JUST LIKE US: Queer Intimacies Familiar
Words: Ama Josephine Budge | Photo Essay: Eric Gyamfi
Issue 01: Not For Sale 2018
Encountering queerness in Ghana is like the pungent, heady and compulsive flowering of freshly tapped palm wine upon one’s tongue. You are excited, bull-headed, know-it-all, pubescent, it’s a first time, or so you think. But as the heat of it caresses gullet, nostrils and senses there’s something familiar that unnerves the limbic system’s memorial membranes. The coming of age ceremony diluted, or perhaps made hyperbole by the merging of fermented sap and mothers milk; that which is innate, and the learned/performed abnormalities of social conditioning.
After years of believing my queerness and my Ghanianess to be more than antithetical, I encounter Eric Gyamfi - a photographer who I’d heard was working on a series about LGBTQ Ghanaians. I did not expect to see a gorgeous, skinny, sincere young man, shorter than me, in battered khaki shorts and a pristine t-shirt, so earnest he seems absurdly youthful, with glances of sadness that occasionally create suntraps of wisdom; experience and pain at the backs of his eyes and the spaces we shared. I did not expect to make a friend in a number of conspiratorial days, with whom I felt that I had shared my first forbidden taste of palm wine. The cataclysmic collision of my queer black existences in diasporic London, and my family-dominated time at “home” ordained a re-remembering of Ghana as innately queer. This re-recall is exquisitely echoed in Eric’s series Just Like Us, which could just have easily been called Just Like You - we, the queers, are just like you, rather than you - the non queer/trans/gender-bending/lesbians/bi’s and gays - are just like us.
Heat retraces the body from solid to liquid, a body heaving on wooden floors, a dancer in ecstatic rest/pause/repose; using bottled “pure water” to brush teeth, cradling a niece or nephew; sharing a blanket; tying a clasp. This collection of photographs reiterates how the mundane is made magic when queer visuality - beyond the fictional, imported or hedonistic - is made manifest in photography or film: queer narratives centred as the norm, as “normal”. I spoke at great length with Eric on what drove him to make a work, which at once makes him hyper-visible internationally and potentially dangerously exposed at home:
It started off with the need to start creating or contributing to an archive of sorts, a history of sorts, to help create or forge a history that we can look back to. The kind of history that our children or generations after us can look back to for affirmation or confirmation about themselves knowing that people like them have existed or lived before them.
We spoke of our first encounters of queerness within ourselves and with those around us in Ghana. Eric spoke of a fumbling sort of engagement with bodies, lovers and friends resultant of the erasure of sexually marginalised narratives from written, visual and aural history. We both mentioned the Black American photographer, sculptor and collagist Lyle Ashton Harris’ Ghana collection, and I remembered a short essay on his work by the gay Ghanaian philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah:
I wondered how he had settled in… In September 2006 - with Lyle in residence - they [the government] banned an international gay and lesbian conference because, as the Minister for Information put it, “Government does not condone any such activity which violently offends the culture, morality and heritage of the entire people of Ghana.
This is a perfect example of the vehement and sometimes counter-intuitive way that sweeping statements like “culture” and “morality” rub up against one another in a post-colonial state. A state we must remember is made up, of not only cultural colonial legacies from the British, Portuguese and the Dutch, a heavy Black American influence (from Hotel Obama to hip hop) and an increasing East Asian presence, City/Town/Village experiences, but also poignant tribal presences from over one hundred ethnic groups and their various religious and spiritual leanings. Appiah continues: ‘The fuss about homosexuality, far from being traditional, is largely the work of the obsession with such things among some contemporary religious sects (Christian and Muslim) who are busy evangelizing in Africa.’ It is a complicated cultural landscape in which to annexe any identity so variant and expansive as queer sexualities. Especially when so many pre-colonial ways of being were erased by colonial domination.
In this way Just Like Us sneaks under your skin. For there is nothing overwhelmingly “homosexual” about the sitters, at all. Eric comments:
I feel that the banality of this work becomes the power of it because people can - can I mean if they decide to (because people can still see and choose not to engage) - if people decide to see the humanness of others, as opposed to their sexuality, then there can be a point of engagement, there can be a point of departure, we can start off from somewhere and then we can move on to other things. (...) Not relegating the queerness to the background but also not making it all about queerness. I know that has its own difficulties, but I think it’s one that’s pertinent to the space now, to the current political environment.
