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Interview with Nihad Nino Pušija

23. July 2020

”Queen Kenny was an institution”

Nihad Nino Pušija’s exhibition ,”Queens’’, still running at the SMU until October 26 presents a series of photos by portraying queer, (post-)migrant nightlife in Berlin in the 1990s. We spoke to the artist about the atmosphere at famed SO36 nightclub, the Tuntenball and Queen Kenny. Nihad Nino Pušija was born in Sarajevo, studied journalism and political science at the University of Sarajevo and is now working as a freelance photographer. Nino has been living and working in Berlin since 1992, completing projects for the nGbK, MEK and Allianz Kulturstiftung amongst others.

SMU: The exhibition ”Queens’’ portrays the (post-)migrant and queer party scene in Berlin during the 1990s. Many of your pictures show Queen Kenny. How did you get into this microcosm and who was Queen Kenny?

Nihad Nino Pušija: You get there through encounters. From refugees I came to people living on the streets, and then I got in touch with punks. I met Queen Kenny at Café Anfall in Kreuzberg. She was an unusual phenomenon for me. Where I come from it’s not an everyday thing to see a two-meters-tall Black person in a skirt working at the bar. And I was fascinated, so we talked and drank together. Café Anfall was at Gneisenauer Straße back then, not far from the former locations of SchwuZ and the Schwules Museum. That area was heavily characterized by the queer scene. People were visiting Kenny at the bar quite frequently, that’s how I got to know Lady Hilary, of whom you can also see pictures in the exhibition. Then I came with them to several events Kenny hosted. Originally, I just wanted to make portraits of Kenny, that was the beginning. I am a portrait photographer and I want to get to know the people I am interested in. So Kenny said, “if you want to have more, come along! I host the Tuntenball at Hotel Berlin and the fashion show AVE.’’

Queen Kenny auf der Teddy-Gala im SO36, Berlin, 1996. Photo: Nihad Nino Pušija.
Queen Kenny at the Teddy-Gala at SO36, Berlin, 1996. Photo: Nihad Nino Pušija.

Berlin was always a big interest for you. Besides the queer scene in the 1990s you also took pictures of the Palast der Republik, just before it was torn down, or pictures of Romani people who took refuge in Berlin, wearing Refugee-Identity Cards. What keeps these pictures together for you?

The first and foremost thing that ties them together is that I took those pictures. The photos are created in a process, in a subjective collection of things which surround me. That means, either people, cities or places. I like to take photos of the same places and people over several points in time. I think about documentation here. Photography is a capture of changes for me. Berlin especially had been super interesting for me at that time, it was the ‘City of Transition’. Everything was here two times, two national galleries, two historical museums and it was like that with the scenes, too. There was a punk scene in East-Berlin as well as in West-Berlin. There had been contacts in the 80s, but they only really came together in the 90s. I wanted to capture this transition.

What makes a motive for you?

Everything that’s not mainstream is my point of interest. I don’t want to deal with the mainstream. That’s why all those subculture scenes were so fascinating. That’s the reason why I was hanging out with transsexuals, glamour-people, drags and queens, with punks or refugees. All those marginalized groups at the edge of society.

Can you describe the atmosphere back then at SO36? Why were there special Black Gay Nights?

Queen Kenny was reading a lot and told me what the Black Gay Night events were about: The movement of Black people, intellectuals and poets. And Kenny knew people at the SO36 and started to organize those nights. That was so great of SO36, to make that possible. Back then, not a lot of other clubs would have done that. Kenny’s work here was pioneering, definitely. There weren’t that many People of Color at the Black Gay Night events though, maybe ten percent. But those nights were important anyway, because people learned something there. Also the Teddy-Award ceremony, the LGBTQ-Award of the Berlin Film Festival Berlinale, took place at SO36. The place definitely made very important contributions. Many people think Schöneberg would have been the Capital of Gay, but not for me. For me it was always Kreuzberg. It was more avant-garde, trashier, better. Just a wild mix. And in Schöneberg you would go to TomTom Bar and everyone looked the same. Whereas in Kreuzberg everyone would come together: There was me as a refugee, there were women, heterosexuals, just everyone.

Nihad Nino Pušija: Black Gay Nights at SO 36, 1996

How were Queen Kenny’s political aspirations realized during the Black Gay Nights?

Queen Kenny had always been an institution. Charming, militant, a special element of the Black gay scene in Berlin. It was his idea not to emphasize the heavy part of the history of Black people, but to bring it to life through music, dance, theater, lectures and performances, always combined with glamour. Together with Rik Maverik and Todd Ford’s ,”Magic 3’’, Queen Kenny’s Black Gay Nights were the most innovative element the (post-)migrant community contributed to the history of queer life in Berlin. That’s roughly what it also says in the book, ”SO36 – 1978 bis heute’’ (”SO36 – 1978 to today”), published by Sub Opus 36 e.V. – I think that’s a good description.

How did the guests of those queer parties react to you as a photographer?

There was a variety of moments. The Tuntenball for example was something different, it was a little bit more glamourous and fancier. People would go, who weren’t drags and queens every evening, but only for that night. Today it’s different, but back then it was totally uncommon to see a person with a beard wearing a skirt or a dress. For me that was a highly photogenic situation, and I rarely got negative reactions, because people had seen me with Kenny right from the beginning. Because of Kenny I also got backstage right away, I would get to wear a stick-on button to mark me as being part of the crew. But sometimes I hid that button, so people wouldn’t think I am from the press or something, as in such a case people often don’t like being photographed and tend to hide their faces. In general, it’s not that easy to take pictures at that kind of events and places.

Nihad Nino Pušija: Tuntenball at Hotel Berlin, 1997

Where is Queen Kenny today?

I saw Kenny again around 1998. At that point he concentrated a lot on an originally African religion, the Yoruba religion, which is almost voodoo. Because there are a lot of adherents of that religion here in Berlin, and they didn’t have a priest, Kenny wanted to get the education to be one. At some point I saw him again, dressed all white and with a long beard. He was in Cuba and learned about the rituals of this religion. And at some point, he disappeared, we didn’t see him anymore. Someone from our circle of friends said, he’d gone back to the USA, others said the opposite. It’s not clear what happened to Kenny.

What’s your favorite photo in ”Queens’’?

My favorite photo in the exhibition is Queen Kenny with the two go go-dancers,backstage. One of the dancers veils their face. This picture shows how hard it was back then to come out, especially as a Black person. 25 years ago the situation was very different from today.

Nihad Nino Pušija: Queen Kenny with two go-go dancers at the Black Gay Night at SO36, Berlin, 1996

Interview: Harriet Riemer & Carina Klugbauer; all images: Nihad Nino Pušija
Web site of Nihad Nino Pušija: http://www.fotofabrika.de/