We meet Frances Dupierry at The Hive, a Viennese gay bar, sitting at the end of a long table surrounded by people. The atmosphere is lively, with a mix of locals and ex-pats gathered around the table. We are amidst a MeetUp gathering, where individuals come together to make new friends and connections. It is particularly helpful for those who are new to the city and seeking a welcoming community. Frances has lived a life of experiences. She was an Anti-Apartheid activist in her home country South Africa, and became an active member of the feminist movement in Bremen after going into exile in Germany in the 1970s. She is deeply passionate about the practice of tantra, creates conceptual nudes, and is also known for organizing and facilitating engaging and thought-provoking meetings within the queer community.
It is not uncommon for art to be criticized for its representation of gender, race, and other marginalized groups. Some argue that nudes in art have historically been used to objectify and devalue women and that this is perpetuated by their continued depiction in art. Others argue that nudes can be powerful and empowering for women and that their representation in art is important for exploring and understanding the human form. Ultimately, the way art is viewed and interpreted is subjective and can depend on the viewer’s personal experiences and perspectives. You draw a very conceptual type of female nude. What led you to incorporate a conceptual approach when depicting the female nude in your artwork?
With regards to the devaluation of women through nudes in art, I must disagree. There was not always a concentration on female nudes. Think of the beautiful male nudes of Rodin and Michelangelo for example. The naked body has always been depicted in one way or another throughout time – just think of ancient cave paintings and indigenous artefacts from Africa.
Another example are the sexually explicit tantric depictions in ancient Hinduism neither devalue the female nor the male.
The way the naked body is depicted has changed and continues to change as changes in cultural thinking happen. I think the factor that makes a depiction of the female body devalue the feminine is in the intention of the depiction. In other words, it is in the eye of the creator and subsequently also the beholder. There are however many ways to devalue a woman’s naked body and today this is all too present in ways that previous generations never envisaged. The Hollywood-standard for beauty, for example, that hardly a woman can live up to, devalues women in my eyes.
My own approach to art is self-explorative. I came to this simply because I needed a way to work through my experiences of growing up in apartheid South Africa. I had many issues: I was English speaking in an extended Afrikaans speaking family. My mother was Afrikaans in language and culture and my father was English speaking in language and culture. These two cultures in South Africa are at opposite ends of the spectrum and it was a balance act to find myself and where I belonged. In addition, I was white in a predominately black country and was officially labelled “European”, whereas black and Indian South Africans were “Non-Europeans”.
Once I arrived in Europe, I was no longer European in a predominantly white Germany. I was also not an African because I had a white skin. I was basically non-descriptive. As a woman in a male oriented culture in both Africa and Europe, I felt marginalised and unable to be fully self-expressive.
So, all these conflicting aspects of my identity came out in my art at that time. I drew, painted and held art-performances that helped me put it all together and define who I really was.
It was natural for me to work in a self-reflective and self-explorative way in my art. It was very therapeutic. When I began teaching art, this was the way I taught it. Look to your inner experience of the world to find themes to draw or paint. Experience these themes as you paint and let us talk about it afterwards! Little did I know that I was creating my own form of therapeutic art. Later I completed a 4-year training in psychoanalytical art therapy and made this my profession.
As someone who was actively involved in the LGBT+ community in Bremen, Germany during the late 1970s, could you share some insights into the situation for LGBT+ individuals during that time period? Are there any particularly noteworthy experiences or events that stand out in your memory?
I had my coming out during that time. The women’s movement was very encouraging and many women were deciding they loved women or were refusing penetrative sex with their boyfriends. It was an exciting time with self-help groups of women getting together on a weekly basis to discuss issues they were having as women or share experiences. Some groups worked through books like “Getting Clear” which was a classic in those days. It was a time of “growing up” as women and deciding on what we wanted to be in life. As it calmed down a lot of the women who had lesbian relationships went back to their innate heterosexuality. An experience that stands out for me was the first time the lesbian group in Bremen held a book table at the university at an evening event. There we stood with our books on a folding table and I literally shook with nervousness and excitement. It was like doing something forbidden.
