The Pussy Squad – demystifying the vagina – Walk & Talk Procession at Infecting the City 2023, Cape Town

When: Wednesday November 22 and Thursday November 23, 2023 as part of Programme 6  
Where:  The performance starts at 13h30, outside the Slave Lodge and then moves to St George’s Mall
Charge: No cost- free 
Infecting the City programme: https://bit.ly/47FrK35
Instagram: @infectingthecity 
Facebook: http://infectingthecity

Infecting The City 2023is on in Cape Town until November 25. There is no charge to attend this vital public arts festival which ignites and encourages spirited conversations and dialogue between the artists performing and those interacting with the works, in public spaces in the city. Johannesburg based The Pussy Squad is presenting: demystifying the pussy, celebrating #pussypositivity and #vaginapositivity. This Walk & Talk Procession is taking place tomorrow (Wednesday November 22) and Thursday (November 23) as part of Programme 6 at Infecting the City. The performance starts at 13h30, outside the Slave Lodge and then moves to St George’s Mall. The Pussy Squad’s Jessica Foli, Awande Dube and Likhona Mpepo provide insights into the performance and their body of work as social activists:

TCR:  Can you tell us about the procession that the Pussy Squad is presenting for Infecting the City Programme 6? It is a Walk & Talk tour. Does that mean that there is participation between the Pussy Squad and those who are there on the walk or is it more of a presentation?

Jessica Foli: The procession starts outside of the Slave Lodge, up Church Street, then right onto St. Georges Mall. The procession continues down the length of St George’s Mall inviting members of the public to participate in the proclamation of The Pussy Gospel through performance and song.  An outdoor church service with a twist – a pussy-centred message.  The Pussy Squad is here to spread the good news and ‘infect the city’ with #PussyPositivity.

TCR: Is your performance at Infecting the City, site responsive and/or site specific to Cape Town’s CBD?

JF: Because Infecting the City is focused on engagement with the public, I specifically wanted a space that has a lot of foot traffic. The performance is about The Pussy Squad unapologetically inserting ourselves into a public space and making our presence felt through our voices which are amplified through megaphones. By doing this our aim is to challenge pre-conceived ideas of women’s bodies, how we are ‘expected’ to look, how we ‘should’ behave… This work is an invitation for women to take up space. The work also tackles issues of period poverty and women’s right to choose and experience joy in all aspects of life. With this work my aim is to re-imagine the idea of protest. In many instances, I have come across, the act of protest often involves some kind of self-harm or danger to those protesting. I want to protest in a way that is different to this. 

TCR: Is this the first time that The Pussy Squad is presenting ‘demystifying the vagina’? Is it lower case “demystifying” or upper case “Demystifying”? Has this piece being presented before?

JF: The Pussy Squad is based in Johannesburg and an iteration of this work has been performed at Wits University campus in 2022.  We will be presenting a specific version tailored for Infecting the City, with some modifications and exciting new additions. As long as we are demystifying, upper case or lower, either option is fine.

TCR: Can you tell us about the genesis of the Pussy Squad? It was formed in late 2022 – so it is fairly new. How did the three of you come together to establish the Pussy Squad and to affirm pussy and Black pussy – as not being vanilla and neutered? Did you study together, grow up together?

JF: The Pussy Squad was formed in late 2022 as part of the creative component of my PhD research [How can pub(l)ic performance interventions of ‘pubic resistance’ be used as a methodology to re-claim trauma narratives of black women in South Africa?] I am disturbed by the historical trauma experienced by black women and the ways that women’s pubic area remains a site of violence. Violence and the threat of violence is constant – the violence of rape and sexual assault, histories of violence, racialised oppressive systems and the violence of distorted religious and biblical myths that restrict women, but benefit men who ascribe to them. This combined with my experience growing up, where topics related to sexual health and body positivity were not openly discussed, sparked the inspiration for The Pussy Squad. I found vocabulary for my lived experience as a black woman through the voices of black feminist scholars such as Pumla Gqola, bell hooks, Molara Ogundipe, Ama Ata Aidoo, Audre Lorde, Patricia Hill Collins, Refiloe Lepere, Sharlene Khan and so many others whose work shifted my thinking, my mind-set and helped me to find my own voice.

I have worked with the two Pussy Squad members Awande Dube and Likhona Mpepo in my capacity as lecturer in the Wits Department of Theatre and Performance, I saw them perform in various shows and I presented my idea to them and invited both of them to an initial conversation and here we are, one year later, still on the journey finding new ways to activate and captivate audiences with The Pussy Gospel. 

Awande Dube: Well, The Pussy Squad was formed via invitation into process. Jessica called us in and pitched the idea, we then ran with it in our first couple of rehearsals and the rest was history. It’s interesting/coincidental but not that myself and Likhona happen to be queer black women in the space as well. I believe this added a necessary “spice” to the conversation because there is a certain freeing lens that queerness brings as an ideology, a certain level of comfort with the subject matter and a willingness to ‘fight-for-the-cause’

TCR: Can you tell us more about the mission of the Pussy Squad “to transform public spaces with a revolutionary message: ““The Pussy Gospel?” And can you expand on drawing inspiration from the “energetic style of charismatic church services and street preachers”. Do the three of you come from a background of charismatic church services and street preachers?

