The purpose of the African Women in Cinema Blog is to provide a space to discuss diverse topics relating to African women in cinema--filmmakers, actors, producers, and all film professionals. The blog is a public forum of the Centre for the Study and Research of African Women in Cinema.

Le Blog sur les femmes africaines dans le cinéma est un espace pour l'échange d'informations concernant les réalisatrices, comédiennes, productrices, critiques et toutes professionnelles dans ce domaine. Ceci sert de forum public du Centre pour l'étude et la recherche des femmes africaines dans le cinémas.

13 November 2013

Frieda Ekotto: For an endogenous critique of representations of African lesbian identity in visual culture and literature

Frieda Ekotto, Cameroonian, writer, professor of French, comparative literature and Africana studies at the University of Michigan, lives and works in the United States. Her scholarship and creative writing provides an endogenous critique of representations of lesbians in the context of Africa. She explores cinematic representations and lesbian identities of (what she calls African women loving women), and she discusses her current project, a visual philosophic essay, Vibrancy of Silence, about lesbian women who live in Cameroon, Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria and Ghana.

Frieda, you are professor of French, comparative literature and Africana Studies at the University of Michigan in the United States, and you are a writer. Talk about your trajectory--writing, teaching and researching at the intersection of these fields of study?

The question underlying all of my work is: how can we talk about the suffering of others? As an intellectual historian and philosopher with areas of expertise in 20th and 21st-century Anglophone and Francophone literature and in the cinema of West Africa and its diaspora, I concentrate on law, race and LGBTI issues. My primary research to date has focused on how law serves to repress and mask the pain of disenfranchised subjects, and my intention in this work has been to trace what cannot be said in order to address and expose suffering from a variety of angles and cultural intersections and to reassess the position and agency of the dispossessed. 

My examination and attention to suffering has taken me in a variety of directions. In my first scholarly book, Prison Writing and Legal Discourse in Jean Genet (L’Harmattan, 2001), I listen closely to the rhythms and rhetorical patterns in the writings of French prisoners, those delinquents censored by institutional discourses and by a general socialized discrediting of “criminal” voices. In my more recent monograph, What Color is Black? Race and Sex across the French Atlantic (Lexington Press, 2010), I show how the Francophone Atlantic has distinctly shaped notions of race, slavery and colonialism throughout the circum-Atlantic world, and I also examine how the Francophone world provides distinct perspectives and epistemologies on issues that are overlooked in studies that focus uniquely on the Anglophone Atlantic.

In my article “Globalization, Immigration and Francophone African Cinema: For a Modern Becoming” I show how globalization and immigration make Africans the subjects of an indescribable suffering. For many Africans, immigrating signifies ameliorating their material conditions. A contrario, filmmakers from the continent insist on the fact that the West’s economic performance is made possible by the exploitation of immigrant and clandestine labor. They create images of human dignity in order to show that the African subject, called postcolonial, is actually a global subject who operates with subtleties other than those governing the globalization-immigration binary. Parallels with the transatlantic slave trade are made evident as filmmakers draw attention to a similar schema at work: the immigrant laborer tries to escape misery, suffers and/or comes close to death, and then finds imprisonment in a detention camp where he or she is exploited – all processes that recall what Frantz Fanon names “the state of being a Negro.” 

My scholarly research informs my creative work. Since my first novel, Chuchote pas trop  (2001), I have been thinking and writing about lesbian identity and how concerns with social reality must be accompanied by close attention to the manners by which language works to conceal ideology. In my novels as well as my academic monographs, I have demonstrated how the dispossessed have voices that challenge cultural references and fill the emptiness of silence. 

Your scholarship on African lesbian identities brings a new perspective to the interdisciplinary fields of Gender, African, Women's and Identity Studies, what motivated your interest in bringing this subject to the forefront?