Before I got involved in the women’s movement I had still to go through finding my sexual identity and this is how it came about. A boyfriend decided he no longer wanted a relationship but he did want to continue having sex with me. I felt insulted and decided then and there that I no longer wanted to be heterosexual. I had had enough of men wanting me for sex and I wanted to be wanted for my intellect, my personality and not my body. I had my long hair cut off into a short male hairstyle – unheard of in those days! With my new haircut I went off to the lesbian meeting in the Frauenzentrum (women’s centre) on a Wednesday evening. I knocked on the door and a huge, very butch woman with an equally huge Afro hairstyle and chains hanging off on her jeans opened the door. She said: “This is the lesbian group” and I answered “I know”. “Are you lesbian?” she asked. Obviously, my short hair was not enough to make me look the part! “I don’t know, I want to find out if I am lesbian” I answered.
Once we sat down, she wanted to know why I thought I could perhaps be lesbian and I related a really hot night with an actress, some of the many crushes on girls I had from about 10 years old and my later fascination with all things homosexual, which was to me at the time gay men. The conversation offered no clear answer to my question, but I was about to realise that my new butch friend obviously thought there was enough evidence to the fact that I was indeed a lesbian.
After the meeting we all went to a gay bar, one of the few in Bremen at the time. I was working at the Theater Am Goetheplatz as a stage and costume designer and I knew that the actors of an experiential theatre production (“Der Hungerkünstler” with the famous George Tabori) where I was assisting frequented this bar after rehearsals. Upon entering the bar, I was relieved to notice that the actors were not there. The place was full and we sat at the far end of a very long table close to the entrance, the only open space available. Shortly afterwards, to my dismay, the actors arrived and had to sit at the other end of the same table. Some greeted me or smiled and I felt as if they were gazing into my soul. I felt vulnerable because I was not sure of who I was. My question, “Am I a lesbian?”, was still unanswered. I consoled myself thinking they could think I was just a friend of one of the girls, after all they were not homosexual but actors visiting a gay bar! But I felt conspicuous sitting amongst this group of lesbians, and especially next to my new butch friend. Shortly afterwards, a beautiful woman walked in. I immediately felt drawn to her. I was watching her walk in when my butch friend called out in a loud voice “Come over here, we have a new one tonight!” and pointed at me. That was it! I decided then and there I was lesbian! If these actors knew it the whole theatre would soon know so I was going to be out and proud and not be embarrassed.
One issue we had as lesbian women was that the few gay clubs did not always allow us in. There was one club with a dance floor, and it had a locked door with a small peep-door which the barman would open to see who was ringing the bell. Sometimes they would let us in and sometimes the little door would be closed in our faces without a word. It was quite humiliating.
Within the women’s movement slowly two factions became apparent: heterosexual women on the one side and lesbians on the other. Each faction became weary of the other and protective of their own. As lesbians in those days we developed an antagonism towards heterosexual men. I think this was part of learning to define ourselves and find our place in life. In those days there was next to nothing to relate to as lesbians.
Men felt pressure from women in general to be different – I think it was quite emasculating on the one hand and on the other it opened a new world for them if they were open to it. A world in which they could become a different type of man. They started their own weekly men’s self-help groups to process the changes that were taking place.
Can you elaborate on why you speak with such passion about tantra yoga and what leads you to believe it can truly transform our lives?
This is a huge subject that I cannot do value to here. The short version is that Tantra in its original meaning teaches us to be in the now really and truly in our daily lives. We do not have to sit and meditate to quieten the mind and stop our thoughts turning around. Tantra uses the senses to do this. Cooking is a wonderful way to meditate with the senses: think of smells, sounds and tastes while cooking. Even in a city, you can listen to the wind rustle the leaves of a tree or feel the wind caress your skin. If one concentrates on these experiences the mind automatically becomes quiet and it can be a truly orgasmic experience.