JF: There are so many myths around women’s genitals, – how they should be, what they should smell like. When I was in school during the 1990s all the women’s magazines I came across like Glamour, Cosmopolitan etc. all had articles about women’s hair grooming, waxing, bikini wax, Brazilian wax, shaving etc. this was positioned as the norm and a “requirement” for women. The Pussy Gospel challenges the ideas of a world that caters to the preference and anatomy of men in many ways. One of the ways men are catered for is through free readily available government issued condoms in public bathrooms, yet pads are not free for women, for a monthly bodily function that we don’t choose. In many instances, restrictions on women’s bodies are rooted in the exploitation of religious practices, in the bible there is a section where a woman was sentenced to stoning based on accusations of adultery, this begs the question of why the man did not face stoning as well. I come from a background as a Catholic and a Ghanaian-South African, I’m familiar with religious practices from both spectrums. The energetic style of street preachers is loud and unapologetic, driving a distinct message of religion and conversion. The Pussy Squad draws on this style in our mode of presentation and performance, encouraging women to take up space vocally through sound and the amplifying of our voices through megaphones which we use in the performance. 

AD: Definitely, I come from a mainly charismatic and partially Zionist church background. My parents are pastors so I grew up in the church as well. Street preaching on the other hand/evangelism is something I would see whenever fetching family that would visit from eSwatini and Mpumalanga (taxi ranks). It’s only recently in my years of study have I seen numerous preachers from charismatic churches and other denominations within Christianity. 

The Pussy Squad uses the passion and conviction of street preachers to attract audiences to a familiar kind of ‘storytelling’, however it jolts the viewers into reality with a seemingly unusual twist. The PUSSY GOSPEL! We aim to convict and convert the masses but more importantly get them thinking about themselves, society at large and the patriarchal rules that govern it.

Likhona Mpepo: I was raised in a Methodist church, I wouldn’t say we had charismatic church services, unlike what we are doing. It was very unlike what we are doing. My grandfather was a preacher, my uncle is a preacher, but not a street preacher. I was exposed to street preachers through other people doing it. I don’t remember seeing street preachers where I live, I’m from Grahamstown (Makhanda). Indaba yestreet preachers, I got exposed to it when I moved to Johannesburg, I would see street preachers around Braamfontein and on TV. Preaching where I’m from happens in church.

TCR: Let’s talk about #PussyPositivity- I love that – and in relation to charismatic church services and street preachers. Often they are male led- usually male – and patriarchal- and they may preach inclusivity but women are very much side-lined and so is their sexuality. Can you talk about this and #PussyPositivity in general? We talk a lot about #bodypositivity but not about #PussyPositivity?

JF: #PussyPositivity is focused around key messages that are centred around women’s pubic region (vagina, labia and clitoris). #PussyPositivity is led by the motto “Your Pussy. Your Choice” It is an intentional paradox to use the performance style of a charismatic church and street preachers to preach The Pussy Gospel that places women at the centre. The fact that black women are preaching a Gospel about pussies shouldn’t be taken lightly, in many African cultures this is not spoken about or discussed, most certainly when I was growing up this was the case. In a heteronormative context you go from “books before boys” to a complete 360 in your late twenties or thirties of parents and family asking for grandchildren or asking “where your husband is.” This makes me think of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s, “We Should All Be Feminists” where she says, “We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are.” This statement is not just about sexuality, but about an ownership of self, a sense of self that women are forced to set aside due to societal or traditional expectations. There’s so much more to say here, but space and words are limited…

AD: Charismatic churches are led by men and stability. The moment it’s a women-led church it challenges the norms of the church structure and it is not taken seriously. Women-led things in church are taken seriously when it comes to music, that’s what I’ve seen. A woman who sings very well can be taken very seriously but not necessarily a woman who preaches well. However in this day and age, women like us who use different means are becoming more and more effective in spreading the positivity whether it be via the gospel such as Rorisag Thandekiso, she doesn’t have a church but she uses alternative means, she sticks to her guns she has a huge following. In the same way, we are using alternative means and sticking to our guns. I would like to believe that as time goes we will have an even greater following. I think subverting church structures by taking it out of the four walls and putting the female body, then on top of that, speaking so fervently about sexuality is something that I personally I haven’t seen before in theatre. I’ve seen the angry vagina which is fine and okay, but I’ve never seen someone take ownership like that without a sad backstory, for lack of a better word. It’s revolutionary to be honest, it takes us out of the tropes where we speak about gender based violence, it takes us to the point where we’re saying “we’re women, we know and accept who we are, we’re putting it at the forefront and we’re normalising it and we’re spreading the gospel and converting people one service at a time” 

TCR: Anything else you want to add about your piece for Infecting the City? Humour? Fun? Reflection? Conversation?

Jessica Foli, Awande Dube  and Likhona Mpepo: Members of the public can expect a charismatic, joyful, thought-provoking interaction with the Pussy Squad. Experience The Pussy Gospel on Wednesday 22 November and Thursday 23 November as Part of Programme 6 on Infecting the City at 13h30, starting outside the Slave Lodge, then moving to St George’s Mall.

Speaking out: The Pussy Squad: “The PUSSY GOSPEL! We aim to convict and convert the masses but more importantly get them thinking about themselves, society at large and the patriarchal rules that govern it.” Photo by Motlatjo Mabeba.
Follow The Pussy Squad on social media:
Pussy Squad founder Instagram:  @jessfoli
Pussy Squad Instagram:@clit. islit
Pussy Squad X (Twitter): @BePussyPositive
Website: jessicafoli.weebly.com  
The Pussy Squad: “Inserting ourselves into a public space and making our presence felt through our voices which are amplified through megaphones”. Photo by Motlatjo Mabeba.

✳ Photos of The Pussy Squad, by Motlatjo Mabeba. Supplied.