Indeed, if there was anything “Ghanaian” about sexuality, it might be its lack of expression in public space. I was recently yelled at, at an airport in London by a West African family for kissing my partner in front of her children. Appalled, I challenged that she shouldn’t teach her children to hate others because they’re gay. She replied that it had nothing to do with who we were kissing, merely that we were doing it in public. Which brought me up short. She may of course, have been lying about her prejudice, but it interrupted my headlong queer righteous retort nonetheless, and left me wondering it was in fact I who was bias, assuming that she would be homophobic.
Being a gay, lesbian or trans person in Ghana is still illegal and there are environments where to be out’ could be extremely dangerous. I asked Eric about the risk he took in making this work so widely available (Eric’s images were published by the New York Times to great acclaim earlier this year) and how he gained the permission of his sitters.
I feel people should be free to speak up and express in all the possible diverse ways, what it means to be queer in this time and space. Talking to people about the need for some kind of attempt at this holistic representation of the community and how that has the potential to break into the stereotype in ways that could work to our advantage - lots of people were excited about that. Most of the participants are my friends and these were things that we were/are concerned about collectively. It meant showing, without the hard work of verbally convincing, which usually fails. We were not committing any offence or breaking the law. We were just trying to share with others our experience in the same space they also inhabit here. We cannot be prosecuted for this. And it was important for us to show, because the law essentially reduces queerness to sex and refuses to acknowledge the humanity and various contributions of the queer community to the nation and our culture. These were still very difficult decisions to make regardless and everyone had to lend their consent.
There were sitters, Eric tells me, who did not want their portraits included and Eric respected their wishes, but by and large, it seems that many of them are tired of living in precarity, yet not speaking up publicly, and of having the narratives of queer liberation in Ghana dominated by Western NGO’s.
There’s kind of a silence on the part of people on the ground - and that’s understandable. You know the social environment doesn’t make space for people to freely express their opinions on matters of sexuality. I still feel it’s time for queer people for put their voices out there.
One of the most poignant images in this context, is of the two young men with their niece. With an extended-family structure, the caring for of siblings, cousins, nieces, nephews and adopted family friends is commonplace in Ghana. Yet family remains a fairly sacred domain. To see a queer couple raising a young child, with the presumed knowledge or suspicions of their families and neighbours (it’s hard to keep secrets in a city like Cape Coast) rocks the very foundations of arguments that “homosexuality is not an African thing” or that queerness in Ghana is a Western import. I think people do not generally see that queer people are human. The resilience of love shines through this series, how as queer people all over the world, at times we build our families from broken homes and become sister, lover, mother, father, best friend and child to one another all at once. Yet must attempt to remain unshakably insistent on our own rights to life, to a past and to many futures.
Eric reminds me that as much as we might speculate about pre-colonial culture, and search desperately for photographic or written traces of Yaa Asantewaa’s elusive female husbands, we must also reclaim pre-colonial queerness and “gender-deviancy” from our own histories. We speak of the ephemerality of aural tradition when it is not what is said, but what is unsaid that archives queer existence. Sometimes it is about looking twice at the uncle who never married, or the aunt who did not bear children, the grandmother who lived with her best friend after her husband died or our nephews that always want to come and stay.
Just Like Us underpins not only our right but also the necessity of manifesting diverse queer visuality through photography: to create visions of queer futures without homophobia and in many ways the titling of this short introduction is a visual effigy of that project. That which is queer is not only that which is alternative or marginalised sexually or in terms of gender expression, but also that which is bizarre, strange and inherently unknown. Just Like Us, beautifully encapsulates this frictious cohabitation of the strange and the familiar, the intimate and the private, the inherent and the a-historical nature of queerness in Ghana. That which is innate to us, but which we do not know the name of, that which feels right, but which is never spoken aloud, that which imbues a localised pleasure, but is proclaimed to be an importation, that which is forbidden but tastes hauntingly like home. The materiality of photography brings you right up close to the inhalations of those pictured. The bonds of trust built by Eric - who lived or stayed with each sitter - transports us into their very lived experiences, making it harder and harder to disown their realities as lives that are just like ours.
You agree somehow, to find ways for dealing with it, because you’re not just fighting for yourself, you’re possibly fighting for your brothers children, or your friends children who could be like you. As a way of thinking that you are making a space where people coming after you would not feel hopeless. That trumps any sort of stigma or repercussions that you may be dealing with. Thinking about the future, thinking you helped to contribute to the safety of even one person feels like, it makes it feel worth the cost.