Writer Beth Exley / Photographer Connor Pope
For their 25th anniversary festival, Fierce has pulled out all the stops. You may have walked past the New Street Station Key Exchange for their Key to the City Project with artist Paul Ramírez Jonas or seen projections by Clube Até on the façade of BMAG. I’m about to attend one of many workshops Fierce Festival is running for their Healing Gardens of Bab project: Duckie’s ‘Princess Picnic Promenade.’
Fierce Festival has long been a staple of Birmingham’s vibrant art scene. Every two years since 1998, Fierce transforms Birmingham with a series of performances and interactive experiences that challenge our perceptions of the city, promote intersectional politics, and celebrate queer identities.
Arriving at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens, I’m a little bit stressed out. We’re running late because I had a last-minute change of heart about my outfit – the information page says to ‘dress posh’ and I don’t want to disappoint. However, as soon as we get to the gates, we’re greeted by a lovely steward who eagerly jogs over to check our tickets and show us where to go.
Forcing my partner to power walk has paid off. The evening is yet to begin and I can start to chill out for a moment.
Walking down onto the grass, I look around – I’m glad I changed into a slightly more extravagant outfit. This is one of the best dressed groups of people that I have ever seen. We take a seat close to the front and open up our classic picnic snacks, volunteers produce accessories, hand out maps and chat with us about the evening ahead – I’m particularly inspired by one’s beetroot necklace.
Also, I’m amazed by how tame the roaming peacocks are as one tries to pinch a bit of bread from the group sat next to us, they really add an air of elegance to the location.
Without warning, an open-sided truck arrives and slowly drives around the side of the crowd. Within sits Bird la Bird in a fabulous regency look. Her face is painted white and her hair is piled high as she sits atop a London bus with the slogan ‘Make Britain Georgian Again’ printed on the side.
She’s surrounded by stacks of scrunched up toilet paper and a comically large loo seat, whilst wielding a toilet brush – clearly visually laying out her thoughts on Britain’s royal history.
Bird’s act sets the tone for the whole event. It is one of the two specifically scheduled performances that the audience has to see, and she does a great job of getting us up to speed and in the mood. Deftly explaining complex topics such as colonialism and intersectionality in a way that is both fun and accessible, and completely accurate, Bird ensures we all understand the context for the evening’s performances.
Racing through a history lesson on the botanical gardens, queerness, and the British Empire (cracking some hilarious jokes as she goes) Bird explains the way that working class, queer, and non-white individuals have been excluded from places such as the Botanical Gardens in the past. So tonight, the aim is to allow everyone to have the full, Georgian experience of the space.
Before sending us off to explore the gardens, Bird finishes her set with a switched-up version of Rule Britannia, and has us all singing “Cruel Britannia/ Britannia hates the gays/ especially the inconvenient ones who misbehave.” After this, we are free to roam the gardens for the next two hours and discover all the different acts.
I walk past the bandstand and see part of Jaivant Patel’s act. They’re veiled and dancing to songs from Indian Cinema. The veil speaks to the hidden nature of queer histories, and specifically the way Queer South Asian people have been erased from history, despite having such a rich and vibrant culture pre British Empire.
I decided to make my way down to the rock pool and Cameron Walk at the bottom of the gardens. Walking through the space there’s a man dressed in a vegetable embellished courtier’s outfit playing the cello, and mysterious ‘frisky’ soldiers wander around, seductively glancing at you but never speaking.
There’s a level of absurdity woven into the fabric of the event, emboldening it’s queer charm, which is heightened by the fact a sixth-form prom is simultaneously happening in the Botanical Gardens.
I keep giggling, thinking about how the whole affair must look to a secretly drunk 17-year-old who doesn’t know anything about the event.
Down at Cameron’s Walk we arrive just in time to see Kieron Jina’s performance. Dressed in an incredible white leather ensemble with generously fringed sleeves, a mask, and some of the tallest platform shoes I’ve ever seen, Kieron struts down the makeshift runway dancing and brandishing their fringed sleeves towards the onlookers. They make eye contact with me, stop (right in front of me) and drop down into a squat.
