On Our Radar

Meet the Pole-Dancing, Zine-Making Artist Behind Singapore’s Groundbreaking Queer Events

Gabbi Wenyi uses their art to protect and to protest.
May 22, 2020, 9:23am
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A photograph of Gabbi with some of their works. Photos courtesy of the subject. 

On Our Radar is a VICE Asia series that profiles young, upcoming creatives across the Asia-Pacific, giving an inside look into their interests, communities and inspirations.

Gabbi is a lot of things. Primarily, they're a thing maker, body-shaker, and a rule-breaker; or at least that’s what it says on their website.

Gabbi Wenyi Ayane Virk, 22, is an icon in Singapore’s queer community. The person behind the extremely popular Queer ZineFest, they're also the organiser of QUEERTHEYEAR! Cabaret, a night of unabashed self expression for queer artists. But they're just getting started. They also perform evocative spoken word poetry, craft socially aware zines, and illustrate comic strips. They act, write, paint, and pole dance too.

Gabbi, a second year student at Bath Spa University, turned to art for self expression at a young age. Their mum encouraged them to play around with paper mache and finger painting, which eventually transformed into their iconic style of stammering linework and still life illustrations.

“It seems like I do a lot of things, but it's just because I do them at different times. That's how I operate,” Gabbi told VICE.

“I learned from my mum that sometimes, if you need a break from one type of work you must do a different type of work. My mum doesn't believe in taking breaks.”

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Photo courtesy of the subject.

Before art, Gabbi was captivated by law. They enrolled in a law program at their university but dropped out after a year, when they realised that they didn't actually want to be a lawyer. Gabbi's mum urged them to do something they weren't truly passionate about.

Instead of licking their wounds in retreat, Gabbi channeled their drive into creation. Two of their biggest ones are the the Queer ZineFest and the QUEERTHEYEAR! Cabaret.

The Queer ZineFest is Singapore’s first LGBTQ zine event and features talks, workshops, and stalls, all for the queer community. QUEERTHEYEAR! Cabaret, meanwhile, is the country’s first experimental queer cabaret. During its launch in December 2019, Gabbi led as a founder, organiser, and host. It was an evening of alternative burlesque, drag, performance art, striptease, and other sexually-charged performances by acts and participants who were of “all-genders, all-bodies, all-sexualities.”

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Photo by Ching.

Events like these help to normalise the queer community in Singapore, where it continues to battle discrimination on many fronts. To this day, section 377A of the penal code still stands, a law that bans sex between two consenting men. The LGBTQ community has been fighting to strike it down but it’s an uphill battle.

“When you're queer it's just that little bit harder because there are things that you don't say, and things that you're not sure of yet,” Gabbi said.

“It will get better, even though sometimes it feels like it won't and it feels like you'll never find a community that cares and supports you.”

One of Gabbi's more public pieces is a digital edit of a Christian Church’s banner advertising a programme which many believe to be unaccepting of the LGBTQ lifestyle. Gabbi took a photo of the poster, added the words “a fucking disgrace,” and posted it on Instagram. It received equal amounts of flak and support online, but Gabbi is happy it helped shed light on the issue.

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Gabbi during a poetry recital. Photo by Jared Ho.

“Some people really didn't like that, but I think that's good. I feel it's better to get a negative response than no response at all,” they said.

“Most of the art that I put out is quite conventional and the responses I get usually come from people who feel the same way but are afraid to vocalize it. So I don't mind so much people's reactions."

"I like to have a conversation with people about the things that we are creating and talking about, but I tend not to mind whether people like it or not. I’m not super big on image.”

Through their art, Gabbi creates discourse in a country that strays away from tough conversations. They also help cultivate a safe space that promotes inclusivity and understanding. These are just some of the reasons why Gabbi is On Our Radar.

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Photo courtesy of the subject.

I believe in… myself. I think all of the power you need is within you and your connection to the universe. It's very easy to think that you have to go and be someone else to do all the things that you want to do, but actually, it's all right there and you just have to trust the universe.

My friends say I am… noisy.

But I like to think I am… quiet. I like to think that I don't talk that much but I probably do. I think I'm pretty cool but I’m probably very talkative in real life.

I've been working on… the Queer ZineFest with joy, but I've also been working on myself. I'm looking at loving myself more. A year ago, I came out of a relationship that was very unhealthy so I'm still piecing that together and trying to focus on my own wellbeing. My mental health isn’t so good so I'm working on being better as well.

I am inspired by… the universe, and everything. I strongly believe there's inspiration in everything and you can learn something from everybody so I think it's quite exciting.

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Photo courtesy of the subject.

Recently I've been really into… celebrity impressions. Like I don't do them. I just like watching them. Also Diva creates beautiful installations and I’m very in love with their work and Bev makes the coolest zines - her art style is very yum. KosmicKult is making fun, quirky chest binders and bodywear; Chris Hong is a trans man making music, Aeriqah is a nonbinary musician, Diva Agar makes super cool art, Mrylyn Tan and Tania de Rozario are my favourite writers ever, and Norah Lea's performance and photography work always blow me away. Oh, and Leanna at Unapologetic Yoga is the first person I've met who does dedicated LGBTQIA+ yoga classes!

You can usually find me at… home.

On bad days I… light a candle and take out my journal and I write down the things that I'm grateful for. If it's a really bad day I don't get out of bed and I just watch Netflix.

I live for… people. I get a kick out of making people happy and doing things for other people so I think life's purpose is other people.

In 5 years… I will be back in Singapore and Singapore will have repealed 377A.

Interview has been edited for length and clarity.