Every Friday and Saturday night, a pinkish light shines in the window of an old shop front along Sanderstraße, just off Kottbusser Damm. Above, the name “Galerie Studio St. St.” stands out from hand-painted decorative swirls and curlicues. Step inside, and you’re likely to be greeted by Juwelia’s unmistakable singsong voice.
“Chéri, come in!’
The veteran drag performer and artist has been hosting her twice-weekly salon here for 15 years. It has the feeling of a natural habitat – a kind of queer heterotopia which somehow endured despite the rapid gentrification of the neighbourhood, a stone’s throw away from the Landwehrkanal and the faded grandeur of the apartments along the Maybachufer.
“Sometimes I feel like I’ve been here too long,” she says, reclining on one of the gold banquettes beneath the paintings that hang from floor to ceiling in the cosy, softly lit front room. “But let’s leave it at that, it’s not a beautiful topic.”
Beauty is everywhere in the salon’s two rooms, connected by a hallway in which a makeshift bar contains a jumble of liquor bottles, tip jar, and shelves filled with champagne coupes or mismatched crystal glasses. It is one of those intimate, uncommodified spaces that brought Berlin’s once-neglected neighbourhoods to life, providing sanctuary to all those people drawn by a sense of adventure or the promise of artistic freedom.
It was in such an atmosphere that Juwelia established herself, performing in the cabarets and theatre of Berlin’s bur- geoning 1990s scene, as well as self-producing shows like Die Las Vegas Furie. By the early 2000s, she also started to paint in a sudden burst of inspiration. “It was like a flash of lightning – I was painting a picture every day.”
Before opening her salon, it was the desire to exhibit her new paintings that first brought her to Sanderstraße. “I started this place because I had no opportunities as an artist.” In charac- teristic Berlin fashion, she solved the problem by creating her own exhibition space. “At first I thought I’d use the back room as my studio and the front a showroom, but I just kept painting at home. So both became like a salon and that’s the way it stayed.”
Now, the two parts of Juwelia’s artistic identity, performer and painter, merge as she performs the role of hostess twice a week when opening her door to anyone drawn towards the sudden glow of light inside. In the Crocs she sometimes wears on quiet nights, she is still an imposing, charismatic figure offering a warm welcome; in heels she is a fully fledged glamazon, towering over her guests, thick curls sparkling with glittery barrettes and artificial flowers.
This personal style extends into her paintings. Viewed all together they become a vision of another world, one where iridescent flowers are forever bursting into bloom across luxurious meadows and glyph-like figures dance eternally beneath powder-blue skies. Princess Juwelias fly with billowy skirts in pastel psychedelia.
There are cute dogs and bacchanals, button-bright excesses of kitsch, with equal parts innocence and subversion. It feels nonetheless like there might be a riot about to take place somewhere down there among the flowerbeds. “I created them this way because they’re beautiful this way! I am amazed by myself and my paintings … I have a beautiful life.”
How did Juwelia come into the world? “For me it was a New Wave thing. I’m 58. I painted my nails as a kid and my father freaked out. I was so excited. I’d painted them so I could show them off on the train when the conductor stamped my ticket. But I can’t really say what I am – if I’m transsexual or a drag queen or whatever you call it. For me it’s all mixed up. When I was in New York people asked me what I am was and I said I’m a crate of beer!”
She sees no conflict between Juwelia and the man she presents when out of drag. “Juwelia is my artist name; Stefan Stricker is my real name.” Is she mainly a performer or an artist? “I don’t even know – people say I am an artist but I see myself as the Eternal Underground Trash-Diva. People say I am under- ground so I’m underground – even though I’m on the ground floor. I’m on the ground floor in the hippest district!”
Neukölln wasn’t always the hippest. Juwelia’s salon was born in an era when the district was discovering its spirit in the explorations of its ren- egade artists, as shown in Überleben in Neukölln (Surviving in Neukölln) by legendary queer director Rosa von Praunheim. The 2017 documentary fea- tures both Juwelia and a singing Stefan Stricker as he cycles his bike through Reuterkiez with a straw hat perched jauntily on the back of his head.
Ambiguities and otherness, difference and acceptance. Twice each week they find new life in the guests who arrive to drink and talk or, when Juwelia is in the mood, watch her perform her own songs mixed with cabaret classics evok- ing the decadent nightlife which has been so intimately woven through the city since the Weimar Republic and Sally Bowles. For 15 years it has existed like a semi-secret club, like Steppenwolf ’s magic theatre, where only those who are looking find the way in. If you don’t look, you will never see the door.