Lining the walls of Johannesburg’s Goethe-Institut, large-scale black-and-white images offer an intimate, seductive and ultimately celebratory peek into the lives of Côte d’Ivoire’s and Mozambique’s queer folk: lovers in intimate embrace; bubbly-swilling party-goers; gender-queer couples caught in mid-dance flirtation; trans women staring with do-absolutely-not-fuck-with-me defiance directly into the photographer’s lens.
Shot in 2015 and 2016 in Côte d’Ivoire and Mozambique respectively, the project was conceptualised by Raymond Dakoua, a Côte d’Ivoire-born, Brussels-based photographer in 2014.
Sitting in the gallery’s courtyard the day after the exhibition opening, which included a panel discussion between Dakoua, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) rights activist and photographer Jabu Perreira, Tollman award-winning photographer Sabelo Mlangeni and Côte d’Ivoirian transgender activist Barbara, Dakoua explains how the project started.
“I was busy putting together a body of work in which I captured mixed couples. Because of that project, a friend invited me to a get-together at his house. Now, usually when you are invited to someone’s house in Brussels, you expect to see only white people. But when I got there, there were all these people from everywhere. A lot of them were LGBTI refugees from Uganda and the more I spoke to them, the more I got to thinking I should explore what is happening in my home country.”
Having made contact with LGBTI activists and organisations in Côte d’Ivoire, Dakoua was informed that, although the country does not explicitly regulate against homosexuality, LGBTI people in the country were still easy and regular targets for “intimidation, humiliation and physical
It was with little surprise that the photographer, who identifies as heterosexual, met some resistance when he set out to document the lives of queer people in his country of birth.
“There was some resistance in the beginning, because of a general suspicion of the media and what the pictures would be used for. But once I started explaining the idea, people were like, ‘If you want to know how we live, follow us.’ ”
Adamant that this resistance did not stem from the fact he is a heterosexual man documenting queer lives, Dakoua adds: “I am not qualified to represent LGBTI people. I can only speak about my journey, but I can never represent this community. I can never speak for them. There are different ways to conduct a struggle. Some demonstrate; some write. My medium is photography.”
Someone who continues to conduct her struggle for the rights of LGBTI people in the in-the-trenches way is Barbara, who was born and raised in Côte d’Ivoire, but is now a France-based transgender activist and founding member in 1992 of the Association of Transvestites of Côte d’Ivoire.
The “clandestine little organisation” was one of the first movements to defend the rights of queer people in Africa.
Recalling what led to the establishment of the organisation, Barbara says: “We suffered so much violence; too much violence. Many transgender people were not able to find work so would find themselves living on the street in areas that were really unsafe.
“Many would be arrested for doing sex work so, in the evenings, after work, I would go out and try and get them out of jail.”
As an employed transgender woman, Barbara enjoyed a privileged status — something she was all too aware of. “I was working at a really good hair salon at that time but I resigned to dedicate myself full-time to helping those who were not in such a position. I couldn’t continue to live in such a privileged space when so many people I knew of were facing such [terrible] conditions.”
Barbara also had the privilege of relative acceptance by her family. In solidarity with the many transgender women who have been rejected by their families, Barbara refuses to use her family name when she’s in LGBTI circles. “Using my family name feels like a betrayal to them,” she says.
Having given up her job, she put food on her table — and into the fledgling organisation’s coffers — by “doing the hair of rich women and [with] help from my lovers”.
“I used to be very beautiful, you know,” she smiles mischievously.
This money alone could not keep the organisation afloat, which resulted in fundraising events being put together.
“These events became so popular. I would do Brenda Fassie and Miriam Makeba impersonations. We all really loved Miriam’s music because it was really struggle music.”
These nights became so popular that, she says, “we would often catch journalists trying to sneak in without permission”.
One particularly slippery journalist published a story about the events, which, she says, “put both us and the future of these events at risk”.
The next day, she led a troupe of 15 trans women to the newspaper’s offices to “demand a retraction and compensation”.
“When we got there, most of us stood there making sure that nobody could enter or exit the building, while three of us went into the acting editor’s office. We held him hostage until our demands were met.
“Yes,” she flashes her disarming smile, “we were very radical then. We did amazing things like that.”
After a slight pause, she adds: “When it comes to my generation and the generation before, a lot has been lost. If we had documentation of what we did then, that would be invaluable.”
This could be part of the reason she is lending her weighty name to promoting Dakoua’s body of work.
“For me, all documentation of our lives, whether it is writing, film, art, whatever, is important. It is proof of our existence —an existence that others might have wanted to erase from history.”
Carl Collison in the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian