“I’ve been told that I am violating the tradition. People would say, ‘It’s not our tradition to be like this. You should be with men. At this stage, why don’t you have children? Why aren’t you with a man?”
This testimony of a lesbian’s experience in South Africa, recorded as part of queer photographer Zanele Muholi’s recent exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, reflects a commonly held belief on the continent that queer lifestyle choices and sexual orientations are somehow un-African. That to be a respectable African one has to get married to a member of the opposite sex and have children.
It’s these beliefs that New York-based Kenyan visual artist and activist Wangechi Mutu aims to challenge by founding Africa’s Out! The platform – described as a “celebration and a shout-out” – aims to initiate and engage radical ideas around African empowerment, in particular the empowerment of Africa’s lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender, queer and intersex (LGBTQI) communities. Mutu was inspired to launch the platform when her good friend, Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainana, came out in a public letter to his mother in January, 2014. She says:
“I remember how powerful it was. The bomb went off and we were fine, we were okay. But now the work needs to continue.”
The spotlight was on East Africa when Africa’s Out! was launched with a swanky fundraiser for UHAI EASHRI, the East African Sexual Health and Rights Initiative, held at the Barbara Gladstone Gallery in Chelsea, New York.
Aside from enjoying performances by Solange Knowles and DJ Cuppy amongst others, guests also had the opportunity to bid for artworks produced by artists working in Africa and beyond. Binyavanga Wainaina was the guest of honour.
But for anyone too dazzled by the opulence to remember its cause, the speeches were quick to remind us of the dark underbelly of the night’s celebration. Mutu commended all those in Africa who “risk their lives on a daily basis to say I’m queer, and I’m proud of it.” Muguongo commented on the power of Africa’s Out! “to say that there is no shame or indignity in being who we are. It’s a human experience and a human expression that we want to enjoy in freedom – and for anyone who tries to stop us, we are going to make it really hard to do so.”
“We are going to surround ourselves and make a fire,” Wainaina said in his keynote address. “I came out because I could,” he commented later on, acknowledging the still dire risk of violence against LGBTQI community members in various parts of Africa. “I don’t think everyone should make a drama, but I made a drama because I could.” hg