There are many great things about living in south-east London: the delicious and affordable neighbourhood cafés and restaurants; the thriving art scene; the comparatively calm atmosphere. Combining all of these virtues with aplomb is Peckham’s finest, the South London Gallery. I’ll happily admit that the first time I went there, I didn’t look at any art at all. I was too busy looking at (and then eating) the kind of lunch you always hope for but don’t often find: tasty home-made soup and fresh bread followed by a succulent raspberry frangipane tart, the latter a happy accident that the chef had concocted from ‘stuff he had lying around’. The coffee’s great too, and as for the cake…
Anyway. Last Friday night saw me back there (the gallery, not the café) for Queer Africa, the last instalment of a series entitled Contemporary Africa on Screen. Having sadly missed some of the previous interesting events in the programme, I was pleased to make it along for this one, which featured a double bill of documentaries, from Nigerian photographer Andrew Esiebo and from South African visual activist and photographer Zanele Muholi. Held in the Clore Studio and introduced by art critic and doctoral student Natasha Bissonauth of Cornell University, this intimate screening was never going to attract a huge audience – putting something queer and African together with a vaguely academic context on a Friday night is brave to say the least – but this is London, after all, and a healthy number of viewers gradually trickled in.
Up first, Esiebo’s short film Living Queer African (Paris, 2007) was a touching portrait of Rene, a young Cameroonian studying in France, and trying to reconcile his life as a gay man with the hostile reaction of his family and others to his sexuality. Esiebo carefully navigates the murky area between personal experience and cultural trends; the voiceover is all directly from Rene himself, focusing on his own story, and the film steers clear of making broader claims. But it does touch on some controversial and important subjects, such as the relationship between sexuality and religious belief, and the notion that homosexuality is ‘un-African’. You can watch the film and find out more about the artist here.
Zanele Muholi’s fantastic film Difficult Love (2010) opens up many of the same issues in more depth, but with the extra emotional impact that a longer and more complex picture can achieve. Cutting between critical commentators, the frank and intelligent artist, and her photographic subjects (or, as she might prefer to call them, collaborators), Difficult Love explores the many challenges of being a black lesbian in South Africa today. In a cultural context where gay black women are often seen as needing ‘correction’, it’s not surprising that there are many shocking and brutal moments. The first-hand account given by a woman who was raped because of her sexuality, her face still horribly bruised and swollen, is especially heartbreaking. The film is not wholly depressing, however; there are flashes of determination and even humour, and what really comes across is the tenderness between couples who find love and laughter together even in seemingly impossible circumstances. It’s tough viewing, but I can’t recommend Difficult Love highly enough – you can watch it here.
Finally – a word on the Q&A. After a short response to the films from Bissonauth, there was a brief discussion, mostly about the need for more opportunities to view these films and others like them, the difficulties of getting the word out to appropriate audiences, and indeed, what makes an appropriate audience. From a quick survey of the people who turned up, as well as from their questions, it seemed to be the ‘queer’ part of the event title that had really drawn them in, perhaps more so than the ‘Africa’ part. One man raised the possibility of promoting and even screening the films in venues popular with black gay people, who were, in his view, the audience who most needed to see the films.
His point is an important one – alternative, targeted screening venues could be a great way of getting the films more exposure among specific communities who might not ordinarily visit somewhere like the SLG. But for me, this means that the films also really need to reach people who aren’t necessarily active in LGBT circles. After all, even though these works may well act as a support and an inspiration for queer Africans, it’s not queer Africans who have the problem; it’s the people they encounter in their everyday lives who refuse to accept them. Preaching to the converted is always going to be a difficulty for events like these, and it’s hard to know how to broaden their appeal, but it’s something to think about for places like the SLG, where this kind of ambitious programming is an ongoing challenge and an opportunity. It’d be nice to see bigger and more diverse audiences coming together to appreciate films like this for what they are – brilliant work, with vital messages for us all.