Art & Culture / Music

Naeem Davis on curating a festival exploring the diversity of lesbian identity

The BBZ co-founder discusses the importance of giving queer people in the diaspora license to reclaim words on their own terms.

Anyone familiar with London’s art and club scene will be aware of BBZ, equally for their parties and for exhibitions such as the BBZ BLK BK alternative graduate show. Similarly, Pxssy Palace has become one of the city’s best-known club nights: within the queer community and out with it. With both collectives centring QTPOC audiences and performers, they provide important community spaces and platforms to celebrate intersectional identities.

 With BBZ’s Naeem Davis and Pxssy Palace’s Nadine Ahmad joining forces to curate Lesbiennale as part of London’s Boiler Room Festival, the collectives’ artistic and political visions cross-pollinated to create something truly special. With the programme including a screening of Leilah Weinraub’s documentary The Shakedown, an evening of erotic queer readings from the likes of Aisha Mirza and Victoria Sin, a club night with appearances from Sippin’ T and Harpies, and an online art exhibition, Lesbiennale showed just how open-ended an identity like “lesbian”can be.

Speaking to Naeem, it becomes clear that this was one of their guiding curatorial principles. “Me and Nadine wanted to use Lesbiennale as a portal to show people just how expansive their identities can be,” they say. “Certain terms were originally created as a tool of control to make  you feel as though you can only be one thing, when in fact you can be many. We wanted to use Lesbiennale to communicate that, which is why we chose the artists and the events we did.”

 When initially approached to work on a festival entitled “Lesbiennale” they were hesitant, in no small part due to more rigid ways of defining “lesbian”. “I wasn’t sure how much I identified as a lesbian now. Because I’m non-binary, queer has been the most open term and that’s just what I’ve come to use. But then I thought about how so much of my queer education and come up was so gay and dyke-centric” they explain. “That socialising has made me the dyke that I am today. That’s one of the reasons we created BBZ, to show how open identities can be and to show that people don’t need to compartmentalise or give up something to be in one space opposed to another.”

Moving from the personal to the political, showing the diversity of lesbian identity is a form of defiance before the term’s growing association with trans-exclusionary rhetoric, exemplified by anti-trans protestors at Pride. “When you’ve got lesbian TERFs at the front of the London pride march, It forces you to feel so ashamed, to want to disassociate yourself from that community.” they say. “BBZ is an acronym that means Bold, Brazen Zamis. I’ve always tried to look into indigenous terms for womxn who love womxn because lesbian felt so western, so white, so cis, even so homonormative.”

Looking back at the festival, which ran through October until 8 November, giving individuals license to claim the word on their own terms has been one of the most important outcomes for Naeem. “Lesbiennale is all about diaspora and POC individuals feeling a sense of ownership over that part of their identity. Some of the highlights have been feedback of people saying; ‘I feel I can reclaim that word, I can have fun with it.’”

 Queer people need safe spaces to dance but it can feel like it’s only in bars or clubs that they are being given a platform. What was perhaps most refreshing about Lesbiennale was that it provided a network of events and knowledge-sharing in addition to a club showcase. It comes as no surprise then that the erotic readings and The Shakedown screening were some of the festival’s most popular events. “We need and deserve spaces outside of the club and to have queerness out and open during the day, not in relation to alcohol. So much of perceived queer culture centres the club and there’s urgent need for spaces outside of that,” Naeem says. “It’s important for us to have spaces that reimagine the ways that we commune — it’s nice to be able to hear ourselves, see ourselves, be ourselves. We talk about representation and visibility so often but we can’t always see each other or remember each other from the club.”

This broad curatorial approach is what made the festival such a success, with Naeem and Nadine providing outlets to explore queerness in ways that the community is not often given a chance to do. “With the queer erotica reading room, while it was my concept, I didn’t realise how impactful it was going to be,” Naeem admits. “I felt broken open; I’d never heard anyone talk about queer sex, and all of its complicated intracacies, so openly and without shame.” Attending the reading room was one of their most valued Lesbiennale moments, not just for the rarity of what was being discussed but the feeling of true community that it helped create. “The readings felt like church to me,” they say. “So often as queer people we feel like we’re living in vacuums but the queer readings gave us that quiet, thoughtful space and that ‘I’m here’ moment.”

This depth and nuance is ultimately what conversations around representation are missing, particularly as corporations adopt a veneer of fake liberalism with unconvincing pink-washing. “We can’t have the mainstream coopting queerness but still be underground,” Naeem points out. “It’s time we took charge of how we’re represented.” Combining this dynamism with a global vision, Naeem and Nadine will be taking Lesbiennale festival to Art Basel Miami later this month; hosting a party with poet Moor Mother, Discwoman’s DJ Haram and more alongside a reading room with performances from curator and writer Kimberly Drew and Ajebota author Precious Okoyomon. Using arts to foster  necessary positive change, we only hope that Naeem and Nadine continue to take Lesbiennale far and wide. 

Follow the links to discover more about the Lesbiennale Sunset Party and Erotic Reading Room at Art Basel Miami. 

2 December 2019