Writer Bakang Akoonyatse spoke with four Botswana creatives to explore their nuanced views on what it means to be a 21st century African while ‘floating in a pot of colonialism, queerness and culture.’

Text from Sade Shoalane’s exhibition – SEREPUDI: Queering Eroticism (Image by B. Akoonyatse)

Writer and activist Audre Lorde once said “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive”.  As one grows, and seeks to put away the “childish things”, one comes to find that an important part of doing so includes putting away the immature definitions of Self.  Adulthood is one thing, but growth is about not only learning who you are, but defining it for yourself and aligning your environment to your identity.  Think the difference between Jordan Peele in Key and Peele and Jordan Peele of Monkey Paw Productions, aha!

It’s an interesting time to be an African creative (with enough privilege to know what privilege is and what it means in the real world) in countries that’ve been “independent” for a shorter time than our parents and grandparents have been alive.  It seems like just yesterday that Blackness meant servitude, submission and strife and we now find ourselves the generation(s) trying to attain material success and exceed expectations in our free time (which, ideally, is all our time, because freedom, right?), while the work of valuing this time, our tales and essentially our lives, is new and often barely in our own hands. 

Text from Sadi Shaolane’s exhibition SEREPUDI: Queering Eroticism (Image by B. Akoonyatse)

A certain amount of privilege is what allows us to desire and demand more of the world, but also to define what that “more” is, for us.  What did our forefathers fight for, so recently as 1994, if not some privileges? But being your “ancestor’s wildest dream” as young Black people love to say online, comes at a price. A quality life is measured up and valued by prying eyes – the eyes of family, friends and consumers – because despite the intense display of individualism online (the fuel that leads to success in the eyes of the Western gaze) by nature Africans are usually as communal as they come and oftentimes, we’re finding, to a fault. 

Our stories, biases, traumas and fears intersect. If it takes a village to raise a child it takes one to hurt one too, and to heal one. 

In 2020, what does it mean to be an African, floating in a pot of colonialism, queerness and culture? I spoke to four individuals in various disciplines and capacities within Botswana’s creative industry who’re seeking to excavate, explore and exhibit not only their identities, but those of their communities and countries as well. We talked about the challenges, chaos and camaraderie they find in between borders and in the Diaspora. 

Sade Shoalane

Sade Shoalane

A regular on Gaborone’s creative scene, Sade stands as an enigmatic figure slicing through art gallery floors. We chopped it up about healing through art, Black magic and being the representation you want to see in the world. 

How would you describe your artistry?

SS: The term “experimental artist” fits.  To me, it means challenging myself to continuously express myself through art and to do as much as I can, with as much as I can; to heal myself through fabrics, photos, videos, drawings, live performances …

When did you start taking this seriously enough to pursue it professionally? 

SS: Halfway through 2016, I’d dropped out of varsity, studying media. Really, I was there for the art, but it wasn’t hitting how I thought it would and I was facing an eating disorder I hadn’t quite grasped yet, so everything internally and externally seemed to be adrift. I left there and started on a new journey. 

What are the main differences in your creative vision and impact then and now?

SS: I am so much more patient with myself. Sometimes, inspiration hits me like a gust of wind. Go tsewa ke mowa? I enquire, which literally means to be taken by the wind or spirit in Setswana, to which she whistles and snaps her fingers at art imitating life. I allow myself the opportunity to surprise myself. I air myself out, and I’m still figuring out my relationship with time;  what it means, how to move through it … I’m also learning to lean more on my spirituality and to release fear, as much as fear can be released. 

What are you scared of? 

SS: The unknowing, and misconceptions, especially as it pertains to understanding African religion and the idea of “dark forces”. What is that? Aren’t I a dark force? Don’t I embody Black Magic? Unlearning what it means to be magical as far as being a Black person goes. A queer Black woman in Botswana today; I am learning to be intentional about my presence. 

As a creative, how important has compassion been for yourself and others? 

SS: The more compassion I have for myself and my various states and expressions, the more I have for others. Being in flow with that has helped to remove certain blockages; mostly internally. I used to have a very intense fear of being visible. I’d really want to disappear. It was a deep seeded thing, based on early trauma and coping mechanisms.

What are the misconceptions and issues you sought to address with your  exhibition, SEREPUDI: Queering Eroticism?

SS: I didn’t want to decolonize sexuality. I wanted to name the things as they are and as I’ve experienced them. Affirming our sexuality isn’t only online. I can get exasperated that no one is my brand of sexy on Instagram but darling, when last did I post myself and my brand of sexy, on Instagram?

On dismantling, occupying and assimilating into predominantly white spaces, I often ask myself, at what cost?

SS: Assimilation is tricky for me because it needs a lot of forgiveness. It often requires you to conform to structures you’ve already found; most of which are problematic. We do need to foster a sense of community, but that requires emergence, and as a result, loss. It’s like consent in that it requires constantly checking in. Batswana are deeply traumatized by apartheid, but they feel like it’s not their trauma to hold because the narrative claims we obtained our freedom through a dignified manner. However, apartheid was a collective shame we still face the repercussions of; colonialism as well. A huge lesson I’ve been learning around power and how it’s sought and perceived is that many things look a certain way and it’s easy to get excited, but as we move forward, who is really doing who a favour?