To tell a story, it must come from inside. My work on African lesbian identities brings to light disregarded epistemologies and possibilities for relationships between women in Sub-Saharan Africa. It also responds to what I know to be the struggles of coming out and dealing with family as well as the rest of society. I understand how African women whisper to one another, how they refuse to articulate certain ideas because they are taboo. The grammar of fear is prevalent and silence becomes the norm. Confronted with the abyss of silence, then, the question must be articulated differently: Which modes of representation would enable me to narrate the stories of women who love women? Despite leaving the continent and becoming a scholar and professor, I too have felt confined. I have wanted to spill out, but I could not because I felt tied up everywhere. The first challenge I have encountered is language and its poetics as limits of representation when it comes to human experience. I have come to realize that I must intervene, even if it is difficult to convey the indescribable stories of love between same-sex within some parts of the continent of Africa.  I must tell my own stories, both for myself and for younger generations, including members of my own family, who have struggled to come out. I have also realized that I must listen—and record—the stories of others.

Your article "The Erotic Tale of Karmen Gei: The Taboo of Female Homosexuality in Senegal" deals with aspects of and discussions about the film that are not touched upon. The film is hailed as the first "bisexual" Carmen without really dealing with "African lesbianism" as the point of departure. Your work probes this aspect for the first time. Talk about some of the issues that you deal with in the article.

The Senegalese filmmaker Joseph Ramaka’s work Karmen Gei (2001) is groundbreaking in Francophone African cinema, as it includes the first scene in its history in which a bisexual African woman and a colored woman make love on screen for a full three minutes. Karmen may also be the first bisexual heroine in the musical genre. But, as with most films from African in which lesbian or bisexual women appear, Karmen is silenced by the death. (In Nollywood films, for example, the lesbian character is either killed or agrees to renounce her love for women.) In my article, I deal with the fact that there is a desire to present the topic of homosexuality in contemporary Senegal and yet because of the clichés used to depict it, there is no deconstruction of the issues involved. It is not enough to merely present the topic; we must address it. It was an important choice to put homosexuality at the center of this well-known opera, and the film offers the opportunity to take on the critically and politically vital task of telling entangled and entwined histories of African sexualities. In a way, we are talking about the global circulation of African film through the performing bodies and visual representations of both the aesthetic and the political.

What has been the reception of your work, I'm thinking particularly among Senegalese readers and from the filmmaker Joseph Gaï Ramaka? 

As far as I know the filmmaker Joseph Gaï Ramaka has not read my work; however, since Ramaka’s film, Senegalese people have actively discussed homosexuality in both intellectual discourse and popular conversation. For this reason, I am certain that many Senegalese are familiar with my work, especially because LGBTI issues are discussed daily and are subject to “online forums” as noted by Ayo A. Coly in her article “Homophobic Africa?” in African Studies Review (Volume 56, #2 September 2013)

But to return to Joseph Gai Ramaka, I would be delighted to have a dialogue with him around some of the issues that I have with Karmen Gei, specifically in relation to the political responsibility that one takes on when approaching homosexuality in the context of African film. It is worth asking: What effect has this film had on Senegalese society? I argue that Ramaka has maintained a clichéd and unproductive approach to lesbian relationships, which unfortunately is already only too present in African literary and cinematic discourse. It is time that we begin to discuss homosexuality in a responsible and straightforward way. We must directly assume the existence of lesbian relationships with confidence and resistance. Ramaka simply teases us with female sexuality and then drops it. 

Ramaka’s film is the beginning of a vital filmography addressing this pertinent issue of women loving women in African society. With that being said, I challenge new filmmakers to raise the standards of African film production and to encourage productive opposition to the status quo through humanistic approaches to female sexuality. 

Two prominent African lesbian filmmakers approach lesbian representation rather differently. I am referring to Liberian-born Cheryl Dunye who identifies also as African-American and South African Zanele Muholi, who is a visual activist and advocate of lesbian rights in Africa, and South Africa in particular. Could you share your thoughts about the work of these two artists in the context of your own research, writing and scholarship as well as others?

