lolendo

The "Lolendo" photo series is an artistic and documentary project which questions the condition of sexual and gender minorities in the DRC, "silenced" and "invisibled".

Proven by virtue of research in the humanities and social sciences, the existence of homosexuality in Africa predates the colonial or imperialist periods. In his groundbreaking text published in American Anthropologist in 1970 under the title: “Sexual Inversion Among the Azande”, Edward Evan-Pritchard (1902-1973) unpacks existing homosexual practices among the Azande. Found in present-day Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), it was customary among Azande men to take young men as spouses. Historical, anthropological and sociological studies undertaken since then have contributed to the understanding of the place of homosexuality within the context of African societies through the course of time. This stream of research, which forms part of a progressive recognition of the rights of Lesbiens, Gays, Bisexuals, Transgenders and Intersex (LGBTI) in North America and Western Europe, has also documented increasingly pronounced stigmatisation against LGBTIs on the African continent.

How do we depict the place of homosexuality in African societies today? And how can photography help turn the clock backwards, to make it socially acceptable as in times past? So how do we change people’s mentalities? « By decolonising their imaginations » ?

Undertaken in the first quarter of 2015 in DRC, the Lolendo photographic project seeks to find an answer to this burning question. Taking its name from Lingala, Lolendo stands for pride. It is a portrayal of LGBTI persons whose existence is denied. While it is not punishable by law in DRC, that society has become more hostile in its perception of homosexuality, contrary to its past traditions. Today, some consider homosexuality as both immoral and a western import. Some even equate it with witchcraft. The myth persists, encouraged by political and religious leaders, of a pre-colonial Africa in which relations between people of the same sex did not exist. Congolese homophobes, and African homophobes in general, use this argument as a way of rejecting homosexuals and stripping them of their African-ness. But it’s homophobia that the colonisers introduced in Africa, not homosexuality. African culture, traditions, and ancestral values of openness were never opposed to homosexuality, on the contrary. It was during the period of slavery and colonisation that a hierarchical theory of human beings was introduced and, therefore, a moral judgement of homosexuality.” The impact of these collective representations — characterised by insults, humiliation and ostracisation from family circles — is particularly unsettling. Those at the receiving end of such acts of discrimination are most vulnerable to violent attacks, or even suicide. The stigmatisation endured by LGBTI people is evidenced by the discrimination they face in terms of access to healthcare, all in a country confronted with high levels of HIV infections.

In the longterm, actions undertaken by local organisations as well as international advocacy groups can contribute to resolving this social and health crisis by reminding the powers that be of their obligation to uphold Human Rights in terms of sexual orientation and gender identity. Like all attempts at photographic documentaries, Lolendo seeks to contribute in its own way. It is an attempt to restore the image and dignity of those who have been subjected to various forms of discrimination that have made them even more vulnerable, leaving them in harm’s way. Lolendo invites to step outside the confines of Western interpretation and to be more receptive to other narratives around the way that the LGBTI community is and has been perceived. Narratives which, leaving Africa aside, should make Westerners question their own representations of homophobia and its history. The notion of time, whether posing for photographs or studying a photographic work, is as vital here as it is anywhere else. It confirms that the promotion and the respect of rights cannot be achieved without the will of those in power or the courage of those concerned - who by exposing themselves are herewith exhibited.

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"Someday, the AIDS crisis will be over. Remember that. And when that day comes -- when that day has come and gone, there'll be people alive on this earth -- gay people and straight people, men and women, black and white, who will hear the story that once there was a terrible disease in this country and all over the world, and that a brave group of people stood up and fought and, in some cases, gave their lives, so that other people might live and be free."

Vito Russo, speech delivered at an ACT UP zap at the Department of Health, Albany, New York, 9 May 1988 http://www.actupny.org/documents/whfight.html

Bibliography :
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- THOMAS HENDRIKS. SIM cards of desire: sexual versatility and the male homoerotic economy in urban Congo, 2015.
- EVANS-PRITCHARD, EDWARD EVAN. « Sexual Inversion among the Azande. » American Anthropologist, 72(6), 1970.
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(Some first names are borrowed).