“The Police Told Me I Shouldn’t Put on a Show Like That”: Conversation with Koyo Kouoh on the Contested Issues of Homosexuality, Media and Religious Power in Africa

Moses Serubiri

While a Facebook status update started a movement on Maidan Square in Kiev, a blog started a fire on an art exhibition in Dakar. Thugs attacked the installation of Precarious Imaging: Visibility Surrounding African Queerness, a show co-curated by Koyo Kouoh and artist Ato Malinda at Raw Material Company. It featured the works of five contemporary African artists, including Zanele Muholi, and opened in May 2014.

Visibility Surrounding African Queerness , with works by (from left to right): Andrew Oseibo, Who We Are, portrait series; Amanda Kerdahi M., 100 Conversations , and work by Jim Chuchu on pre-colonial African sexuality, at Raw Material Company, Dakar, 2014.

Precarious Imaging was the second act of Personal Liberties, a year-long program unfolding in four acts. Eva Barois de Caevel, the assistant curator at Raw Material Company, curated the first act that took place from January to April 2014. It culminated in Who Said It Was Simple, a research-based documentary exhibition and screening program that looked at media, anthropology and law in regards to homosexuality in Africa. Precarious Imaging, the second act in the series, focused on photographic and video portraiture in thinking through visibility of African queerness. It opened during the course of the 11th Dak’art Biennial of Contemporary African Art in Dakar, in May 2014.

Moses Serubiri [M.S.]: In the post-colony the work of power is also the work of enchantment, to produce fables, writes Achille Mbembe. What are some of the fictions made about queers in Senegal?

Koyo Kouoh [K.K.]: The greatest fiction is the widespread belief that homosexuality is not African, and thus any sexual orientation outside the framework of heterosexuality is a phantom in sense of the (d)evil. A menace to society. All the while there is much evidence in popular culture through songs, sayings, festivities or just words that account for same-sex practices in almost all African societies. When we were researching the first act, we had discussions with a professor Ibrahima Ndiaye, a linguist at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar. His entire work is based on studying and analyzing same-sex practices in Senegalese society. As a linguist, he analyzes through language. Studying certain words, certain phrases, and certain narratives that exist. He taught us something that is quite striking. According to him, the difference between Western and African ways of dealing with the subject is in the naming. As long as there is a practice and nobody knows about it, and nobody speaks about it, it is fine. Yet homosexuality is indeed present in Senegalese society, as it is in any other society. The problem is that people don’t want to name it, they don’t want to discuss it, and they don’t want it to be visible. Anyone who is openly not heterosexual is at best silenced or ignored in his or her family, and at worst, rejected.

M.S.: What were your expectations when making this exhibition?

K.K.: Well, honestly, we really hoped to trigger a debate. A debate on a critical human terrain void of passions. The entire program, not just this exhibition, is about creating the framework where this debate can take place without any sort of contingencies, fears or threats. We were too optimistic to believe that the artistic setting and the cultural environment that Raw Material Company provides in a place like Dakar—which is known for its tolerance and openness—would protect us from the hysteria that we were ultimately subjected to. 
We had done the first part of the project from January to April without any sort of problems—neither was there public protest nor did the media even pay close attention to it. The funny thing is that, sometimes you just need one unreflected, uninformed, ill-inspired person to destroy a progressive idea and to put fire on a subject, and this is what basically happened. In this case it was Mamadou Gomis—a photographer that we promoted substantially in the past—who started distilling negative intoxicating views on the biennial with a special emphasis on Raw Material Company. He played himself up as a “whistle blower” to alert the public opinion that the Biennial was pervaded with works with homosexual content and that the photographic and video work exhibited at Raw Material Company is not innocent because the center promotes gays and lesbians.  

M.S.: How ironic! What were your relations with Mamadou Gomis before the Personal Liberties program at Raw Material Company?

K.K.: He is photographer whose career I helped shape even before the existence of Raw Material Company. I curated him into various exhibitions and programs internationally. We also collaborated with him in the context of the exhibition Chronicle of a Revolt: Photographs of a Season of Protest, that documented the “Senegalese Spring” in 2012. So we know each other professionally very well. I think that he used the exhibition for attention and brought the discussion to a very low level. Nothing to compare with the debates that we had during the first act of the program from January to April. Everything became quickly very trivial, unreflected and passionate. This is why I’m disappointed that all this noise didn’t amount to an interesting debate locally. 

