Coco’s dream is to be the flame of the Statue of Liberty but also to be the whole universe. Foxy Cleo wishes to be the 21st Cleopatra and rule an African country full of drugs, gold and sex. And Flavi, a trans refugee from Burundi, wants to become Miss Universe and a role model for trans girls in Africa struggling with their identity. These are the desires that photographer Jan Hoek and fashion designer Duran Lantink present through their ongoing project Sistaaz of the Castle. Through it, they depict a group of trans sex workers based in Cape Town who, like all of us, have dreams.
After meeting on Grindr, their creative connection has been so strong that they’ve ended up flying to South Africa, where one of their most personal works to date is taking place. Sistaaz of the Castle is the name of the project as well as of the group of trans sex workers that the artistic duo portrays. A moving story that mixes the hopes and dreams of a marginalised group, but which is not only focused on the tragedy but on the positive aspect of life as well.
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Hi Jan, hi Duran. Can you introduce yourselves and tell us the story of yours?
Duran: Hey METAL, we are Duran Lantink and Jan Hoek. We met each other on Grinder, where we creatively got along immediately. I graduated from the Rietveld Academy and got my master degree at the Sandberg Institute. Jan graduated at Rietveld, too. We both really loved each other’s work and decided to collaborate. At that time we had no idea what it was going to be.
Your collaboration on the project Sistaaz of the Castle is making Jan’s documentary photography meet Duran’s fashion creations. How did this symbiosis happen? Where did your collaboration start?
We went on a date through Grinder and started googling the whole night. As we’re both models we first wanted to do a project that involved us as our own models. But then we saw a photo of two trans sex workers in Cape Town. They looked so amazing, crazily good. So we decided to fly there.
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Who are the Sistaaz of the Castle and how did they end up being your muse?
Sistaazz of the Castle is a growing group representing trans sex workers in South Africa. This group is part of the SWEAT organisation (Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce), which is representing sex workers in Cape Town. Because we wanted to involve the whole group – but it’s is too big and there are too many beautiful girls –, we first started with a fashion workshop where every Sistaazhood member could create her own fashion piece and afterwards get photographed with her own masterpiece. So with this, all of them could be part of the project.
After this, we decided to work with ‘ambassadors’ representing the whole group. The first year we went we started out with five. Gerda van de Glind, who joined the first travel, interviewed all the thirty-two girls and asked them about their dreams and goals in life. On the hand of their dreams, we chose five girls representing the whole group.
Now we are with seven ambassadors, but still, we have meetings with the whole group to discuss the direction of the project. Yes, they are our muses and our companions, and we work intensively together with all of them. We created this equally; they have a lot of good ideas about fashion as well as photography. So we really listen to the girls and create this image together.
You are currently in Cape Town again, continuing your project. What is the purpose of your trip this time? Is there something cooking?
This year we added one extra ambassador named Céline Dion, who is a trendsetting trans mommy. The queen of layers and prints lives in Observatory, next to the train rails with her two daughters. A couple of doors further, her sistaah – ‘the Duchess’ – lives with her boyfriend. Both are fabulous sex workers.
Also, we’re doing a magazine. It will be a glossy for transgender sex workers and for the rest of the world in which fashion and documentary are mixed to create a whole new genre. It will show that fashion can have a real story too, that you don’t have to be rich to be creative and look fabulous. And we show the world that these trans sex workers are much more interesting fashion icons then all the models you can see in the magazines. Besides that, we’re trying to organise a big fashion show with all the thirty-seven girls of the Sistaaz group in Cape Town.
Duran, your collection is a translation of the fantasies that the girls have about their lives. What are these fantasies? What do they dream about?
Duran: Well, they have a lot of varied dreams, but almost all of them are about money, power drugs and sex. Sulgaiga, aka Legie, dreams of being a super famous and rich drug dealer who lives in Los Angeles and has a Victoria Beckham style. Cleopatra, aka Foxy Cleo, wants to be the Cleopatra of the 21st century and become a new female ruler of an African country with a lot of drugs, gold, and sex. She loves nature and kimonos.
Coco is crazy about going wild: her dream was to be the flame of the statue of liberty but she also loves to come out of eggs and she wants to be the whole universe. Gaby, her dream is about sex work on a higher level. She wants to own a Victorian luxurious brothel and also still do the sex job herself because she loves her work.
Flaverina, aka Flavi, is a trans refugee from Burundi and her biggest dream is to be a supermodel/Miss Universe and a role model for all trans girls in Africa who are struggling with their identity. Joan Collins, aka Nana, is the grandmother of the Sistaaaz. Her dream was heartbreaking. Miss Joan’s realised she will never be a bride because she thinks she is now too old to find her prince on the white horse as a trans woman. So her dream was to still have the opportunity to wear that big white wedding dress for once in her life. Céline Dion… Well, obviously, she wants to be the real Céline Dion – we actually think she is already.
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Did you let the girls be involved in the making of your collection? Did you actually make the garments in Cape Town with them and then brought it to the Netherlands?
Jan: Yes, we made the dream collection together. But the street collection we just shot was inspired by their amazing styles, and I made eighty percent of that part in Amsterdam. We see this more as a tribute to their amazing crazy styles and creative ways of making clothes. I used the documentary photos to create the collection. So that was also a collab, but more from a far distance. The girls went crazy when they saw the result and immediately started helping to think about how the lookbook should be, what wigs should we use, etc. They came up with crazy ideas, which we always love!
Were the dream garments you created only about them or for them as well?
It is about depicting their dreams and eventually, after we do the show in South Africa, it is going to be for them as well. We think that is a very important thing.
How do you identify yourselves with the subjects that your work is dealing with?
We both tried having sex for money once or twice, maybe more. As we told earlier, we see ourselves as models, too. Not as good as the Sistaaz but we try to be the best we can in our league. We find it hard to identify as male or female – maybe hard to identify as human beings. So the connection is mainly the feeling of being an outsider in this world and maybe not being understood well enough. Of course, our situation here in Europe is very different and almost incomparable. Besides that, we just admire the girls; they are much cooler then we are.
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Your project is breaking quite some taboos. What memorable responses have you had to your work so far?
Jan: I think the most positive one was that during the fashion show we held during Fashion Week Amsterdam many people started to cry because they thought the way it talked about the lives and dreams of the girls was very touching. To see people crying at a fashion show is a very rare thing, so we were really proud of that!
And, of course, there are always people who like to play the exploitation card and who think you cannot collaborate with a marginalised group for a fashion project. But the trans sex workers, who are organised as a group, can decide what kind of projects they want to collaborate with. It's also good to know that the Sistaazhood gets many invitations to participate in projects and they refuse almost everything. They chose to work with us because it was about fashion and they think that it defines who they are much more than only being a trans sex worker.
The life of an artist can be pretty lonely sometimes. Not in your case, though. What is your relationship like? Do you always agree on things? Could you share some love and some hate moments you’ve had?
We both really love to be alone, so that’s what we do when we’re not working. We experience the city on another level, which probably brings a lot more strong visions to the table when we work together. As we’re both individual artists, it’s sometimes hard to trust each other a hundred percent. But we’re getting there (laughs). We do not always agree on things because we’re both not easily pleased, so that can bring some tough times with a lot of disagreements, fist fighting and death threading. But in the end, after the fistfight, dead threading, and hours of ignoring each other, we always find a brilliant idea that we both love. We love each other and each other’s work besides the differences.
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