Can you tell us about your role as one of the organizers of the MeetUp meeting in Vienna and how you bring together queer ex-pats living in the city to create a network and form friendships? I believe this is a fantastic idea that more cities should adopt.
I find the MeetUp website a really great way for ex-pats and locals to meet and mingle with others. Vienna is a melting pot of ex-pats with hordes of foreign students and young and older professionals who worked in the city. Many of them do not speak German well (or not at all) and so holding a mainly English-speaking MeetUp group for the LGBT+ community is a good way for everyone to connect with others. We offer German too and many meetings are bi-lingual. People of all ages come along, perhaps predominantly 30-40-year olds but many in their 20s and a few oldies like myself. It is wonderful connecting with men and women of all ages, cultures and different lifestyles. We have an active and diverse group of people and regular get-togethers and activities. We do a lot of cultural things like visiting exhibitions, physical stuff like long hikes in the countryside. We sometimes visit a LGBT+ MeetUp group in another city and so on. Using a global platform like MeetUp makes it easy to get into the vibe of a city as an expat and for locals to meet new people and for the LGBT+ community it is perhaps the best, most neutral way to meet up with old friends and make new ones. One of the things I love about it is that it brings male and female LGBT+ folk together.
As a South African born who has been living in other countries since your teenage years, can you speak to the challenges that individuals face when trying to make friends and connect with others in unfamiliar communities?
This is a hard one. It is difficult to move countries and take on a new culture and begin a new life. In many ways it is a bit like being born again into a new life. I faced many challenges as one of the very few South Africans in Germany in the 70s and 80s. So much so that I returned to South Africa in an attempt to live there again, only to go back to Germany as soon as I could. South Africa had changed. Most of my university friends and fellow activists against the apartheid regime were no longer living in South Africa. I felt homeless for a long time. South Africa was no longer my home and Germany was not yet a home to me. It was uncomfortable no matter where I found myself.
The main difficulty for me was getting used to the very different culture to the one that was ingrained in me. I found Germans to be less inviting, not so warm-hearted and open as South Africans generally are. It took a few years for me to be invited to someone’s home in spite of working in the theatre with an abundance of Americans, Italians and other nationalities working there. A new language has to be learnt, and, while I found it relatively easy, learning as a child learns to talk by watching mouths and listening to the sounds, others mostly have to attend classes. In those days there was no MeetUp so the only way for me to meet other young people was in pubs. Thankfully there was an abundance of these, some with dance floors and a DJ, but as far as meeting LGBT+ people it was difficult. In Bremen there were only a couple of gay bars and this is why the Woman’s Centre with their regular lesbian evening was so important. I find that today our community has it a lot easier and there is lots of intermingling between gay men and lesbian women and trans people and everything in-between. Of course, the yearly PRIDE festival helps with lots of activities leading up to the actual parade. The city of Vienna impresses me with how they celebrate with us – gardens planted in the rainbow colours, the trams all displaying the rainbow flag, pedestrian crossings in strategic places painted in the rainbow colours and so on. I am even now meeting fellow South Africans who are LGBT+ here in Vienna – how wonderful is that!
Interview by Dominik Böhler & Răzvan Ion.
Photography by Luise Reichert
Dominik Böhler is the Editor-at-Large of GAY45. A 25 y.o., PhD candidate, passionate about the transcendence of science in the philosophical stance that emphasizes the individual and social potential and agency of human beings. Works in Vienna and commutes to England at the University of Oxford where to continue the DPhil (doctoral) programme in Information, Communication, and the Social Sciences. Böhler does not like to have a social media presence.
Răzvan Ion is the founder of GAY45. A professor of curatorial studies and critical thinking in Vienna, he is passionate about technology, comic books, the stock market, contemporary art, alternative music, pop culture, movies, literature, blockchain, and life.
Luise Reichert is a Viennese photographer focused on fashion, beauty and advertising photography and has worked in cities like Cape Town, New York, Paris, Berlin and Hong Kong.