Four Artists on Gender and Sexuality in the African Diaspora

“You are worthy. You count. Nobody has the right to undermine you—because of your being, because of your race, because of your gender expression, because of your sexuality, because of all that you are.”

What role do artists play in breaking stereotypes? Are artists advocators of change in thinking of certain individuals?

Through the documentation of queer individuals, these artists are challenging the narrative of sexuality and gender. The oppression, and the struggle to share one’s true identity is not the focus of these photographs, but the spirit and individuality of each individual is emphasized. They defy gender boundaries to write a new narrative of the experiences of navigating life being queer.

Artists are capturing these moments, times when individuals strikingly represent their true identity despite preconceived notions, in order to rewrite the story of sexuality. Each artist documents and comments on the role of gender identity within the  LGBTQ+ community.

MIKAEL OWUNNA

Mikael Owunna photographed the stories of over 50 queer individuals, that deflate stereotypes of queerness and Africanness as being mutually exclusive. Owunna photographs individuals who defy typical gender norms by emphasizing their individuality.

“Photography and positive representation [of queer individuals] provide crucial societal mirrors for people that not only affirm who we are, but also expand our imagination of who we can be.”
-Mikael Owunna

Learn more about Mikael Owunna‘s work.

ERIC GYAMFI

“Once there is a me and a you, everyone potentially carries the possibility of being an other.” -Eric Gyamfi

“Otherness” marginalizes an individual strictly on assumptions of their character and distances them from the rest of the community, making it more difficult to exist comfortably in some situations. Eric Gyamfi does not define individuals by labels of sexuality or gender; by one’s otherness, but instead capitalizes on ideals of individuality and uniqueness.

ZANELE MUHOLI

“Most of the work I have done over the years focuses exclusively on black LGBTQIA and gender-nonconforming individuals making sure we exist in the visual archive. (In Faces and Phases, I focused exclusively on LBTQ individuals, for instance, bearing in mind that gender politics are complex, and fluid; the acronyms are always shifting and changing.)

The key question that I take to bed with me is: what is my responsibility as a living being—as a South African citizen reading continually about racism, xenophobia, and hate crimes in the mainstream media?” -Zanele Muholi

Advocating for the LGBTQ+ community in South Africa, Zanele Muholi’s images challenge the way in which gender identities are presented. Black lesbians and queers are targets of brutal oppression and violence in South Africa, making it difficult, if not impossible, to feel safe in their own communities.

Muholi establishes “black queer visibility” through the exploitation of intimate moments. These intimate moments tell the other half of the story that is not usually seen; moments which challenge the perspectives of black lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer individuals. 

PAUL MPAGI SEPUYA

“Intimacy comes from the fact that the work is grounded in real lives, friendships and relationships. I have resisted the idea of casting models. It’s so important that there be relationships that exist prior to and beyond the photograph, that however a subject enters into the work whether fragmentary or as a portrait, there is a mutual interest in the process coming together.” -Paul Mpagi Sepuya

Working as a member of the LGBTQ+ community himself, Paul Mpagi Sepuya photographs intimate moments which expose the complex intersections of desire, collaboration, and creative exchange. Sepuya’s work capitalizes on the individuality of the sitter to explore the relationships between artist and self. 

Learn more about Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s work.

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