M.S.: Yes. And in that sense I’m also thinking about the Maidan Square in Ukraine. As you are saying, this one person started it on Facebook actually, and the whole thing became like a huge fire. 

K.K.: It went viral. These are our current times: there only needs to be one person to put something stupid on Facebook and it goes around the world.

M.S.: I haven’t heard you mention the State even once. Instead, what I am hearing from you is this bizarre phenomenon of the internet with one person, a photographer who obviously used the internet for his own agenda. Yet now I see something as in the Maidan about the internet. This is not limited to Senegal alone, or Ukraine alone. It’s not just about people in Dakar. 

Visibility Surrounding African Queerness , with work by Zanele Muholi, Faces and Phases , 2014, at Raw Material Company, Dakar, 2014.

K.K.: I think we are now experiencing the full reach of the internet in terms of performativity of the self. It has become a public space where anything goes. Where everyone one can reach his or her share of fame and visibility on a few clicks and uploads. All this takes place without any sort of filter for quality, accuracy or deontology. This is how the whole debacle started. After the exhibition opening, there were four unidentified young people who came to vandalize our place late at night, around 4 a.m. on May 13th. I went to the police for filing only to be told that we shouldn’t be doing a show like that. The very people who are supposed to protect you from violence are the one who accuse you of attracting violence through the work that you do. We have not moved an inch from the mentality where a raped woman is accused of being out late a night or being sexy instead of condemning the rapists.

M.S.: That is completely absurd. 

K.K.: Furthermore, a few days after that Mamadou Gomis, who has a television show on art and photography with a private media house, started talking about the biennial’s promotion of homosexuality in Senegal, saying that there were many works in the biennial that deal with the subject. Also that there were many exhibitions in the Biennale’s OFF program dealing with the subject, thereby putting special focus on Raw Material Company. The next day, there was a blog. Most of the voices on the blog use pseudonyms. It was an article. A nasty, non-researched paper full of inconsistencies that went viral in Senegalese media.

M.S.: No!

K.K.: It was after that that a religious television station came to visit the show expecting to see some obscene display, only to find a decently displayed video and photography show. As they didn’t find what they were looking for they gathered all kinds of images: works from Zanele Muholi which were not even in our show, and put them on air. That increased the violence a lot. The religious leaders, and the imams started preaching against us at the Friday prayer. One of them started gathering his disciples to come and burn us down. Safety became a concern. This led us to issue a press release announcing that we were suspending the show due to the violence that had occurred. The press release was manipulated, translated, and orchestrated into something twisted such as: “We welcome the decision of the Senegalese government to shut down all the exhibitions with homosexual content.”
The government of Senegal would not dare shut down an exhibition, especially not within the biennial. Freedom of expression means something in this country. Paradoxically the religious power is so strong. The real power in Senegal is not the political power, it is the religious power. 

M.S.: I feel that there is a kind of media threat, you know, but not necessarily state media, but of a kind of internet and private based media, like a television show, for example. For a private media company, being a threat to artistic practice, or being a threat to making an exhibition by manipulating a press release, is something I find more believable than the government of Senegal shutting down a show. I find it more plausible. 

K.K.: All the while the Ministry of Culture did not deny the false information that circulated worldwide. There were many interpretations to this collective silence. One could be that it was appropriate that religious power believed in it. The manipulation and its media orchestration came from a group of people who had an interest in exploiting an opportunity of a so-called sensation. There are several Islamic NGOs in Senegal who thrive on the hold that they have on people’s beliefs and how they can manipulate this religious blindness as a fuel for their organizational gains.

M.S.: There are many examples from Boko Haram, to Al Shabab. In Kenya, where co-curator Ato Malinda comes from, Nairobi is becoming uninhabitable because of the bombings.…

K.K.: These are frightening extremes that we are living in now in different parts of Africa unfortunately. Even though Senegal can look back to a long tradition of stability and social cohesion, the growth of religious radicalism and increased intolerance towards personal freedoms has become very clearly perceptible over the last decade. The still-troubled situation in the Sahel, and in Mali in particular, with the different fractions of Aqmi acting to destabilize the region are reasons to be concerned and stay alert. It is common knowledge that borders are particularly porous in Africa.