A South African artist, Muholi’s visually stunning photographs and films document the beauty and love of black, lesbian South African women. They are part of Muholi’s larger project to create a historical archive that ensures the visibility of the black lesbian community in South Africa, of which she is a part. As she writes, “It is important to mark, map and preserve our mo(ve)ments through visual histories for reference and posterity so that future generations will note that we were here.” In preserving and presenting the histories of black lesbian women, she creates a space for the articulation of their subjectivity, knowledge and experiences.

Muholi addresses political, heteronormative, economic and racial inequalities and injustices by insisting on the beauty and humanity of all members of her community. This allows her to counter rhetoric that demonizes lesbians as well as narratives that represent them simply as victims. Having herself been asked to serve as a research subject for “experts” who wished only to document violence, Muholi decided that rather than allow others to speak for her, and thereby serve as the object of problematic and often fetishizing depictions, she would create her own photographs, films and essays. By producing images that show lesbian women as beautiful and loving, and by stressing their important roles as members of communities, families and the nation, Muholi offers direct intervention into economic, political and social-cultural forces that silence their beautiful presence and the many ways that they contribute to society.

Muholi’s photographs are portraits of women who love other women. Sometimes they are couples, smiling and embracing in intimate moments. Sometimes they are single individuals, posing for a portrait. In this way, Muholi’s visual activism is similar to my current book project, Vibrancy of Silence, which explores the lives of Sub-Saharan African lesbian women through attention to silence, desire and love, terms which I have chosen in order to shift conversations about lesbian women in Africa away from violence to their humanity. In this way, both of our projects are part of a larger movement to counter discourses that commodify and pathologize black women’s sexualties.

I admire Cheryl Dunye’s work for similar reasons. A film director, as well as an actor and educator, Dunye’s early work such as Watermelon Woman made a point of bringing black women, particularly lesbian black women, into the camera’s view. In this film the central character Cheryl, who is played by Dunye, investigates the histories of black women in early Hollywood films, but as she does this her own affair with a white woman brings to the surface questions about race, desire and objectification. 

By mixing together the individual and the historical, Dunye draws our attention to patterns of racism as well as the human experiences these patterns create; she makes us aware of the pleasure, beauty, humor and pain of a particular relationship, which is between two women, and which also is interracial. The women in the film are multifaceted characters (which is and of itself a comment on mainstream representations of inter-racial relationships between women), and Dunye does not allow viewers to ignore the complex social phenomena that inform the relationship. Through the split between Dunye, the director, and Cheryl, the character, the film creates space for both the lived experiences of a black lesbian woman and an excavation of the historical presence of black lesbian women in cinema, who have been omitted from Hollywood histories. The real beauty of this project is that Dunye writes a new film history even as she inscribes individual experiences within it, thus creating new possibilities for black lesbian women within cinema without eliding the important human elements of their experiences.

My current project engages with similar challenges: how do we create space for the subjectivity, knowledge and experiences of black lesbian women? How do we resist social-cultural systems that do not allow them—us—to articulate realities, complexities, beauty and love? How do we critique these systems and their histories without losing sight of the individuals who live within them? I find work such as Zanele’s and Dunye’s both inspiring and heartening, and I am proud to be engaged in a conversation with their art and ideas. 

In an interview I had with filmmaker Mohamed Camara about Dakan, a film about the love between two high school boys based in Guinea, he stated that his purpose was to open up a dialogue about this identity that is taboo in African societies. Do you think that films such as Dakan as well as the documentary Woubi Cheri, directed by two non-Africans, have provided a space for a dialogue around African lesbian identities as well?

Yes, even though these films concentrate on gay men, or transgender identities as in the case of Woubi Cheri, I think that they have provided a space for a dialogue around African lesbian identities as well.  The film Dakan (1997) by Mohamed Camara was a groundbreaking event for sub-Saharan Africans as well as for the Francophone African cinema. It was a probing and fascinating project that filled a number of gaps and made an important contribution to the understanding of homosexuality in Sub-Saharan Africa. 

