REVIEW: Mvelase Peppetta
One thing I hate is people who spell Africa with a “k.” So the title, Reclaiming Afrikan: Queer Perspectives On Sexual And Gender Identities, when I thought it was “African,” made me think this was a book right up my alley.
I was wrong, but not in the ways I expected.
Reclaiming Afrikan is by no means perfect, but its imperfections are not reinforcements of my preconceptions about those who write “Afrikan.”
Curated by University of Cape Town academic Zethu Matebeni, Reclaiming Afrikan is a “collection of art, photography, and critical essays interrogating the meanings and practices of queer life in Africa today.” As a collection of thoughts by activists and artists from across the continent, this collection is a fascinating and reaffirming look into the experiences of Africans who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or intersex (LGBTQI).
It is fascinating because mainstream pop cultural representations of LGBTQI Africans primarily cast us as victims. While this collection correctly highlights this reality, it does so while also expressing that some LGBTQI Africans are happy, fulfilled people who have carved themselves lives that are relatively free of homophobia.
For those of us who so rarely see ourselves represented in this way, it makes it a reaffirming read.
In many of the works collected in Reclaiming Afrikan you find fascinating tales, fictional and true, of LGBTQI Africans being the main characters in their lives. These are individuals whose identities are not primarily defined by the fact that they live in nations that are some of the most antagonistic to their rights and personhood. While these are people fully cognisant of this, and the horrors others in the LGBTQI community live, it doesn’t stop them from celebrating and enjoying who they are.
The multiple ways in which those of us who would be deemed “Un-African” by many of our leaders are celebrated in this collection makes this a worthy collection.
There are a few points at which one may feel let down by editorial choices. One such instance is the decision for an obscure cover image considering the amount of striking photo-work featured in the collection.
Yet, overall, one cannot fault the curation done by Matebeni. From the choice to include a graphic novel by Zambian artist Milumbe Haimbe, to the experimental free-form essay by Neo Musagani, there is a wealth of subject matter to stimulate readers.
But this collection did disappoint in one fundamental way.
Thanks to pop stars like Taylor Swift or Emma Watson assertively taking on the identity,”Feminist” – with a capital “F” – has found itself moving from academia into mainstream culture.
The increasingly global rejection of homophobia signals an acceptance of some of what constitutes LGBTQI culture, but queer theory is still not where Feminism is. Queer theory is a diverse field of studies and thoughts which attempt to explore and explain the LGBTQI experience.
Despite its many positives for women, Feminism remained a largely rejected concept. In Feminist circles there is still debate on whether having Beyoncé stand on an MTV stage calling herself a Feminist is negative or positive. Even so, in those circles most will agree that if, because of acts by Beyoncé, Watson, or Swift, more women are willing delve deeper into feminism, rather than reject it, it is a positive overall.
In Reclaiming Afrikan, I initially thought I would find the first steps in having a queer theory equivalent of Beyoncé standing on a stage silhouetted by Feminism, but this isn’t that book.
Presented as a coffee table book – even though it is a soft cover – I expected that this would be a collection of queer theory put forward in a simple, easy to understand format. Unfortunately, what I found was a collection of dense, academic texts. Perhaps my excitement blinded me to this. This collection goes so far as to have academic style referencing for even the foreword. In no way am I saying this isn’t an interesting collection, but how it is visually presented and the content’s format do not match.
If you are the kind of person who would go through the latest edition of an academic journal on queer theory you would enjoy having this collection on your coffee table. If, as interested in the subject matter as you may be, like the majority of the world you have never tackled a social sciences academic text, let this collection pass by.
One need only Google “Is Beyoncé feminist” to realise that the simplification of an academic thought culture raises difficult questions.
Yet that Feminism is being discussed at all is also comforting.
As a queer African I really wanted Reclaiming Afrikan to be our Beyoncé moment. It comes tantalisingly close to being it, but we’re not quite there yet. – Peppetta is a writer and media expert and tweets under the handle @MvelaseP.
- This review first appeared in the Cape Times in October 2014.