I experience Simon’s sexual reality as much as I do my own. I would consider myself queer as well, and I feel like it’s such a gift to understand Simon’s side of the coin because what you start to understand is that there is no side.


SH: It’s a bummer that straight guys are shamed for being emotional because a lot of them want to be emotional. I don’t get it — it is very restricting. People don’t talk about that a lot because men, in general, have it easy, but they do have a restricted reality.


NH: And women are not really allowed to be very sexual, and if they are, they have a pretty good chance of being shamed. I make a conscious effort to call my dude friends  who have a lot of sex “sluts” and my girlfriends who have a lot of sex “players.” I think the engagement of our sexual identity is also like an effort to negate it. I’ve been in a monogamous relationship with my fiancee for eleven years, but if she wasn’t in the picture and I wasn’t in love with her, I would be totally open to having a relationship with a guy if I felt like it.


SH: I’m unlikely to have a relationship with a girl, but it might happen.


NH: I think that would be unlikely, but there are certain people that I could see you being with.


SH: Oh my god, there was this Lebanese girl that I met in Cape Town who I was actually extremely attracted. That was cool.


NH: But, by the way, the sexuality of relationship is really just 10% or something. I mean, it’s important that it is a healthy 10%, but there a lot of relationship that are not gay or straight — they are just not sexual. It seems so stupid to try and define what a relationship is just by those 20 minutes you have once in a while.


NJ: If you could live within the reality of any TV show, which would it be?


NH: I would want to live in “Adventure Time.” That’s an incredible universe. If I could be Fin or Jake, I would be so stoked.


SH: I would probably live in a nature show like with David Attenborough. If I could be narrated by David Attenborough I would be really excited.


NH: How about ‘“The Kardashians”?


SH: I wouldn’t want to live in that reality.


NJ: How would you explain reproduction to a six-year-old?


SH: I would be frank about it. I think that a lot of problems come when you try to simplify the world for a young person.


NH: My goddaughter is six. She’s been in our studio a million times and has seen all the sexual work we make. It’s not a big deal.


SH: Also, if you explain it to a kid birds-and-bees style, you’re implying that there is something vulgar. But it’s such a natural part of life.


NH: Obviously, they shouldn’t be watching something too explicit, but there is nothing wrong with the naked body.


NJ: Simon, what is something people don’t know about Niki?


SH: I think everyone knows that he’s a really good guy, but I think they don’t know that he’s such a doer, and people don’t immediately what a deep thinker he is. He surprises me all the time with his ideas, and the shapes he makes. He’s a genius with expression.


NJ: Niki, what is something people don’t know about Simon?


NH: Simon never, never, never lies to anyone. Sometimes he’ll get flack for being too frank, but what you realize is that he just doesn’t lie to people. Sometimes I’ll make up white lies, but Simon will never, and so I know that anything he says is the truth.


SH: I want people to like me for who I am, so I don’t present something else.


Photography: Manolo Campion for NeueJournal