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Of Rainbow Coloured and Acronymed Shows: Did We Cancel Artistic Freedom of Expression

by Joseph Obel

originally printed in Jahazi Vol 10 Issue 2

Living as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community in Kenya, you are already canceled. So if as an artist, queer or not, you organise a theatrical performance or any event that targets queer folks and their allies, you risk being arrested and imprisoned for “promoting homosexuality which is illegal in Kenya.” Further, any artistic work that highlights the issues that affect the LGBTQIA+ community is perceived as politically incorrect and consequently gagged. Queer-identifying artists thus additionally find themselves in an artistic conundrum, on whether to continually create shows based on hetero-normativity that do not reflect their lives nor resonate with that of their queer-identifying audiences. The question thus remains, Who has the moral responsibility to create and perform these inclusive artistic works? While on the one hand artistic works with queer-identifying themes are denied expression, on the other hand, it has been noted that foreign media outlets and content streaming platforms accessible to Kenyans, continue to air content that includes that which is predominantly queer-themed. No conversation is officially held about this contradiction

Producing the Play Dark Hard Chocolate

In January 2022, I mustered the courage to produce Dark Hard Chocolate, a theatrical performance celebrating gay love and highlighting healthy relationships among gay men. This was a leap of courage and faith. It was also a steep learning curve and an opportunity to grow my network. I worked with an established theatre director, sought-after actors, and an international playwright, Kwame Stephens, a Canadian-Ghanaian. My emotional intelligence was stretched beyond my comfort zone..

This is a breakdown of how the experience went.

First off, proscenium theatre performance spaces in Nairobi are limited and so getting a space to put up queer-themed (read politically incorrect) play is almost impossible. How do you explain the work? I write the first email and a request for more information about the show follows. At this point, I have to lay it out as it is. The first venue responds and apparently ‘they are under renovation.’ The second regrets to inform me that ‘they cannot hire the space out to this production’, while the third venue remains quiet, no response. I eventually get a referral through a friend to a private venue in the Nairobi suburbs. The response is positive, terms of engagement negotiated and finalised and the team starts rehearsals. We are advised to hold a fireside chat before the show to host the LGBTQIA+ audience and the turnout is enormous, contrary to venue owners expectations. As a result, we are advised to postpone the show indefinitely. The loss of audience and booked tickets is significant. The future of this production is now uncertain and the director and I increasingly angered by this subtle discrimination.

Fortunately, I manage to secure another venue, this time a restaurant slightly outside of the Nairobi CBD (Central Business District). However, the terms and conditions for use of the space state that marketing should be discreet and the production not advertised as gay-love-themed, or else it would inevitably be canceled and the whole production team put in mortal danger. I decided to rename the theatre event and the poster did not display rainbow colors or indicate the LGBTQIA+ acronym. Subtlety was key. But the whole situation raised fundamental questions – how does the artist monetize and participate in the creative industry when they are denied the right to market and show their work? How do they earn a livelihood from their chosen profession in the performing arts?

Mirror Arts and the Play Between Self and I

I learned about Mirror Arts in mid-March 2022 while searching for a potential panelist for an upcoming event and was surprised to find a poster of their February 14th theatre production celebrating lesbian love that showed at the Kenya National Theatre. At this point, Mirror Arts, who only produces queer-themed performances, was already planning for another show, Between Self and I. This piqued my interest as a producer and theatre reviewer and I started looking for the producer’s contacts. The performance was scheduled to start in mid-April but a few days before the opening the producer was asked to vacate the premises since, being a public institution, the venue had to abide by government policy. Mirror Arts producer-director quickly sought an alternative venue and succeeded, but a few days later, they were asked to ‘postpone indefinitely’.

Why Free Expression is intrinsic in the artistic creations

It defies logic that in 2022, queer-identifying artists are still asking for freedom to express themselves in their works. Why would those ‘cultural gatekeepers’ think that if a heterosexual person watches an artistic performance celebrating or highlighting same-sex relationships will then be converted or start desiring same-sex relationships? Matters sexuality are biological and are hardly influenced by external stimuli. Therefore, the gatekeepers need to wake up to the reality that a society that is afraid of the arts is one that is scared of their reality since art mirrors life.

A famous African proverb says, ‘until the lion learns how to write, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.’ As much as there have been several attempts by producers, writers and directors living hetero-normative lives to create stories involving queer characters, these stories are usually biased, untrue and full of condescending stereotypes. The nuanced lives of LGBTQIA+ individuals, as of all persons, need truthful storytelling especially in Africa.

Lack of freedom to express oneself, to tell your story which in essence creates and validates a person, takes away their identity. This is the same for queer-identifying artists, whether they are producers, directors, actors, or technicians. This diversity should not be viewed as a threat to the system, but a need for inclusivity in society.

The instances of bias and exclusion highlighted here are but a few. The question remains, while Kenya has signed up for freedom of expression and artistic freedom in the constitution, how do we justify the cancellation culture in relation to queer-identifying artists in our societies? Further, how do we justify our acceptance of queer-identifying artistic work from other continents, some viewed at peak hours on our televisions when children are watching, while still using ‘bad ínfluence’ as the key argument? ….Can’t queer artists create, produce and share their artistic works without suppression? Stop cancelling our shows just because you already cancelled us!

Joseph Obel is a theatre performer, contemporary dancer, artistic curator, and theatre critic who is passionate about stories that touch on African spirituality, climate action, and human sexuality. Joseph is the curator and artistic director at AfroIndaba.

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