By Phoebe Eleanor Sheppard
Based in Johannesburg, South Africa, DeLovie Kwagala is the first known Ugandan, non-binary, queer photographer and LGBTQ+ rights advocate. They use their art to expose social injustices and explore themes of gender, sexuality, and belonging whilst showcasing queer expression and contributing to increased queer representation, thus promoting the visibility, tolerance, and respect of the LGBTQ+ community. With homosexuality being criminalised in Uganda, Kwagala’s country of origin, and state-sanctioned queerphobia persisting in South Africa despite decriminalisation, Kwagala’s visual activism is extremely vital now more than ever.
Kwagala’s art is not only representative of the struggles, resilience, and joy of the queer community, but of queer African’s defiance of persisting colonial narratives, prevalent claims that homosexuality is ‘un-African’, and continuing heteropatriarchal violent structures existing in both South Africa and Uganda. It represents the refusal of queer Africans to compromise on their rights and representation and sends a strong message that they will not maintain silence in the face of intolerance, hatred, ignorance, and violence.
“We found places in the dark ruins, pulled silk from rag heaps. We are not of the empire. We are glorious outliers. Vagabonds. Witches. Thrown into the root and became a vast oasis. We are not of the empire”. – Raldy
The image above is just one photograph from Kwagala’s ‘The Quingdom ~ In Transition’ collection that exemplifies this. In the photograph, the subject named Raldy is centred, expressing their queer identity in opposition to the queerphobic sentiment which sees homosexuality as a ‘Western import’ and thus as a product of empire. The text which accompanies the image amplifies it, adding a layer of depth in the form of written defiance of the import narrative which serves to illegitimize queer expression and existence on the continent. The repetition of ‘we are not of empire’ in particular demonstrates this, aiming to dispel myths circulating surrounding the import narrative. The use of the statement ‘we are glorious outliers’ celebrates difference, demonstrating that queer identity should be acknowledged in a positive light as a unique and beautiful identity which must be commemorated rather than averted for falling outside of the traditional ‘norms’ of a hetero-patriarchal society.
“Gender fluidity & authenticity means never having to sacrifice any of the multiple versions of oneself to make other people comfortable or less anxious. It is not my duty to make myself easily digestible. Embrace Variety- Reject Sameness”- Authentically Plastic
A similar message is conveyed by the second image, pictured above, of Authentically Plastic, who too wants to encourage the celebration of difference, stating that we should ‘embrace variety- reject sameness’. The assertion by Authentically Plastic that ‘it is not my duty to make myself easily digestible’ builds on this, reinforcing the idea that queer people should not have to hide or disguise their identity to fit into heteropatriarchal structures and to make other people feel more comfortable. In this way, openly expressing one’s queer identity is an act of resistance and a refusal to compromise when it comes to visibility and acceptance. In the same way, these photographs reinforce the existence of queer communities in societies where their identities and expression are often denied, enacting queer African agency and contributing to the wider LGBTQ+ rights movement.
“To be visibly queer is a political statement in itself. To say I am queer and I am here and I am not going anywhere. To realise that fear is the driving force of their hate but to be fearless anyway, and to love anyway, is the poetic justice of daily-lived queer experiences. I chant for safer spaces.” – Jesse
This photograph of Jesse builds on the messages of the previous two images, illustrating visible gender fluidity and the idea of queer expression as resistance and as a ‘political statement in itself’. With those visibly expressing their queer identity often subject to both verbal and physical queerphobic and often violent attacks on the continent, expressing one’s identity as a queer person is not only an act of resistance but also an act of fearlessness. It reinforces Jesse’s statement, that ‘I am queer and I am here and I am not going anywhere’. Whilst with increased visibility comes increased danger, so does increased awareness and whilst many are forced to visibly conform to heteropatriarchal standards by dressing and acting in a way that is straight passing, those who refuse to compromise their identity, such as Jesse, are actively fighting these standards. Thus, simply being yourself, in this case, is an act of defiance against the heteropatriarchal system to which both Ugandan and South African societies are still strictly bound. The continuance of such exhibits of queer identity not only raises awareness, but normalises different expressions of gender and sexual identity, contributing to what will hopefully be a more tolerant society in future in which diverse sexual and gender identities can be accepted, uplifted, and supported.
In conclusion, Kwagala’s photography is vital to the LGBTQ+ movement in Uganda and South Africa, bringing greater visibility to and representation of diverse sexual and gender identities, and more generally, queer expression and existence. Their visual activism allows queer Africans to exhibit agency within LGBTQ+ movements on the continent, which are otherwise often interfered with by international actors, or given little attention, unable to have a true impact. Kwagala’s photography has been recognised internationally, and whilst more recognition must be given to their work, the success that they have already had in bringing the issue of LGBTQ+ rights on the continent to the forefront and bringing greater visibility to local queer people, gives us hope for the future of LGBTQ+ rights in Uganda and South Africa. With grassroots activism and movements such as these, change can and will be enacted. We must all learn from and amplify voices such as Kwagala’s in the same way that Kwagala amplifies the voices and visibility of local queer people and activists in their community and beyond. Afterall, greater visibility drives increasing awareness and greater awareness purports progress and change.
To view and support DeLovie Kwagala’s work, follow their instagram @aconstantbecoming