“What is the fascination with the black body?” The question was asked by Nokuthula Skhosana, a South African delegate at the Sex and Secrecy Conference held at Wits University this week.
The angry Skhosana stood up in a room of about 300 international delegates at a plenary session on sexuality and secrecy and denounced a photo exhibition in the foyer depicting gay black men in the Mozambican capital of Maputo.
She asked why no photographs of naked gay white men were on display. Was this another manifestation of the Sarah Baartman phenomenon? Baartman was the young Khoi woman taken to Europe in 1810 as a freak-show curiosity. Her body was later displayed in a French museum before being repatriated to South Africa for burial last year.
John Lwanda, a medical doctor from Glasgow University, also found the pictures disturbing.
“They were too much in-your-face. There’s one particular one, showing the male … you know… Maybe if they had put it in context, explaining why they were there,” Lwanda said.
But the pictures were accompanied by captions and had a written story next to them explaining how Danish photographer Ditte Haarlov-Johnsen came across the men.
Haarlov-Johnsen was surprised that her pictures had caused such controversy.
“This exhibition came about as a collaboration between me and the people I photographed. The intention is not to propose any conclusion about their situation or what they are.”
She pinned her explanation on a notice board set up to accommodate the debate.
“I have known Ingracia and Antoinette [the men depicted in the photographs] since the summer of 2000 and initially approached them out of curiousity.
“In spite of having lived in Maputo throughout early childhood and youth, I had never seen an openly gay person in the city. I was curious to learn about their lives.”
It soon became clear that the response to the exhibition was part of a bigger problem that Skhosana highlighted at the conference.
“I was struck by the fact that people seemed not to be disturbed by these pictures,” she wrote in an explanation posted on the notice board.
“For me, people who did not ‘notice’ the picture or, indeed the racial imbalances therein, are so blasÃ