By treating homosexuality as a “pathology,” I think Mohamed Camara conformed to “appropriate” heteronormative gender roles while promoting and imagining alterity, a different kind of African male subject. From the first scene until the last, the film presents two high school boys in love with each other. For example one close-up on the two boys kissing is both passionate and somewhat animalistic, as they violently embrace each other. One may recognize the possibility of love between two men, yet there is overt aggression present in their embrace. They do not kiss tenderly, and their gestures projects brutality, a kind of soft violence that is maintained through out the film. Despite this, the scene shows a certain kind of intimacy not often discussed or seen in public, as passionate embraces remain hidden behind closed doors. It is almost like a disruption of love itself and for the viewer, moments of blindness into issues of power struggle between two young men. 

These films may be a beginning, but the discourse on homosexuality needs to move forward, meaning it is imperative that we understand and accept that Sub-Saharan people have different kind of sexualities. So, for example, we still need innovations within the film industry to challenge the prevailing images of lesbian women in Sub-Saharan Africa as aberrant, isolated and diseased. We need a film that will focus on beauty and love, rather than on perversity or violence. This is in contrast to popular depictions of lesbians current in Sub-Saharan Africa today, particularly in the many films being produced in Nigeria. This booming film industry—named Nollywood for its prominence in Southern Nigeria—is the second largest in the world based on “the sheer number of films it produces each year” (Green-Simms 34). It finds its audience in Sub-Saharan Africans both on the continent and throughout its diaspora. In her recent article on these films, Lindsey Green-Simms shows that although Nollywood films depicting lesbians have increased in the past decade, they inevitably use lesbianism to depict pathology and social deviance. For example, one Nigerian director states his film was made to “call attention to the ‘social menace’ of lesbianism that is secretly infecting and destroying society” (45). This is true of African films made outside of Nigeria as well. 

Unsurprisingly, lesbian women in Sub-Saharan Africa object to these depictions. They point out the fact that these films depict lesbians even as they refuse to call them “lesbians” or even “women loving women.” As one woman put it, people refuse to “say what is’ when everyone, of course, knew what was going on” (Green-Simms & Azuah 46). This brings to light two central issues: silence and love. With these terms I mean to suggest cultural climates that do not allow lesbians to speak openly about their relationships. To address this silence it would be necessary to interview lesbian women from Sub-Saharan Africa to tell their own stories—their own love stories. 

Your research probes the ways that women as cultural producers express homosexuality in their work, albeit in coded forms. Could you give examples. How does this manifest in your own work, Chuchote pas trop, for instance?

We need to address prevailing notions that African homosexualities are an alien intercourse, the origins of which lie in colonial invasions and racial contamination. For this reason, it is very important that cultural producers in Sub-Saharan African address the question of homosexuality in their work. 

Because of both tacit cultural silence and the fear of reprisal, there has been little creative and scholarly work that addresses the lives of lesbian women in their complexity and beauty. Few literary texts examine lesbian relationships in Sub-Sahara Africa, and, with the exception of my own novels Chuchote pas trop (2001) and Portrait d’une jeune artiste de Bona Mbella (2010), those that do continue to speak of the subject in veiled terms. As such, examining how literary and cinematic depictions of desire between women often suggest the topic but do not develop it beyond a single scene. For example, in Mariama Barry’s The Little Peul (2000), the author suggests attraction between women, but does not fully develop the possibilities—or the implications—of the attraction. Just having brushed up against the subject, the gaze shifts, and the narration quickly moves to another moment. In two other examples, Amos Tutuola’s novel My Life in the Bush of Ghost (1954) and V.Y. Mudimbe’s Before the Birth of the Moon (1989), we find narratives that suggest women who love women only do so in the shadow of violence. These texts seek to “explain away” these relationships as reactions to this violence, rather than exploring how and why women who love women are so often targets of sexual attacks. 

