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Pictures arouse stiff opposition

Sex & Secrecy: The 4th Conference of the International Association for the Study of Sexuality, Culture & Society (IASSCS)

Dikatso Mametse | July 3, 2003

Maputo gay black men exhibited (Photo: Mail & Guardian) JOHANNESBURG - "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 blas� about race it is not a factor in their lives; they are not touched by the reality that continues to define some of us.

"Displaying these pictures without even thinking of what they might mean to other people is a clear manifestation of white arrogance � the authority to display, to consume and to devour without regard.

"Why is it that at every conference one attends, white 'experts' present on black lives? Whites continue to present us, talk on our behalf and exploit us in the process.

"It would do us good, as South Africans, if we wake up to the reality that not all voices are represented equally in this conference.

"People come on holiday here for a month and leave being experts on our lives � they publish, define us as we are still trying to define ourselves and represent us."

Conference organisers tried, but failed, to put together a session to debate the issues Skhosana had raised. But informal discussions continued in the foyers.

Graeme Reid and Liz Walker, the researchers at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (Wiser) who organised the conference, said they had planned a series of exhibitions of controversial works that would stimulate debate, but most exhibitions fell through.

The Sex and Secrecy Conference was the fourth arranged by the International Association for the Study of Sexuality, Culture and Society (Iasscs).

Though Iasscs trained black women from nine African countries to research same-sex relations in their countries, both Walker and Reid concede that more black researchers are needed.

Iasscs was started six years ago to promote the study of sexual identity, desire and experience in the context of specific social and cultural circumstances.

The theme of the conference, sex and secrecy, captured some of the pressing social concerns in Southern Africa, such as gender-based violence and the HIV/Aids pandemic.

Homosexuality is a source of strongly contested public debate in the region, so same-sex identities in Africa was one focal point. Closing the conference, Achille Mbembe, a speaker from Wits, suggested that sex was a "gift" and not all doom and gloom.

He advocated more research on the pleasures of sex.

"Imagine living in a sexless society? I think it would be a nightmare."
- Mail & Guardian 

related story
  • Sex, secrecy and others [03/07/03]



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