When Europe set forth to colonize the globe over the past five centuries, they brought with them a host of weapons to destroy the integrity of peoples far older than them. Among the artillery in their arsenal were religious doctrine, which — among other things — decreed the LGBTQ community in violation of the law, subject to persecution, imprisonment, and death.
Though most nations regained their independence, the damage was done: the history had been whitewashed, traditions lost and destroyed, and what remained was the stain of European injustice and bigotry. Today, in the 54 nations recognized by the African Union and the United Nation, homosexuality is illegal in 34 countries, and the death penalty operable in four states.
In 2001, Steph O. Murray published Boy Wives & Female Husbands: Studies of African Homosexualities, the first book on the subject to draw upon anthropology, history, ethnographic, and literary sources to provide a well-researched look at what has long been a volatile subject of discourse in African communities.
Years later, photographer Yannis Guibinga decided to create visual narratives inspired by the subjects featured in the book for his series Boy Wives & Female Husbands to create a connection between the spaces that LGBTQ and non-binary communities occupied in African societies, both then and now. Originally from Libreville, Gabon, Guibinga is now based in Montreal, Canada, where he made the series of work. Here, he reflects on the importance of visibility and representation of identities on the African continent and its diaspora.
How did you first get interested in the medium? What made you decide to dedicate yourself to photography?
“My interest in images and visual culture has always been a thing as far as I remember, however I started to actually take pictures when I was around 17 years old with some friends as a way for us to distract ourselves and what was initially a hobby gradually turned into a passion. It’s only after moving to Toronto in 2013 that the focus of my work started to really narrow itself down to the very specific subject of highlighting African identities and cultures.”
Could you speak about some of the artists who inspire you and the kinds of stories you are looking to tell in general?
“I am very inspired by artists with the ability to create a universe with their work and consistently expand and tell new stories inside of it. The artists who are consistent in their photographic language and yet who constantly innovate and experiment. Lina Iris Viktor, Filip Custic, Nadia Lee Cohen and Mous Lamrabat for instance are part of this category of artist whose universe I find very inspiring. Like them, I aim to create a Universe inside of my work that connects all of the images with one another in some way.”
Can you provide detail about the four different chapters of the series and the historical figures and communities highlighted in the work, and how you conceptualized the way you wanted to tell these stories through photography?
“While the book offers extensive information about the full spectrum of African sexualities, I was particularly interested in highlighting the communities and figures that were performing gender in ways that differed from the norm of the society they lived in because these are the people still facing the most discrimination, ostracization, and violence today.
“I wanted to highlight trans and non-binary figures that have existed on the African continent and that lived within their communities without suffering in any way socially to show people that they have always existed and are therefore deserving of the same respect and place in society as everyone else.
“The first chapter is about the queen warrior Ngola Nzinga of the Ndongo and Matamba kingdoms and her harem of young men who dressed as women are were considered to be her ‘boy wives’ — gor-digen, translated man-woman in Wolof.
“The second chapter highlights the Mashoga, a community of non-binary folks who lived in East Africa and were considered to be the Swahili-speaking equivalent of European-American drag queens. Their gender identities and roles were different from those of men and women and they therefore occupied an unique place in society, but were largely accepted by those around them.
“The third chapter focuses on Ganga Ya-Chibanda, a spiritual figure in the central African region that ordinarily dressed as a woman and required of his subordinates to refer to him as Grandmother. In the west and central African regions, spiritual figures dressing up as women was common practice so I wanted to dedicate a chapter highlighting them and their ways of performing gender.
“The fourth chapter is about the a third gender in traditional Senegalese societies, by which folks who emulated womanhood through their behavior and appearance identified. While certain elders condemned them, the gor-digen otherwise did not suffer in any way socially.”
Where and when did you make these photographs?
“I took these photographs in Montral, Canada in the Summer of 2019 because this is where I live and work. Because several of these communities and figures no longer exist or are harder to find today, I decided to recreate their narratives visually and modernize them. All of the subjects who took part in this project are part of the queer community in some way so having them embody queer figures of the past added another dimension and thread connecting the experiences of non-binary and trans folks from the past on the African continent in their particular communities, to those of today living as part of the African diaspora in a more globalized world.”
Can you speak about the issues of persecution and oppression queer communities face and the importance of decolonizing ideas about African LGBTQ communities today?
“A common misconception about gender is that it has always existed in a binary system, and that everything falling outside of the idea of Man and Woman was automatically considered to be an abomination and a mistake.
“Deeper research about the matter, however, proves that this could not be further from the truth. Many people and sometimes, entire communities have performed gender in unique and different ways across the globe for centuries, often without any persecution and oppression from the societies they lived in.
“Today, the idea that queer folks are abominations is something that persists, in Africa and beyond, mainly because of societal beliefs closely related to religion and the need to uphold fictitious religious rules for the sake of salvation. This results in the persecution of queer folks that starts often with their own family members disowning them, their difficulties in properly integrating the workforce without being harassed and their constant exposure to being victims of violent acts both physical and verbal.”
How can photography transform the way we see and think about ourselves and others, and our respective relationships in the world?
“Photography has the ability to tell stories in ways no other medium can. It can inform the way we think about ourselves and others by communicating a very specific kind of message. Colonial photography for instance, was used then to communicate to those who saw the images that Africans were primitive and underdeveloped.
“Today, many African photographers have reclaimed this art form to fight these stereotypes and depict a more human, complete and accurate version of Africa and its people. With my work, I want to contribute to these stories who change the way the rest of the world thinks about Africa but also and most importantly the way Africans think about themselves and others like them.”
All images: © Yannis Guibinga. Photography/Creative Direction: Yannis Davy Guibinga (@yannisdavy) Assistant: Kano Kano (@kanokano_o) Styling: Tinashe Musara (@tinashemusara) assisted by Haji May (@sssssecondsight) HMUA: Jess Cohen (@jdcmua) Models: Efia, Atlas Hapy, Obakeng Ndebele, Mukendi, Chivengi, Toshiro Kam, Grapes Mars, Haji Maa, Elvira GeorgineUwayo Dushime, Chris Marlot, Arnaud Rose