In my novel Chuchote pas trop, I was sensitive to how coded language is used to talk about homosexuality—and how women simply remain silent as a means to avoid social scrutiny. The reason why I created a relationship between a young woman and a disabled older woman was to draw attention to the question of love. By love I mean to suggest the human dimension of lesbian relationships that is so often ignored in both popular and academic depictions. You might say that I am particularly interested in understanding intimacies: love and desire among women in Sub-Saharan Africa.

To bring up the loaded question regarding the attitude that homosexuality is a western-imposed identity, how does scholarship and works like yours attempt to dispel this myth?

I think the entire continent of Africa is dealing with homosexuality as a western-imposed identity. However, it is important to understand that in most African countries, homosexuality is not really the issue instead it is homophobia. The recent issue of African Studies Review (Volume 56, #2 September 2013) is on Homophobia in the African continent. We need to pay attention to these discourses, particularly to what is occurring outside the political sphere: people are suffering! Once we blame the West we can justify all the cruelties we inflict upon each other: in South Africa, the practice of corrective rape is devastating for lesbians and on other part of the continent, killing gay men and lesbians women is going on in a daily basis. Sexuality is part of us as humans; it is impossible to do away without it. So the question: “How do we represent human experiences, particularly sexualities?” is extremely important. And it isn’t a new question; it is found in traditions of the erotic in African narratives. 

As a woman from Cameroun, I am doing an internal critique on the treatment of lesbians within the context of Africa.  In this way my work address a specific lack: the few films from Africa that do address homosexuality in Sub-Saharan Africa concentrate mostly on men. Because of my unique perspective as a lesbian woman from Cameroon, my contribution can address this lack. In my work, I present an original and maybe an authentic gaze that has its home in Sub-Saharan Africa and create a fresh understanding of the lives of lesbian women who live there.

I am very happy to know that the filmmaker from Kenya Wanuri Kahiu made Jambula Tree (2013) is about women loving women. The more we humanize these human experiences, the better it is to help people in Africa see that it is only human to fall in love with another human.

Your research also focuses on alterity in francophone African cinema. Moolaadé by Ousmane Sembene has been of particular interest to you. Could you discuss your work in African film criticism? Give some reflections on the importance of African women's voices in the area of African cinema criticism? 

Alterity in the 21st century has become a crucial aspect to the notion of identity, specifically in articulating new forms of subjectivity. I may use Benita Parry’s ideas of resistant subjectivity as well as Gayatri Spivak’s well-known formulation of subaltern voicelessness to show that the counter-discursive ideal of the recovery of lost voices, in particular women’s voices, leads to a simplifying, triumphalist narrative of resistance. I am equally skeptical of the view of subaltern passivity and argue that there are oppositional practices that point to subaltern ‘voicing’ beyond a reductive understanding of human agency. In order to demonstrate how voice functions as a site of contestation, I transgress the conventional boundaries of sexuality as a way to challenge the terms of an identity politics that were set by a colonialist discourse: in a way African women’s sexualities are often simplified. Since the first encounters with slavery, colonialism, apartheid, African women have been sexualized objects of their masters. African women filmmakers can offer their voices to our understanding of alterity. But in an effort to create a solid discourse for African women filmmakers, they must have the opportunity to discuss their own work. There must also be serious discourse about the work they are creating for the continent of Africa. In a way, African women filmmakers need to revisit their library as well as their filmography. The struggle we have as African women remains the ongoing gesture of appropriation as a counterpoint for new discourse, new aesthetics, and a clear production of knowledge

I am most interested in discussing women filmmaker’s work.  However, I find Ousmane Sembène’s work revolutionary, in that he was one of the first African filmmakers to openly criticize the remnants of colonization in contemporary African identity. When reflecting on his films it is clear that Sembène’s vision of productive change in African society put women and women’s liberation at the forefront. (It must be noted here that many African women have produced documentaries on the practice of female genital mutilation in many parts of Africa and yet their works remain invisible. Once again, we are dealing with the forgotten history of gender within Africa.) His last film Moolaadé (2004) is a gift to women in Africa in that he addresses the sensitive subject of female genital mutilation. Sembène does not directly answer the question: who does this practice and how it could continue to this day? Rather he presents a character: Collé Ardo, who was cut, and who lost her first child to excision. Ardo begins her struggle by refusing to let her second daughter be circumcised. Second, she protects girls who shirk this barbarism. A gap opens up and we are asked to question and to rethink our traditions.

