Same-sex relationships are still illegal in 33 African countries. Globally, queer, black communities have been disproportionately affected by HIV and AIDS and are all too frequently the victim of violent hate crimes. While it’s crucial to bring awareness to the oppression these groups have faced throughout history, photographers from the African diaspora have also trained their lenses on individuals to encourage a more nuanced and personal understanding of queer life. From Alvin Baltrop’s documentation of the cruising community along New York’s West Side piers in the 1970s to John Edmonds’s poetic unpacking of black male sexuality today, the photographers below have created an intimate archive of life on the margins—of the beauty, joy, and self-determination of these communities—that continues to find resonance today.
Alvin Baltrop, Three Navy Sailors , 1969 – 72. Collection Morteza Baharloo, Houston. Courtesy of the Contemporary Artsy Museum, Houston.
In the late 1970s and early ’80s, the abandoned warehouses beneath Manhattan’s West Side piers were a refuge for a thriving community of gay men, drag queens, prostitutes, and artists. Baltrop, who was a taxi driver at the time, spent hours each day mining the piers to find moments of sexual embrace or catch cruisers stealing a glance at one another. With a Yashica camera in hand, he captured the beginnings of a movement determined to challenge the homophobic views of society with a renewed sense of pride and conviction in sexual orientation. Through his lens, we see a cast of characters from naked sunbathers to lone wanderers pacing through abandoned buildings, each photographed in earnest and by a trusted member of their community. While Baltrop’s images were initially criticized by the art world for their voyeurism and explicit subject matter, they are enshrined in this era of gay culture and New York history, and have since been heralded for their authenticity and purity.
John Edmonds, Untitled (New Haven), 2015. Courtesy of the artist and ltd los Angeles.
Edmonds’s nude portraits break down societal constructions of masculinity by creating a more nuanced depiction of black male sexuality. His photos don’t expressly depict gay male sexuality; instead, he creates a sense of ambiguity through his compositions. Photographed almost entirely in minimalist interiors, Edmonds’ portraits capture moments of affection between bare, soft, and gentle male subjects. By reducing the men and their environments to their simplest form, he is able to focus entirely on the raw emotion of his subjects. For the most part, Edmond’s sitters do not engage with the camera or the viewer at all, and when they do, the moment seems fleeting. Ultimately, his images challenge viewers to question their own perceptions of beauty, strength, and masculinity, both in the public and in the private worlds.
In 2006, Muholi took a portrait of her friend Busi Sigasa, a poet and activist who had been raped by a group of men who claimed to be “curing” her from her lesbian sexuality. It was during this brutal attack that Sigasa contracted HIV, from which she died almost a year later. Muholi’s photograph marked the beginning of her photo series, “Faces and Phases” (2006–14), an extensive portrait archive of South Africa’s lesbian community that works to reclaim each subject’s humanity and autonomy. Muholi’s arresting black and white portraits are imbued with the strength and resilience of a community thwarted by hatred and violence. Although South Africa became the first country on the continent to legalize same sex marriage in 2006, many of the women in Muholi’s photographs have been the victim of one or more violent hate crimes. These women, who live much of their lives in fear, each stand strong in front of the camera with an unyielding gaze that demands the viewer’s respect and recognition.
Mikael Owunna, 4 Queer African Women (Shot in USA). Courtesy of Mikael Owunna.
Pittsburgh-born photographer Owunna traveled to Nigeria for the first time when he was 15 years old. He had been outed to his parents, who believed that a trip to their native country would help him connect to his culture and would “save” him. Owunna would return to Nigeria year after year, where he was put through a series of ritualistic practices aimed at expelling his homosexuality. His family believed his sexual orientation was the result of being raised in America, dubbing his queer identity un-African, a belief that was principally passed down through generations of colonization in Africa.
Traumatized by his experience, Owunna rejected his Nigerian culture in favor of his queer identity. It wasn’t until his most recent project, “Limit(less),” that he began to embrace the possibility of being both. The series captures a community of queer African immigrants who revel in their African heritage while maintaining pride in their LGBTQ identity. Each of the portraits is paired with an interview, in which Owunna asks the subjects about their relationships with their families, many of which mirror his own. His subjects, who are often draped in African fabrics, look into the camera with a defiant confidence.
Sabelo Mlangeni, Oupa 'Konke enginakho nengiyikho kuyintando KaJehova', 2009. © SabeloMlangeni, courtesy of the artist and Stevenson Cape Town.
In 2003, after living in Johannesburg for a few years, Mlangeni returned to his native Mpumalanga, where he photographed his “Country Girls” series over the span of the next six years. Backdropped by the poor townships of rural South Africa, the series focuses on the everyday lives of the area’s small queer communities. The subjects of Mlangeni’s photos are confident and glamorous—men in wigs stick out their hips, couples are entwined on dance floors, and others pose with long bare legs, propped up on pointed stilettos, glistening in the open sun. Although the drag queens, subjects of gay-friendly beauty pageants, and queer couples are largely out in the open in these townships, queerness is often considered “un-African” or “un-Christian” by South African society at large. Mlangeni’s photographs provide an invaluable look at these communities that not only challenge society’s misconceptions of queerness, but in doing so, thrive upon the outward expression of their shared experience.
Although his life was cut short at age 34 due to complications from AIDS, Fani-Kayode left a legacy through nude portraits that radically reimagine black male identity, transgressing homosexuality, race, gender, and spirituality. Born to a prominent Yoruba chief in Lagos, Nigeria, Fani-Kayode was forced to flee the country with his family during the Nigerian Civil War in 1966. The family settled in the United Kingdom, where homosexuality was legal, however they did not embrace their queer son’s sexuality. Although Fani-Kayode’s early experiences were defined by ostracism, the photographs he produced during his short career are resolutely emancipated from prejudice. In his images, brown skin glows under the warmth of yellow light and flowers, fruits, and feathers bloom from limbs, as subjects perform abstracted rituals. Unrelated to any particular religion or belief, these images may reference both Yoruba (or Nigerian) as well as colonial rituals and practices, which are fused with profound homoerotic influences.
Eric Gyamfi, H., A., O., M., and Y. hanging out on a weekend when one of H.’s friends got married. From the series "Just Like Us". Courtesy of the artist.
Gyamfi’s series “Just Like Us” (2016) is a genuine documentation of the LGBTQ communities in Ghana. Frustrated by the notion that queerness is un-African, he sought to portray the normal, everyday lives of individuals within these communities. Photographs of men erupting from car windows in joyous laughter, or resting in moments of quiet dejection, convey aspects of queer life that go beyond sexuality. To document this series, Gyamfi spent weeks and sometimes months living with or in close proximity to a queer person or couple, allowing him to both capture candid, day-to-day experiences and form friendships with his subjects. To that end, he refers to his subjects as “participants” because he believes they are playing an active role in challenging perceptions of the LGBTQ community.
The women in Thomas’s photographs are unabashed, posing sensuously with poise and grace. Draping their bodies over 1970s-style furniture, these reclining figures and the intricately considered environments that they inhabit are sensory, colorful, and empowering depictions of female sexuality. Thomas’s subjects peer into the camera as she looks onto them, subverting the hypersexualized female bodies of art history and liberating the prowess of the female gaze. Not only do these images reclaim the sexuality of the black female body, but they also provide a voice for the queer black woman, as she is empowered to project and claim her desires. Thomas often refers to these women as her muses, and indeed the subjects of these photos are her lovers and friends. Rather than overtly expressing these women’s sexual orientation, Thomas more unassumingly inserts a queer gaze into her imagery.