Back in May I participated in a photo shoot with photographer Lucyna DanUTA Barossa, Toronto’s Dita Dior, and Ottawa‘s queen of the night Sultanna Corangie. Inspired by a Naomi Campbell pictorial in Interview Magazine, Sultanna had brought us together to help her produce photos that would explore themes of sexuality and violence.
Impressed with the final results, photographer Lucyna DanUTA Barossa encouraged Sultanna to let her shop the photos around, and in September they were published by Guerilla Magazine . Sadly, a month before print, Sultanna passed away from a heart attack. She was 37.
Below is an excerpt from the obituary I wrote to accompany and contextualize the Guerilla Magazine pictorial. My thanks to Tony Martins for editing the piece. You can read it in full here . Donations in Sultanna’s memory can be made to P.O.W.E.R. (Prostitutes of Ottawa/Gatineau, Work, Educate, Resist) here .
“Her name would be followed, in hushed tones, by mention of her occupation, in much the same way that I imagine my own name is followed by mention of my HIV+ status. It’s an accusatory whisper. They always lower their voice and lean in close to share with you what they know. To warn you that your mutual acquaintance is a social pariah. Whenever I heard her called a whore or a prostitute, I also heard every message board comment, letter to the editor, Public Health nurse, or crush who had rejected me because of my status. They all speak through their words of warning and judgment: as if being a sex worker, or having a disease, somehow makes us undeserving of sex or love or family or respect. My kinship with Sultana began there, as two outsiders in an already marginalised gay community.
She was a smoker. As she laid out her vision for the photo shoot to me, she’d slip her hand into a table-top cigarette holder and pull out the next smoke, leaving discarded, lipstick-kissed blunts smouldering in a sparkling crystal ash tray. She wanted to convey strength and dominance, she said, and explore the contrast between her and her bleak surroundings. As she spoke, she glamorously applied her make-up, chose her outfits, poured wine for me from a decanter, and, of course, smoked.
Looking at the photos now, it’s clear that she was intent on exploring far more than what she described for me then. The fetishization of sexual violence against women, queer gender politics and identity, the resiliency of queer men and women in the face of oppression, anti-body fascism, HIV-phobia, whore-phobia, and expression and exploration of kink—Sultanna and photographer Lucyna Bakowska give rise to many issues for viewers to investigate and discover.
The last time I saw Sultanna we had bumped into each other in the street and she was nervous about writing a piece to go with the pictorial in Guerilla magazine. Unsure of how much to reveal and whether her written English was strong enough to communicate intelligibly, she appreciated my encouragement as we brainstormed. A week later, while she was running a bath, her heart stopped. The water cascaded over the tub, channelled itself around the bends of her apartment walls and out into the hall from underneath her front door. The superintendent was alerted; he found her lifeless body pruning in the running bath. She was 37.
Mere hours after news of her death broke, rumours ran rampant that she had been murdered by a client and was a victim of her own ‘wicked lifestyle‘. Friends would be forced to re-iterate this whore-phobic talk in the press in order to deny it. Her Muslim family, from whom she was estranged, would request a private burial. It seems that they didn’t want Sultana’s fellow sex workers, customers, degenerate friends, fags, and drag queens to show up and pay their respects. Local gay bars were happy to host memorial shows and pub crawls in her honour, however, perhaps for one last chance to make a dollar off Sultana’s name and following. Here, condolences were offered by tipsy party hosts while drunk patrons laughed, danced, and ordered one more bottle of Stella before last call.
Hours before the photo shoot in early April, I had a new tattoo done. The syrupy fake blood we used in the photos stung when it made contact with the tattoo wound. As Sultanna applied generous amounts of it to my torso, arms, and face, I quietly asked her a question. Had she considered that she would be posing with an openly HIV+ person who would appear to be bleeding profusely all over her? Would she be all right with possibly having her own status called into question as a result? Sultanna paused, looked me directly in the eye, and simply said “fuck them.”
Dita and I will always be grateful to have these pictures of our friend, whom we loved, respected, and now miss dearly. She was a joy to be around, an outgoing, generous soul who only wanted to entertain and create beauty out of her surroundings. She was an Algonquin College graphic design graduate who moonlighted as an Arabic goddess, lip-syncing to her signature song “Queen Of The Night” by Whitney Houston and always dominating the stage. As a drag performer, she was one of Ottawa’s best; as a friend, she was even better. She was a pure spirit. And as for anyone who would disagree, fuck them."