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She said Darling with a K

Reimagining Katya Saunders

Image donated by Antony Sultana

Held at Spazju Kreattiv Valletta between the 17th December 2022 and the 22nd January 2023 complimented by the official launch of her biography, penned by Ramona Depares and produced by the Malta Gay Rights Movement (MGRM), the exhibition which brought the iconic Katya back to the realm of the fabulous was curated by Romeo Roxman Gatt and Charlie Cauchi. Although as they themselves admit, the person of interest herself was a very real contributor to the curation. 

Her shoeboxes, for example – each one covered in her cursive script, providing guidance and affirmation. “Gold heel to be worn with Jackie O outfit”, reads one, “Fabulous darling”, asserts another.

Charlie Cauchi
Photo by Charlie Cauchi

How are trans people still being perceived and treated socially? 

Romeo Roxmann Gatt

The material and asomatous installations alike oozed the spirit of a confidant rebel who seemed to be capable of orchestrating and moulding social realities, albeit painfully at times, into inspiring change and opened the range of perception of a nation which not only allowed her to be, but also paved the yellow brick path for queer persons who came after her. 

Through video, documentary, photos, installations and cabinet-of-curiosity styled artifacts the audience gets a glimpse of the strategy, direction and curation of a life lived to the full. The exhibition allowed some layers to be peeled off the glamorous, well made up and sunglass ornate facade although every work also alludes to the many other layers few even knew existed. 

The responsibility that comes with representing such a strong and complex figure through various media in a cohesive yet moving way is not to be underestimated.

It felt like she knew someone would one day curate a show about her. It was as if she guided us on what to include in the exhibition

Charlie Cauchi
Photo by Charlie Cauchi

I caught up with the curators after the show for some of their thoughts. 

Charlie Cauchi 

‘I’ve had the iconic poster of Kayta’s Tugulio performance on my wall for many years. I’d always wanted to make a piece of work – be that a film or another medium – about her. Sadly, I never got to do this when she was still alive. When MGRM were looking for curators to work on a show about her as part of a book launch, both Romeo and I jumped at the chance. 

The Hungarian actress Zsa Zsa Gabor had an affected speaking style. She was renowned for calling everyone “Dahlink“. Katya, knowingly or not (though I think it’s safe to assume she knew exactly what she was doing), was also known to pronounce darling in the same way as Gabor. It was her close friend Anthony who pointed it out. “You know”, he said, “she said darling with a K”. 

We knew we had our title to the exhibition there and then. It just says so much about her: how she embraced celebrity, her iconic stature, and her playfulness. These are all elements that we wanted the exhibition to highlight.

It was not an easy show to curate for many reasons, chiefly to do with time and resources. It took us a while to be able to look at her collection fully, and she left a great deal behind, as we all do I suppose. Also, we were dealing with someone who is not here to represent themselves and who has left a lot of people that love her behind. So we really considered every item that was displayed carefully. 

However, with Katya, it felt like she knew someone would one day curate a show about her. It was as if she guided us on what to include in the exhibition. We also didn’t just want to display clothes and ephemera, of which there was a great deal.  We wanted to create new works inspired by her life and personality. And some of the things she left behind were artworks in themselves. Her shoeboxes, for example – each one covered in her cursive script, providing guidance and affirmation. “Gold heel to be worn with Jackie O outfit”, reads one, “Fabulous darling”, asserts another.

Included in the show was an interview with her close friend Anthony. In some ways, he is the guide through the whole exhibition. We also wanted to involve members of the trans community, so we created a video work in collaboration with several trans women, asking them to reflect on Katya’s life and to discuss their own trans journies. 

The response was really special. Many of her family and friends emailed or messaged to say that they felt her presence throughout the exhibition, which was really very important to us.’

Romeo Roxman Gatt

‘When MGRM put this call out Charlie and I really felt it was a project that we needed to do. We understood the importance of this show and we knew that we could deliver something that would be done with utmost sensitivity, care and most importantly (although we would never really know,) make Katya proud. We also felt that one of the most important things to acknowledge is that this show, despite being first and foremost about Katya and her life needed to also tackle the broader issues around trans discourse and include as well as involve other people from the trans community and give them a voice. 

There is no question that Katya was a beautifully intriguing human being and her aesthetic played a huge part of who she was however we knew that Katya’s persona went way deeper than this. She was one of the first openly trans women in Malta and went through immense hurdles (even if with a touch of class and elegance). What she had to go though as a trans women back then is not at all easy both mentally and physically and I guess that gives hope to many of us trans people going through a similar experience at this age and time. She is our special trancestor! Things have changed considerably especially when thinking of the legality of it all however I feel the question that continues to persist is — how are trans people still being perceived and treated socially? 

Trans people continue to face judgement, hate, and often struggle to go through their basic day to day lives. I believe that much more needs to be invested in education. We hope that this show opened up a space for people to be seen and not from a pity kind of perspective but rather from an empowering and celebratory point of view as well as that it taught a few things along the way. 

It was a pure pleasure to be met with so much ephemera and content in relation to a trans person; all of Katya’s content that has been preserved is a blessing for our island’s queer history and archives.’

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