Exploring issues of identity through art
Two exhibitions are drawing attention to LGBT issues in Africa and the Middle East
As much of the world reeled and railed on the eve of Donald Trump’s inauguration on January 20, two artists coincidentally opened exhibitions in Johannesburg that are in quiet defiance of the kind of conservatism and oppression that such a presidency is likely to inflict.
SA artist Clive van den Berg opened the mixed-media A Pile of Stones at the Goodman Gallery, while visiting Belgian-Ivorian Raymond Dakoua showed a collection of black and white photographs — A Place to Call Their Own at the Goethe-Institut.
The artists come from vastly different backgrounds and exhibit vastly different styles, so it’s interesting that both exhibitions take a similar, humanising approach in highlighting the violence of homophobia, while concurrently emphasising the pervasive nature of love against the probable threat of exposure and aggression.
A ritual of memorialisation
Van den Berg takes the starting point for his exhibition from a series of photographs that emerged in 2014, depicting bound and blindfolded gay men being thrown from rooftops, only to have their bodies stoned as they landed on the ground below.
Jihadi group Islamic State (Isis) employed the photographs as part of its propaganda machine to issue a clear warning against homosexuality.
"I was outraged by the images ... speechless," says Van den Berg. "I didn’t know what I could do about it, but I had to find a way. I had to find another view to the deaths."
Viewing the men as victims would only have played into Isis’s intention of dehumanising them. In retaliation to the click-bait immediacy of the images, Van den Berg began his exploration by slowing things down. "I began by making [a series of] small wooden sculptures. I deliberately chose to work in wood because it forced me to slow down, to think about what those deaths meant."
Love is not uncomplicated. We are so powerfully imprinted with our prejudices, our repressions ... And yet there is still love ... simpleClive van den Berg
Locating the geographical place of a death, so that its mourning can be held in a physical space, is an important theme in Van den Berg’s work. In an act of reconciliation Van den Berg deliberately contained the falling forms within the blocks of wood. "I made the air into a swaddling that holds them, rather than letting them fall."
Following on from this theme is one of the exhibition’s major pieces, A Pile of Stones. Situated in the centre of the gallery, the initial impression of the sculpture is of a dark, monolithic column. As you step closer, however, you see that the fluted column is punctured and porous — broken up with fragments of the story in the form of sculpted images, falling or throwing stones. The round nature of the piece forces the viewer to walk slowly around it, and it’s lit in such a way that you really have to lean in or adopt an awkward pose to view the parts of its narrative.
"At the time of the photographs, Isis was not only destroying people, it was also destroying the iconic and historic tradition of the area. There was a rush from the international community to restore it," says Van den Berg. "But that’s too easy. You can just rebuild something [and everything’s okay]. You’ve got to incorporate what’s happened, you’ve got to speak in the present tense ... This is a kind of a provisional memorial."
Van den Berg takes a similar approach to the stone throwers as he does to the "fallers". By refusing to fall into the trap of glorifying or vilifying them, he seeks to understand the perpetrators’ humanity within their political context. It’s part of a coercive masculinity in which men are expected to conform to what most societies deem an acceptable, usually patriarchal, masculinity. By picking up the first stone, we are part of what is acceptable. It’s an emblem of collective thinking.
The consequences of this perspective are beautifully summed up in a small trio of watercolours called Man Flees the Spectacle I, II and III, which are based on a small figure in the photographs, fleeing for his life, "with a stone in his hand, just in case". "While Isis’s methods are spectacularly brutal, they are the echo of a trope that exists in other parts of the world," says Van den Berg. "We’ve all been complicit. We’re all made up of compromises and retribution."
Rendering the invisible visible
At the Goethe-Institut, Raymond Dakoua’s images are mostly infused with a sense of joy — but it’s by understanding the background to the images that we can draw a parallel with A Pile of Stones, in particular around the notions of coercive masculinity (or femininity) and fear of violence.
Dakoua began his exploration into LGBT cultures in 2014 in Brussels, while he was working on a project around all kinds of mixed relationships, be they of age, race, ethnicity and so on. At the time he was invited to a braai, where he met a number of migrants who told him horrific stories about having fled homophobia in Uganda (where life imprisonment for homosexuality became law in 2014 after an initial call for the death sentence).
Dakoua had already planned to visit Côte d’Ivoire and decided to use the opportunity to learn about the experiences of the LGBT community in his native country and, later, in Mozambique.
What I wanted was to highlight the joy and the love you see when people are in a happy, safe placeRaymond Dakoua
Speaking through translator Katarina Hedren, Dakoua says: "I wanted to render those people who struggle to claim a place in society visible." He did this by meeting his subjects in the places where they felt most comfortable and allowing them to decide how they wanted to be photographed.
His immediate challenge was that while people were happy to talk to him, they were more reticent about having their photographs taken. "Even those Africans who were living freely in Europe, the minute I suggested taking a photo, they would back down."
The impression he got is that while most of the people he met lived and loved openly within the LGBT community, the same did not apply to living in the world at large.
"Just because you are safe in the community doesn’t mean you aren’t exposed to hate crimes. Even though homosexuality is not illegal in Côte d’Ivoire or Mozambique, there’s no law to protect them. It’s the same in France, in Brussels [Europe]. The community will still be met with disapproval."
While both Dakoua and Van den Berg are grappling with notions of identity against a backdrop of patriarchy and homophobia, the core theme that comes to the fore in both exhibitions is love.
Says Dakoua: "We see so much reportage or forms of expression where the LGBT community are portrayed as victims. I didn’t want to do that. What I wanted was to highlight the joy and the love you see when people are in a happy, safe place. It’s about showing the human, so that [heterosexual] people can begin to understand that there’s no reason to treat anyone differently."
Similarly, Van den Berg says he didn’t only want to speak about the Isis photographs: "I wanted to make other images." Speaking about pieces like Lovers, And Yet, and Love I, II and III, he says: "As if love was uncomplicated without all this [added weight of hate]. Love is not uncomplicated. We are so powerfully imprinted with our prejudices, our repressions, our first negotiations in the world of identity politics ... And yet, there is still love ... simple."
A Pile of Stones runs at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg until February 15; A Place to Call Their Own runs at the Goethe-Institut until March 17