I’m struck by the artistry and call them beautiful, they then ask if they can give me a hug and instruct me to stand before embracing me. It’s intense but a really special moment, and it’s an honour to be involved in some small way in the art.
After Kieron’s performance ends, I wander off to find my next sight and find E-J Scott in the bamboo maze. I’m handed a Georgian themed Wank Mag which contain jokey magazine segments about history, interviews with cast members, and a whole range of joyful erotic images of queer people, presenting their bodies on their own terms.
It is an exceptionally aesthetic publication, and as we wait for the crowd to filter in, Scott explains that the Wank Mag is the product of two years of historical research, in which he and many others went into public collections in British museums and libraries to attempt to uncover objects and texts relating to queer identities, of which they found a whole lot.
Scott takes to a ladder to tell us about one historical figure he has researched – Princess Seraphina, an 18 Century woman who was assigned male-at birth, and attempted to sue a man who robbed her of her clothes after an amorous encounter in some bushes behind a pub.
In the court documents, she was referred to as Princess throughout and addressed using her preferred pronouns. It’s an amazing story about the earliest known British transgender person, and Scott uses it to illustrate that we can confidently talk about queer historical identities, because they did and do clearly exist.
E-J Scott is a fantastic and captivating speaker, and the talk comes to an end with him encouraging us to go have a shag in the bushes.
It’s about 9.20pm and I begin to realise I’m not going to have time to see all of the remaining acts (timing is clearly an issue for me this evening.) It’s not long until we come across Tamir Amar Petter and Felix Mufti, who are erotically fencing with each other whilst wearing jock straps and sheer shirts to a hauntingly ethereal cover of Aqua’s ‘Barbie Girl.’
Finally, I get to Francesca Millican-Slater who is hidden away in the herb garden. We heard big laughs coming from this way whilst watching the fencers, so I’m expecting big things.
Francesca sings about plants and flowers whilst we sit on the grass, then they launch into an incredibly powerful speech about plants, trees, and female pleasure – exploring the links between them, breaking it up with some audience participation with one audience member crawling under their large skirt to find the clitoris.
In my second act of audience participation of the evening, I am invited to the front to hold Francesca’s skirt up, exposing the clitoris to the crowd, whilst they explain it to the crowd.
It’s truly bizarre, but also hysterical.
I’m gutted the evening is coming to a close, as I think this is the most I’ve ever enjoyed an event.
For the final act, Ginny Lemon (one of my all-time favourite drag performers) takes to the stage in a Queen Victoria inspired get up and sings the mournful ‘Heaven Have Mercy’ by Édith Piaf, using loop pedals.
It’s quite different from anything I’ve seen Ginny Lemon do before, it’s an absurd way to wrap up the performances. Which makes perfect sense for this event.
The truck returns to close the show, this time it is filled not with toilet paper, but the entire cast of Duckie’s ‘Princess Picnic Promenade’. Bottles of prosecco are handed round and sprayed into the crowd whilst music blasts and everyone dances. It is a joyful and communal way to end a unique evening, and I’m grateful I got to share in the experience.
Fierce is evidently a brave and exciting organisation with a vibrant and provocative programme; the ‘Princess Picnic’ Promenade, and indeed the Hanging Gardens of Bab project as a whole has illustrated to me that they are one of the most important features of Birmingham’s art scene.
It is the perfect way to create and present art alongside the upcoming Commonwealth Games, raising questions of empire and colonialism that are intrinsic to the existence of the Commonwealth, but that aren’t likely to be raised in any great depth within the games themselves.
Bravo, Fierce Festival, I can’t wait to see what you do next.
To find out more about Duckie see their website here: www.duckie.co.uk
For more from Bird la Bird go to: www.birdlabird.co.uk
For more from Jaivant Patel go to: www.jaivantpateldance.com
For more from Kierson Jina go to: www.kieronjina.com
For more from Francesca Millican-Slater: www.francescamillicanslater.co.uk
For more from Ginny Lemon go to their Instagram @ginnylemon69
For more from the Birmingham Botanical Gardens go to their website: www.birminghambotanicalgardens.org.uk
For more information about Fierce Festival visit their website here: www.wearefierce.org