Challenging Attitudes

“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.

Africa's Out! founder, artist and activist Wangechi Mutu and guest of honour, Binyavanga Wainaina. Image: Kelsey Stanton/BFAnyc.com - @BFA_NYC
Africa’s Out! founder, artist and activist Wangechi Mutu and guest of honour, Binyavanga Wainaina. Image: Kelsey Stanton/BFAnyc.com – @BFA_NYC

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. “I remember how powerful it was,” she said. “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. At $200 a ticket, guests enjoyed a performance by Solange Knowles, DJ sets by DJ Cuppy and Venus X and a live dance performance by Ayo Jackson. They also had the opportunity to bid for artworks produced by artists working in Africa and beyond – including Zanele Muholi, Kehinde Wiley, Cindy Sherman, Hank Willis Thomas, Marilyn Minter, Laurie Simmons and Mutu herself. Binyavanga Wainaina was the guest of honour.

Guests enjoy a live dance performance by Ayo Jackson. Image: Kelsey Stanton/BFAnyc.com - @BFA_NYC
Guests enjoy a live dance performance by Ayo Jackson. Image: Kelsey Stanton/BFAnyc.com – @BFA_NYC

Telling a different story

“Africa’s Out! goes beyond the often-told story of woe and oppression,” said Wanja Muguongo, executive director of UHAI EASHRI, “and instead both celebrates our resilience as queer Africans and also joins us in raising the resources our movements so desperately require.”

Mutu has described the platform as “a big, powerful love fest of politically minded cultural makers.” By launching Africa’s Out! in New York City, she hopes to make the issues surrounding Africa’s LGBTQI community “beautiful, (…) interesting and relevant for American minds and American people, and also bring together the African community that includes the diaspora, the African American [and] Caribbean folks (…) all those people who actually care about human rights, gay rights and people’s lives, and people’s expression and their fullness.” The fundraiser marked the start of a series of related events and panels to be held throughout the year.

Guests mingle and take in the artworks by Mickalene Thomas (left), Zanele Muholi (center) and Toyin Odutola (right). Image: Kelsey Stanton/BFAnyc.com - @BFA_NYC
Guests mingle and take in the artworks by Mickalene Thomas (left), Zanele Muholi (center) and Toyin Odutola (right). Image: Kelsey Stanton/BFAnyc.com – @BFA_NYC

Surrounding ourselves and building a fire

The electric energy pulsating through the small venue made one thing clear: In New York, queer is cool. Drag queens with colourfully painted faces and perfectly threaded eyebrows towered above the crowd in stilettoes, and sharp-suited women wore their braids piled high.

The star-studded event included appearances by supermodel Christy Turlington, Friends star David Schwimmer and singer-songwriter Janelle Monáe. Platters of fried chicken and Vietnamese summer rolls floated about; Moscow mules (dubbed Kenyan mules for the occasion) flowed freely from the open bar. Custom-made temporary tattooes branded guests’ necks, faces and shoulders, with slogans like “After identity, what?” and “Freedom is something that you take.”

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.”

Caption: Africa's Out! honouree Binyavanga Wainaina and UHAI EASHRI executive director, Wanja Muguongo. Image: Kelsey Stanton/BFAnyc.com - @BFA_NYC
Caption: Africa’s Out! honouree Binyavanga Wainaina and UHAI EASHRI executive director, Wanja Muguongo. Image: Kelsey Stanton/BFAnyc.com – @BFA_NYC

“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.”

Of his status as honoree, Wainaina said that he hopes to be a catalyst, to see each successive honouree do exponentially greater things. “I put my prize in the service of the movement,” he said. “Africa’s Out! is a sign that our continent is rising.”