Black Queer Visibility: An exhibition that champions rights for all people

Posted on July 22, 2019

The Centre for Human Rights at the University of Pretoria (UP), in conjunction with the Simon Nkoli Collective, the Faculty of Humanities, the Department of Sociology and the Centre for Sexualities, AIDS and Gender at UP, launched a photographic exhibition showcasing the political activism of the late anti-apartheid, AIDS and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) struggle icon Simon Nkoli.

The exhibition, which is housed at New Student Gallery at the Javett-UP Art Centre, is titled Black Queer Visibility: Finding Simon and was opened by UP’s Vice-Chancellor and Principal Professor Tawana Kupe.

Nkoli was a champion anti-apartheid, gay rights and Aids activist in South Africa, who vehemently opposed oppression and inequality. During his short life (1957-1998) he became one of South Africa’s most influential queer icons and is credited with opening the freedom struggle to recognising LGBTQ rights.

The aim of the exhibition is to open debates on transformation, social justice and the idea of memory 25 years into South African democracy. In a touching and engaging way, the exhibition is an introduction into the history of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) activism and black queer resilience rooted in black narratives.  

“This archive of Simon Nkoli’s life is about history, memory and political movements. It’s about the embodied experience of a foot soldier for sexual rights and equality,” said Prof Kupe.

UP Vice-Chancellor and Principal Professor Tawana Kupe at the opening of 'Black Queer Visibility: Finding Simon'

Nkoli’s activism led to his arrest and he faced the death penalty for treason with 21 other political leaders in the Delmas Treason Trial. Advocate Gcina Malindi, friend and fellow trialist, remembers how every facet of Nkoli’s life was a site of struggle. Denied the right to basic education and the freedom to love who he chose were just some of the human rights Nkoli was deprived of. These injustices made him “deeply political” and unafraid to challenge the dominant oppressive culture of the time, said Pierre Brouard, Deputy Director of UP’s Centre for Sexualities, Aids and Gender.

Nkoli was one of the first publicly HIV positive African gay men in South Africa during a time when oppression and abuse were rife. He formed organisations that called for human rights for all, that offered havens of acceptance and non-discrimination and led the first Pride Parade in South Africa in 1990.

The exhibition displays these struggles for equality and freedom. While it evokes the ideal of living in a world where interconnectedness is shared, it also encourages a critical eye on the issues that lie at the heart of democracy – a true democracy for all.

“We live in difficult and messy times where too often we deliberately erase the relevance of social justice and memory from our public discussion,” said Prof Kupe.

In order to bring the ideas of social justice and memory into our public discussion, exhibitions such as this one, projects of the archives, are important and encourage further scholarly work in the area of black queer visibility, he said.

Noma Pakade, the UP PhD candidate behind this exhibition, hopes the exhibition will encourage audiences to strive for the same ideals that Nkoli championed.

“We need to build ourselves for the communities of which we are a part,” she said.

The exhibition runs until 8 August 2019. Viewing times are between 09:00 and 17:00.

- Author Centre for Human rights

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