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Black in the closet – Homoerotic photography

An explicit homoerotic photographic exhibition of black men in the South African National Gallery hardly attracts any public attention, while governments elsewhere in Africa whip up homophobia. But South Africa itself remains full of contradictions on the issue.

“As for Africa itself, if I ever managed to get an exhibition in say Lagos, I suspect riots would break out. I would certainly be charged with being a purveyor of corrupt and decadent western values,” wrote Nigerian-born photographer Rotimi Fani-Kayode in 1988 (Ten.8 Magazine, No 28: Rage & Desire).

A seminal figure in 1980s African and black British contemporary art, and the first chairperson of Autograph ABP, Fani-Kayode died in 1989 at the age of 34. His works are in permanent collections in major museums in London, New York, Helsinki and Sydney, but it has taken 25 years to see even the first retrospective of his oeuvre exhibited in an art museum in Africa.

“I make my pictures homosexual on purpose,” he wrote. “Black men from the Third World have not previously revealed either to their own peoples or to the West a certain shocking fact: they can desire each other … But in spite of all attempts by church and state to suppress homosexuality, it is clear that enriching sexual relationships between members of the same sex have always existed. They are part of the human condition, even if the concept of sexual identity is more of a recent notion.”

Black Friar, 1989 - Rotimi Fani-Kayode
Black Friar, 1989 – Rotimi Fani-Kayode

The exhibition in Cape Town comes as populists and politically insecure leaders in numerous African countries stir up moral hysteria around homosexuality and pass laws to legalise the persecution of Africa’s homosexuals.

South Africa is the only country on the continent that explicitly protects sexual orientation. Already in the 1970s, on Robben Island, decades before he became the darling of the West, Nelson Mandela had concluded that prejudice against sexual orientation was as unacceptable as racism.

But South Africa seems almost at a loss to take a stand against other African governments on the issue. The country’s social liberalism is sneeringly dismissed by its neighbours as the fatal consequence of the people of the south having accepted a “Western-style” human rights based constitution.

Half Opened Eyes Twins, 1989 - Rotimi Fani-Kayode
Half Opened Eyes Twins, 1989 – Rotimi Fani-Kayode

And despite its laws against homophobic discrimination and its legalisation of same-sex marriage, South Africa is by no means the gay paradise many believe it to be. While the middle class enjoy their same-sex rights – rights it should be noted they hardly fought to achieve but were given on a golden platter by the ANC when it was still a liberation movement – the majority of homosexuals in South Africa are black and poor.

Cape Town Pride 2014 was a pitiful affair this year. It culminated in a parade on 1 March in Greenpoint, once the “gay ghetto”, with a handful of tacky floats, some topless dancing boys and a number of foreign tourists. Its political significance is close to zero. Instead, Pride has become a self-congratulatory, partly corporatised, beer-and-sex party to further burnish the City’s image as an international gay tourist destination.

Untitled, 1987-1988
Untitled, 1987-1988

Meanwhile most South African homosexuals live in communities where they are vulnerable to ignorance, cultural chauvinism and religious prejudice as bad as the naked racism of apartheid. For many constitutional rights remain theoretical. There have been numerous cases of so-called “corrective” rape and murder of black lesbians. The criminal justice system has also repeatedly failed these victims.

Nonetheless, African homosexuals survive in their communities by forging other ways of expressing their sexuality and even gaining acceptance. Street smarts, fashion and bling are some of the strategies they employ. Being a patriarchal society, men who have sex with men have it somewhat easier. Some have even managed to “recruit” local gangsters as their protectors, because it’s seen as cool to have gay friends.

Nothing to Lose XII (Bodies of Experience), 1989 - Rotimi Fani-Kayode
Nothing to Lose XII (Bodies of Experience), 1989 – Rotimi Fani-Kayode

What their gay white compatriots don’t seem to realise is that unless their fellow black homosexuals can access their rights and unless they are visibly represented – by which I mean out and loud – those constitutional rights are more precarious than they’d like to believe.

The vote for same-sex marriage was only accomplished because the ANC parliamentary whip imposed party discipline on the caucus and forced them to vote in line with a Constitutional Court ruling, which in turn had forced the vote in parliament. Subsequently, the National House of Traditional Leaders has called for scraping the protection of sexual orientation clause from the constitution. And most recently in parliament, the ruling ANC blocked a motion to condemn Uganda’s anti-homosexuality laws. Homophobic comments have even been made by the President, though he was at pains to clarify these.

Cargo of Middle Passage (1989) by Rotimi Fani-Kayode
Cargo of Middle Passage (1989) by Rotimi Fani-Kayode

I’m not suggesting for a moment the Greenpoint crowd should hold their march in the township of Khayelistha where it would have political significance. What I am calling for is that they give money, lots of it, and whatever support they can to their black gay brothers and sisters and transgender compatriots so that they have the resources to organise themselves politically and to achieve their rights. The problem is not just in Uganda.

It has been another sad chapter for Africa, when politicians who are failing their people can shore up support for their corrupt regimes by unleashing the unprecedented might of the modern nation state on their own citizens, this time to force them to conform to some distorted, government sponsored, puritanical, cultural hegemony.

Untitled, 1987-1988 - Rotimi Fani-Kayode
Untitled, 1987-1988 – Rotimi Fani-Kayode

If our politicians in South Africa won’t stand up and say anything, then let the writers and artists speak, even the dead ones.

Fani-Kayode was willing to put his faith in his fellow Africans. Not long before he died, he wrote, “Sometimes I think that if I took my work into the rural areas, where life is still vigorously in touch with itself and its roots, the reception might be more constructive. Perhaps they would recognise my smallpox Gods, my transsexual priests, my images of desirable black men in a state of sexual frenzy, or the tranquility of communion with the spirit world. Perhaps they have far less fear of encountering the darkest of Africa’s dark secrets by which some of us seek to gain access to the soul.”

Every Moment Counts (Ecstatic Antibodies), 1989 - Rotimi Fani-Kayode
Every Moment Counts (Ecstatic Antibodies), 1989 – Rotimi Fani-Kayode

The exhibition Rotimi Fani-Kayode (1955-1989): Traces of Ecstasy is on at the Iziko South African National Gallery, Cape Town, until 15 May 2014.

80 Gays Around the World by Brent Meersman will be published by Missing Ink in May 2014.

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