Queer bodies in African film – STIAS public lecture by Gibson Ncube

26 April 2022

“I set out to make two interventions – a focus on the body as a site of knowledge-making in understanding queerness where gender and sexual identity are not just performed but also constituted and embodied; as well as looking at the differences in how queer bodies are represented between North and sub-Saharan Africa,” said Gibson Ncube of the Department of Modern Foreign Languages at Stellenbosch University. Ncube was presenting the second STIAS public lecture of 2022.

STIAS Iso Lomso Fellow Gibson Ncube during his public lecture on 21 April 2022.

“First, I centre the body as a site of understanding queerness. The filmed queer body, I argue, is invested with multiple and often intersecting discourses and narratives. The queer body is inscribed with more than just desire, eroticism and sexuality. Second, I focus on the (dis)continuities in how queer bodies are represented on either side of the Sahara. African Studies is a bifurcated field that is often separated by the Sahara. Studies that focus on North Africa often tend to focus exclusively on that part of the continent and the same can be said about studies on sub-Saharan Africa. Through an analysis of selected films, I will show the particularities of queer representation in different parts of the African continent.”

The work is from an almost-completed book project undertaken over the last three years at STIAS as an Iso Lomso fellow. When Ncube commenced his fellowship in 2019, he held a lectureship at the University of Zimbabwe. During 2020, he spent part of his residency at the National Humanities Center in North Carolina. He recently completed his final residency at STIAS and was also appointed as Lecturer at Stellenbosch University. He is the 2021 Mary Kingsley Zochonis Distinguished Lecturer (African Studies Association UK & Royal African Society); an Alumnus of the African Humanities Programme Postdoctoral Fellowship (American Council for Learned Societies); sits on the Editorial Boards of Nomina Africana, the Journal of Literary Studies, the Canadian Journal of African Studies and the Governing Intimacies in the Global South Book Series at Manchester University Press; is Assistant Editor of the South African Journal of African Languages and Co-Convenor of the Queer African Studies Association. He holds a Y1 rating from the National Research Foundation of South Africa. His research interests are in comparative literatures, queer and gender studies as well as postcolonial African cultural studies.

Destabilising perceptions

Focusing in detail on four films included in the book, Ncube emphasised that linguistic, cultural, historical and political differences, and gender divisions should not be a hindrance to understanding queer lived experiences. “How queerness is represented in African films is different depending on spaces, cultures and contexts. Drawing on the work of Keguro Macharia, it is possible to see how the different films often speak past, over and through each other producing dissident voices but a shared quest for freedom.”

“Attentive to history and context, I show how queer identities are negotiated in and through films. In so doing, I examine how screened cultural artefacts possess an illocutionary force that has the potential of brokering important dialogue on issues relating to queer lived experiences in Africa. Films have potential to destabilise monolithic perceptions of gender and sexual identities.”

Some of the questions he unpacks include: What tools are required to decipher the filmed queer bodies? How do the language and formal aesthetics of films reconceptualise queer bodies as interpretable texts, as voiced materiality infused with a language etched with different codes, symbols and meanings? What are the implications of viewing queer bodies in films? What emotions are evoked in viewing films featuring queer African bodies?

L’Armee du Salut (2013) directed by Abdellah Taïa, and set in Morocco and Switzerland, is a coming-of-age film about a juvenile coming to terms with his sexuality in the 1990s. “In this film the queer bodies are silenced, mute and muted, and say very little on the screen,” explained Ncube. “Dialogue is the barest minimum, the focus is on what the body performs, skin is an important site of negotiation of sexual identity and the silent, shadowy ambience emphasises the unspeakability of queer desire. It’s about queerness being made visible and what it means to be a gay Arab Muslim in Morocco.”

The Yacoubian Building (2006), directed by Marwan Hamed, is set in an apartment building in Cairo, Egypt in the 1990s. It is centred around two characters – one who identifies as queer, and one who has gay sex for money. “The sex scenes are not shown just insinuated,” explained Ncube. “There is a suggestion of a character abdicating his power by being the passive sexual partner and the queer character murdered at the end suggests that homosexuals must die – a common device in Anglophone books and movies of the 1950s. The film emphasises the idea that one is not queer but does queerness – queerness reduced to doing not being.”

I am Samuel (2020), directed by Peter Murimi and set in Kenya, examines family acceptance as well as the urban-rural divide in acceptance of sexuality. “The film pushes us to think beyond the rural-urban dichotomy,” said Ncube. “Even in city spaces queer bodies are not safe – they negotiate physical and verbal violence daily.” It ends with acknowledgement of the possibility of negotiating queerness within a culturally and religious traditional society.

The World Unseen (2007), directed by Shamim Sarif and set in 1950s Cape Town, concerns two women confronting a sexist, racist and homophobic society. “They negotiate their relationship in an Indian socio-cultural space but also against the backdrop of apartheid laws which prohibited non-normative gender and sexual identities,” said Ncube. “It examines the impact of a double form of inferiorisation in a patriarchal and racist society, tracking self-discovery and affirmation.”

The four films represent vastly different historical, religious, cultural and linguistic contexts. For the purposes of the book, Ncube divides the films thematically with North Africa as ‘silent and silenced bodies’, Egypt as ‘ambivalent bodies’, East Africa as ‘legible bodies’ and South Africa as ‘intersectional bodies’.

He pointed out that access to such films remains difficult in Africa with most produced for and consumed at international festivals and not readily available in theatres or on streaming platforms. “Only The World Unseen was not banned. The others were not shown in their countries of origin or were banned outright.”

“More queer films are being produced but are not engaged with generally on the African continent – they are watched more in the Global North,” he added.

The book also tracks public reactions to the films – via chat reactions to reviews. “This exposes diametrically polarised views,” he explained, “ranging from describing queer-themed films as ‘unAfrican’ and ‘wrong’ to acknowledging that the films do an important job in making visible queer lived experience.”

Ncube believes it’s important to highlight the broader story of Pan African queerness. “We have to look beyond the exceptionalism of South Africa. A lot is happening outside South Africa but most of the research is in and on South Africa – I want to bring the rest of the continent into the dialogue.”

“These conversations are pivotal in creating genealogies of queerness across the continent,” he said. “In imagining queerness differently it is possible to create an archive of African queerness.”

He believes it’s an important part of the decolonial project. “We have to challenge the colonial archives and recover African sexualities from the vilification of colonisation. Colonialism did not bring queerness to Africa but rather imported homophobia, it brought Christianity and the judging of non-normative forms of gender and identity as incorrect. We have to accept that they existed in Africa. We cannot impose Western epistemologies onto non-Western lived experience. We need to build theories from the specific contexts being examined which is not at all Western. Decolonisation would be to return to African-lived experience, to forms of non-normative expressions of gender and identity, to understanding that is grounded within the local context.”

Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Noloyiso Mtembu

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