‘I live in that space of misalignment’: In Conversation with Nando Messias

Turning the corner, Brazillian performance artist Nando Messias realised he had made a mistake. Dressed in a little black number, heels clicking, he was verbally and physically attacked minutes from his home. Having moved to London two years earlier from Brazil, the streets of his Whitechapel home became a site of bruised trauma and broken bodies.

Revisiting with a perspectival purview, Messias refused to remain silent. Disengaging the conflation of queer lives and silent, invisible violence, Messias took to the streets to use art to address homophobia. Blending and bending movement direction, choreography, and academia, Messias curated performance pieces that evoke his effeminate body and show that men can be “Sissies”.

After 10 years of journeying across the U.K, navigating a persona pampered and powdered to much acclaim, Messias is killing it off. The epilogue in the Sissy-trilogy, Where 4 Roads Meet: Death and the Sissy marks the fiftieth anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexual acts in the U.K by staging a funeral. With themes of queer memory, archive, and death addressed, we spoke to Messias before the final curtain call.

What was the inspiration behind Where 4 Roads Meet?

As I was writing this, I had an image in my head where I was approaching a roundabout. This is a metaphor that I decided to use on-stage, so the three pieces that form the Sissy trilogy (Sissy!, The Sissy’s Progress, and Shoot The Sissy) would each represent a road in this roundabout, and the fourth one would be me approaching this roundabout. I had this idea of going around and looking back at these pieces. Physically embodying, in front of an audience, this discourse. This is one of the questions I’ve always asked myself; “Am I repeating myself? Am I going around and around in circles?”

What other questions did you have?

The main question was “Is it time for Sissy to die?” The structure of the piece is a funeral, so the initial idea is to have the archive of Sissy – costumes, props, music, bottles of perfume – inhabit the stage with me. I’ve had these pieces for over 10 years now and they’ve been in the back of the wardrobe. Following this comes the more symbolic getting rid of these things that I’ve been working with. These issues: the social violence, the social visibility, the defiance. Things that are lived, things that are material.

The next question was “Why do I want to get rid of this character? Is it because it has become too much? Am I trying to escape something?” This process of creation is a questioning as well.

With the current political moment, why are you killing off Sissy now?

In the subtitle to the piece, ‘Death and the Sissy’, it’s me addressing that very question to myself. It is not ‘Death of the Sissy’. Thes subtitle is an artistic motif that was borrowed from Middle Ages imaginations of death dancing with a figure. Schubert’s compositions of ‘Death and the Maiden’ is a good example of this. It’s facing up to death-as-rebirth; the end of a period and the beginning of a new one. Exploring the struggle of death that comes as part of the human condition. We all fear death. It is the only thing that is certain.

It is also a consideration of my place in the world as a queer subject. Sissy’s progress was about reclaiming my space on the streets – especially the street in which I suffered a violent physical attack – and considering this as part of my daily life as a queer subject and always dealing with the threat of violence which is in itself a threat of death. The sad, daily reality of queer subjecthood always looking over your shoulder. Coming from Brazil, the number 1 for trans murders globally, I escaped to the U.K to live as the daily verbal violence in Brazil was unbearable. As soon as I stepped out the door, it began. It kills you a little bit everyday. Why do people want to kill queer subjects and Sissies?

What form does the show take? What disciplines do you deploy?

I use a lot of dance theatre technique, especially those created and developed by Pina Bausch. The personal and autobiographical performance on-stage by this method of creating movement sequences to tell a significant part of my story. Such as those where I feel close to death.

I also go back to early inspirations of Butoh, the Japanese dance of darkness that investigates the universal death and the afterlife. Butoh was informed by the aftershock of the nuclear bomb in Japan (Hiroshima) and the bodies that were in trauma from that shock.

The third main inspiration was Samuel Beckett who often engaged with failure, death, and inevitability of the human condition. When you read Beckett, you laugh yet feel guilty for laughing at something rather sad which I like to evoke in my work. It’s the power in vulnerability.

You wrote your PhD on the “Effeminate Body”. What informed the Effeminate Body you stage and accomodate? What were its reference points?

It’s embedded in the universe of queer theory. It’s very much hooking-up and harnessing the reverse discourse of queer ideology. The word “Sissy” came out of that. The idea of a derogatory term that is reversed from abusive to empowering. The Effeminate Body is studying my space within the queer continuum of gender and sexuality and saying I am male bodied and my gender is effeminate. By saying “effeminate” I am saying that I am not feminine proper, nor can I do masculinity properly. I live in that space of misalignment where my body and gender do not line up. It is saying that I don’t have to act like a man because I have a male body.

How important is theatre in starting and staging conversations about homophobia and queerphobia?

It saved me. It’s my lifeline as it’s through theatre, stage-work, and performance that I am able to express things that I wouldn’t have been able to express in any other way. It’s my way of speaking. I often talk about not having answers or solutions to the problems that I bring up in my performances, but what it does do is begin a conversation and brings awareness. It says “I need attention, I need to be listened to, I need space.” It goes through the heart rather than the head. A guttural feeling, understood through the body.

Where 4 Roads Meet: Death and the Sissy is presented by And What? Festival. The one-off performance is at 7:30pm, 12th October, at the Tonybee Theatre.

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