Ardo mobilizes women, but many refuse to face a custom that has shaped their own lives. Any change of this kind requires a blood sacrifice. The suicide of two girls is the crucial event that finally motivates the other women to react against a tradition they do not even clearly understand. For this the radio artifice introduced by Sembène is amazing. Their ears perk up while listening to the radio: they finally understand that the Koran does not require the removal of the clitoris: it is a human invention that male pleasure comes from women suffering. Indeed, when four girls aged 8 to 10 years arrive at Collé Ardo’s place fleeing the hands of clitoris cutters, they find the strength to do it because they have followed the discussions on the radio. The burning of these radios (radios have replaced books, and they are now burned in the public square, where they continue to broadcast music and information in impressive fires) is merely propitiatory. The knowledge they offer has already been consumed. 

In Violence and the Sacred, René Girard argues that violence manifests itself through interpretations of specific cultural forms and the search for their origins. Sembène does this in Moolaadé (2004). The character Mercenary’s death (who is most troubling film character) and the violence suffered by Ardo (two scenes are particularly striking: when she bites her finger during sex to endure the pain and the scene where her husband beats her in front of everyone) are needed to restore some social harmony. Violent rituals soothe some idea of ​​vengeance of the injured in his self-love community. Sembène plays with important cultural codes: killing, dying, revenge; soothing of the community grammar is as demanding as the most elaborate syntax. Ardo and Mercenary braved the group, but their actions do not have the same meaning. 

When I first saw this film, I decided to go to talk to Sembène in Senegal, in an effort to understand why he made it. During this interaction, he clearly explained why his ten films focus on women. He truly believed that for Africa to change, it must originate from the mobilization of women through the work that they produce themselves. Sembène’s work scrutinizes insightfully the representational politics of women and gender in Sub-Saharan Africa and makes a perceptive contribution to postcolonial studies in this area. So much work has been done of the issue of female genital mutilation because it is a serious concern for women in countries where it is practiced. Sembène wanted to draw attention to this issue in order for Sub-Saharan Africans to face their modernity by understanding this practice and its dangers. 

Abdellatif Kechiche and the actresses of La vie d'Adèle are the laureates of the Palm d'or at the 2013 Cannes film festival. What is your reading of the Franco-Tunisian filmmaker? I am bringing the film Adèle into our discussion because of its woman-loving-woman theme.  But I wonder with the treatment of his other film Vénus noire about Sarah Baartman and now Adèle, if Kechiche does not have a fetish for things taboo or forbidden as it relates to women, sexuality and femininity.

It is about time that we have an African filmmaker like Abdellatif Kechiche. His films address taboo and forbidden issues upfront, and he takes political responsibility in his work. He does not approach issues concerning homosexuality and women’s sexuality haphazardly, but follows through with a narrative that is consistent, nuanced and provokes productive conversation.  His film La vie d’Adèle (2013) is a beautiful tribute to lesbians. At last we have a story of same sex relationship with a narrative of love. These two young women fall in love and then come to terms with what this means. Coming from a Franco-Tunisian, this is hopeful, it means that others can do the same. Even if this film is based in France, I still feel that these images are powerful and will make spectators think differently about lesbian love.

To be honest, I did not like the film about Sarah Baartman. It provides us with a contemporary version of her life, but I found the presentation of her character to be vulgar and overwhelming at times. It is difficult for a black woman to view this film in its entirety. The representation of those images are shocking, disturbing and aggravating. I can relate to Baartman’s suffering; it must have been awful for her to be treated like an animal. 

