African queer art attacked and banned – Dak’Art 2014

The Senegalese government shut down an LGBTI-themed exhibition at Dak’Art 2014.

The plight of a groundbreaking but short-lived exhibition on LGBTI African art caused controversy over fundamentalism and censorship after the hosting gallery was attacked by extremist Islamic groups.

Andrew Esiebo, 'Who We Are', 2010, photograph, 120 x 80cm. Image courtesy the artist and Dak'Art 2014.

Andrew Esiebo, ‘Who We Are’, 2010, photograph, 120 x 80 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Dak’Art 2014.

Precarious Imaging: Visibility and Media Surrounding African Queerness” opened at Dakar’s Raw Material Company on 11 May 2014 and was one of the first exhibitions of its kind to tackle themes of homosexuality in Africa.

The exhibition was part of the informal offsite program for Dak’Art 2014, the 11th Biennale of Contemporary African Art, which ran from 9 May to 8 June 2014. As The Art Newspaper reported, the non-profit gallery was vandalised and the building damaged a day after the exhibition opened.

Originally scheduled to run until 18 July 2014, the exhibition was shut down on 31 May 2014. Furthermore, The Art Newspaper reported in the same article that the Senegalese government ordered the suspension of all exhibitions in the Biennale that refer to homosexuality.

Opposition to homosexuality

French-Algerian artist Kader Attia, whose work was featured at the Raw Material Company, received word from the gallery after the attack:

Fundamentalists attacked the art centre by taking to the building. The façade, the lights were destroyed. They stopped here for now, promising to return to finish the job started.

Artnet News reports that the vandalism was led by Mame Mactar Guèye, vice-president of the Senegal-based Islamic organisation Jamra, who had appeared on TV demanding the closure of all exhibitions related to homosexuality. Artnet News also quotes Guèye as having said in a previous interview:

This event is supposed to promote our culture, but proves to be propaganda for unions which are against nature. Undeniably, this edition of Dak’Art has been detrimental to our morality and to our laws.

Andrew Esiebo, 'Who We Are', 2010, photograph, 120 x 80cm. Image courtesy the artist and Dak'Art 2014.

Andrew Esiebo, ‘Who We Are’, 2010, photograph, 120 x 80 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Dak’Art 2014.

Precarious queerness

“Precarious Imaging” is one of the first exhibitions in the continent to focus on African homosexuality. Co-curated by Koyo Kouoh, artistic director at Raw Material Company, and independent curator Ato Malinda, the show aimed to shed light on a persecuted African minority.

Alongside Attia’s video about the lives of transsexuals in Algiers and Mumbai, the show featured works by Nigerian artist Andrew Esiebo, South African lesbian activist and photographer Zanele Muholi, Egyptian-American artist Amanda Kerdahi M. and Kenyan artist Jim Chuchu. The artist statement accompanying Andrew Esiebo’s photography series “Who we are” explained:

“Who we are” is concerned with the exploration of my perception of male homosexuality. I want to blur the attention from homosexual sexual practices (towards which the focus is too much centered) [sic] and to reflect more on issues such as love, desires, aspirations, compassion, or faith.

In April, a leading academic had allegedly advised Raw Material Company against holding the exhibition, but the curators pressed on. As quoted in the Artnet News article, Kouoh said last month that she hoped that art was a field within which Senegal’s norms could be productively transgressed. According to The Art Newspaper, Malinda had also said at the time:

The show will cause controversy, but we will not censor ourselves.

Homosexuality in Africa

In Senegal, “homosexual conduct” can warrant prison time. Nigeria and Uganda also passed strict anti-homosexuality legislations at the end of 2013, joining 37 other African countries with formalised anti-homosexuality laws.

Even so, Attia felt that the aggressive nature of the attack was unexpected. He said to The Art Newspaper:

Senegal is well-known for its peaceful and moderated Islam. Such an aggressive attack is absolutely unexpected, as is the government’s decision to shut down all the exhibitions in the biennale that deal with homosexuality […] It is highly concerning that a country that has always been protected from fundamentalism is now opening the door through an official path.

According to Artnet News, Babacar Mbaye Diop, Dak’Art’s Secretary General, avoided association with the controversy by saying that the Biennale was not responsible for collateral exhibitions. Meanwhile, Hyperallergic reports that another spokesperson for the Biennale was unable to confirm if any other exhibitions were shut down. Raw Material Company and the exhibition’s curators could not be reached for comment.

Michele Chan

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Related Topics: biennales, art and the community, events in Africa, African artists

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