On May 6, The Greene Space in New York hosted the PEN World Voices Festival's "Queer Futures" panel featuring artist Zanele Muholi, writer Binyavanga Wainaina and activist Kehinde Bademosi. Moderated by Shireen Hassim, professor of political studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, the panel discussion encapsulated ongoing conversations about the current African gay rights struggle, community formation in the age of social media and the politics of visibility in the postcolonial moment.
Hassim began the discussion by quoting Sylvia Tamale, a prominent Ugandan academic and scholar of African sexualties, noting that the current state of publicized queer struggle in Africa represents a break with the "empowering" silence of the past, a silence that "constitutes a refusal to talk about black sexualities under the terms of colonialism." Wainaina noted how the internet and social media affords queer people a new kind of a "outness," conceiving of a "bright digital light" that serves as a conduit for political engagement and community building. He went on to joke about cruising Facebook profiles and asserted that these platforms amplify a distinctly African diversity and way of being more than in other parts of the world.
Muholi spoke of visibility as strategic, conceiving of her photographic practice as a visual activism while acknowledging that visibility is often used as a tool of oppressors to surveil and violently repress queers. Indirectly echoing Ngugi wa Thiong'o's work on languages in Africa (also a PEN presenter), Muholi spoke of the power of images to reach people across language barriers and cultural specificity. She views the discourse of queerness as frustrated and bounded by the Anglophone and jargonistic limitiations of academia. Muholi sees visual media as a more effective challenge to the current status quo, unapologetically holding space for the lived experience of black lesbians in South Africa. Her work undoes the representation of woman as a "virtuous" figure in what Hassim termed the "postcolonial patriarchal project." She went on to voice her frustrations with a lack of positive images depicting queer intimacy in South Africa, and lamented that so many in her community become research subjects for foreign academics to a point where other countries retain more knowledge about South African queer history than do South Africans. Muholi's presence on the panel was incisive and brought a vigor and seriousness of purpose that is uncharacteristic of similar literary events that claim to bring clarity about queerness in Africa. She indicted art curators and institutions for excluding certain kinds of imagery and called for a creation of a new archive of queer cultural production. For Muholi, her existence and the diversity and strength of her community is a clarity within itself and the sole justification for her work. She does not aim to placate the fears and tastes of the mainstream.
Creating and uncovering queer archives was a central focus of the discussion. Wainaina noted that this is the current project of the moment, and reiterated that there has been a rupture that allows for "micro utopias" to flourish. The implosion of political legitimacy in many postcolonial African states has given way to renewed impetus for creation. The conversation turned to religion, with Bademosi - the son of a Nigerian preacher, now working on a memoir - pointing out that much of the renewed Pentecostal fervor taking place in his country is sewn with the support of the American evangelical community, which exports hate and legislative repression. He is concerned with "who is telling the story," and sees religious hatreds as one manifestation of the language of oppression.
Bademosi also spoke of his current research on black male spaces in Baltimore, noting that despite widespread visibility of queerness and protective legal frameworks in the US, many black American gay men continue to face "cultural" hardships. It seemed like this reference to culture was an attempt to demonstrate the universality of queer oppression and the possibility of solidarity beyond his own Nigerian experience, but this idea wasn't interrogated and I was left wanting to hear more about the relationship of the "cultural" to the state and the particular systemic drivers that mark black gay experience in the US context.
Jason Huettner is Blogs Editor for Warscapes magazine. Twitter @jasonhuettner
Image © Zanele Muholi via Afro Art Media.