The actor who played Baartman was good, but I felt awful watching her on that screen. Perhaps that was Kechiche’s intention, to make the spectator feel unsettled, but I had to stop watching the film because I started to cry, I could not take it anymore. I remember when I first discover her story, I was really sad and I must say that I was shocked to hear what happened given the historical context. When you are a white person you have responsibilities, you have privileges. At every moment, you choose how you want to use that privilege: by speaking up in a way that makes others be and feel your equal or by adding to historical oppression. As a white person you are in a position to use your words wisely, humanely. What white people did to Baartman with their humorous, racist comments is exactly the opposite. Putting someone in a situation where he or she has to react jokingly to racist comments – comments that are degrading and oblivious to immediate individual oppression and collective historical oppression – are all the more pernicious and in this film Kechiche attempt to make us realize that. I think it is still important that people learn about Sarah Baartman’s life, particularly this young generation. There is always room to learn, to critique and to grow from any cultural productions.

To directly answer your question, it is clear that Kechiche has a fetish for things taboo as well as for the forbidden in relation to women and femininity. Sembène did the same thing in his work and was always proud of it. He used to say, “I love women and I honored them in my films. They will change the continent of Africa, they are my source of creativity.” Kechiche is directly addressing taboo subjects and forbidden issues within the continent of African and its diaspora. 

Your current project titled “Vibrancy of Silence: Women Loving Women in Sub-Sahara Africa”, focuses on the visibility of lesbians in sub-Sahara African. Could you elaborate on some of the issues that the research entails?

In “Vibrancy of Silence: Women Loving Women in Sub-Sahara Africa,” I am interested in rethinking images of women who love women. It is important to me that we start to focus on the visibility of female sexualities, particularly Sub-Saharan African women, who, as with all women of color, find discussion of their intimacies framed by colonialist, sexist and racist assumptions. For example, I do not like the terminology we use when we talk about female sexuality in most African countries. We need to rethink of the vocabulary of how we name women who love women. Depending of the country we are talking about, women themselves have interesting ways of qualifying what they are doing with their intimacies. It is important to be specific and discuss how women in each of these countries create their own spaces for love.

But it is often dangerous to bring this vocabulary attention. In Cameroon, Senegal, Ghana and Nigeria, homosexuality is illegal. Although punishments vary, to be convicted a homosexual can mean prison or fines. Recent reports (Dougueli 2012, Dixon 2012) have also shown that gay men and women are often targets of violence that includes beatings, rape and murder. In addition, their relationships are often denied or condemned, as official and familial discourses refuse to speak of or acknowledge love between two people of the same sex. While anthropologists Morgan and Wieringa (2005) have shown that same-sex relationships have existed in Sub-Saharan Africa for centuries, and Murray and Roscoe (1997) argue for the vibrancy and variety of African sexualities, because of the current political and social climate, there is little understanding of the lived daily experiences of gay men and women in Sub-Saharan Africa. In particular, for reasons of both tacit cultural silence and the fear of reprisal, there has not been a film that fully addresses the lives of lesbian women in their complexity and beauty. It is promising to know that Wanuri Kahiu’s Jambula Tree (2013) is about Sapphic love. 

My current project is to write and produce a 60-minute visual philosophic essay, Vibrancy of Silence, about lesbian women who live in Cameroon, Senegal, the Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Ghana. I call my film a “visual philosophic essay” following Barbara Hammer, an experimental filmmaker whose use of the term “essay” points to “a genre whose subject is an idea rather than a person or event.” She uses this genre to ask questions such as: “who makes history and who is left out, is autobiography truth or fiction, and how can a false cultural representation be re-appropriated” (artist statement). I further draw the notion of “visual philosophy” from filmmaker Pascale Obolo, whose short documentary La Femme Invisible (2009) exposes how African women live and move through French society as if invisible, and, through close attention to emotion, offers possibilities for their visibility.

Interview with Frieda Ekotto by Beti Ellerson, November 2013

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