Johannesburg – Internationally renowned and frequently arrested artist and activist Steven Cohen has a gallery show in Joburg, his first in the 20 years since he left the city. But lately his trips home have not been happy ones.

‘It’s not a f**king butterfly!” exclaims the normally soft-spoken and polite artist. I have referred, one too many times, to the delicate wings that form a part of his make-up in his latest body of work as “butterflies”.

“They’re moths,” he says. “Atlas moths. The largest of their kind and born without a mouth. It can’t nourish itself, and lives for between 24 and 48 hours … To me, they speak about Elu; about the brevity of life.”

Over the years, Steven Cohen’s radical queer, Jewish public interventions have been filmed and incorporated into often controversial stage works, mostly across Europe, but as far afield as Japan.

In them, every detail of the 55-year-old’s famous make-up and drag creations are always minutely coded with meaning like this; the personal and political stuck to the body.

He wore the moth wings below his eyes, etching beautiful alien cheekbones, to the opening of his show at the Stevenson Gallery in Joburg two weeks ago, and in the heart-stopping new short films on show, Fat and Blood, which were shot in an abattoir in Joburg. Read more