Raymond Geofrey

Raymond Geofrey

With almost a decade in the creative industry, Raymond Geofrey is currently experiencing a full 360° when it comes to his love for editorials and allowing them to steer him on his life path. A younger Raymond once had a penchant for buying the latest BONATrue Love and Drum editions. He also had an aunt who collected Vogue.  It was at the intersection of the consumption of both brands of media that Ray noticed the disparity between content in African publications, and those in Western and Asian ones; a careless, colossal gap in the quest for beauty. 

When you started on your creative journey, what was the intention, direction and plan? 

RG: I’ve always loved editorials, so of course, I loved fashion. I met a lot of designers at fashion shows and would always give them input on ways they could bring the most out of their lines, but I never necessarily wanted to be a designer. I always saw myself as the editor of a big fashion magazine, so that was the basis of my involvement, but I learned the process because those are things I have to learn to be as efficient and precise as possible.  It’s become an all-encompassing experience. I train models as well because I have to know how to translate it all, and give them direction. Styling, shooting, the model, making an image … none of it can be left to chance. I want to be a projector; a vessel to amplify. 

So is  fashion school the next rational step? 

RG: Batswana designers aren’t making what they want to make. There’s a lack of creativity because getting paid means sewing for funerals, weddings and graduations. I want to put out two collections – one in summer and one in winter; collections that celebrate me! I recently gave advice to a friend to do the same and she said it rejuvenated her, so I want to reignite that flame.

Ray Geofrey’s Image from the exhibition SEREPUDI: Queering Eroticism.

What other visions do you have? 

RG: We need higher platforms. Visibility is sometimes just about being recognized and given feedback. A huge issue is that as Africans we’ve often limited our scope, our market, to Africa. It’s been unfathomable to consider selling our passion projects to Western or Asian markets. With the internet, people have access to Botswana and the world is watching, but because designers don’t seem to think that far, they don’t bother to project. We are failing to design, market and adapt our culture in that regard.

As you’re currently gaining recognition and the world is turning to face you, what do you want them to find?

RG: The most important thing is to tell a story. Fashion, like music, is a universal thing. Haute couture is haute couture everywhere. Isn’t it weird to be a British colony and people still think we’re a part of Joburg somehow? We have stories to share of mateisi and deserts.

Your photography was included in the SEREPUDI: Queering Eroticism showcase earlier this year. What’s the story you wanted to tell with this exhibit?

RG: I decided to challenge myself. I wanted to shoot in a public space and experience freedom and existence. I wanted life. I realized I work best in uncomfortable situations; it oddly inspires me. We shot in Main Mall, on a Sunday, outdoors. Security guards came and said they wanted to shoot similar shots themselves – and they weren’t joking! There are risqué shots that we took that they said they wanted to recreate. We remember that so often our sexuality feels like just that, a performance.  

Ray Geofrey exhibition piece from SEREPUDI: Queering Eroticism exhibition.

Can you tell me about your modelling classes?

RG: They are on Sundays. I converse with a lot of cleaners and security guards and a fair portion of them tell me they’re queer, but we never really know or think about that. We all think queers are camp and indulgent. There are still so many stories to tell. Post shoot, some man asked me for a petticoat we had used. He said it was comfortable, and yet, the store I had bought it from had tried their best to not sell it to me because they said it was improper if I wasn’t buying it for my grandmother! 

What structures are you trying to put in place to actualize your vision this year? 

RG: What I really want to do is to start a magazine. Previous potential investors have told me Batswana have no interest in that, but I don’t believe it.  The numbers at these sort of events say otherwise. Others have advised me to join a pre-existing structure, but who will do it for us here? Time, Vogue, it’s time they comment on our work. It’s time Naomi Campbell struts on our soil. My biggest fear is someone else beating me to it because nobody else saw the potential and power here. 

Letlhogonolo Moremi

Letlhogonolo Moremi

Letlhogonolo Moremi has established himself as a caretaker of crafts through his early work as a brand manager with DM Creative Brands while obtaining his LLB at the University of Botswana.  Since then he’s established Park Grey IP (Intellectual Property) consultancy services, in a bid to act as a platform that educates artists on how best to navigate getting their brands out there, as well as the tricky world of Intellectual Property Law. Moremi is also the cofounder of Queer Pride Botswana, alongside actor, writer and playwright Donald Molosi. Their organization seeks to exist as a safe place and meeting point for the country’s queer community. 

How did all of your ventures come together for you? 

LM: I’ve always had a creative inclination in life, and been a very active student. I did debate and was very much a talker. Then I got into Law School, but even then I was writing poetry, so there was never a point in my life without art. I sought an area of Law which would allow me to practise the full spectrum of what I do.  It’s just been a matter of refining that. I’ve also always been very passionate about human rights, especially as a Queer identifying person. There’s no way I won’t represent, speak for and help queer people so that’s where ideas like the Queer Woman’s market has stemmed from. 

Can you talk about your ongoing creative partnerships with Upright African and MG Creative Brands?

LM: Upright African was a pre-existing structure, founded by Donald Molosi, where the focus was not just telling creative stories, but creative stories that have an impact; a retelling of African history that translates to a new audience and brings up issues that are important. If you’re buying [stories] in a 400-page book, not everybody has access to that, but If you’re putting them in a video, that’s a medium more people can have access to. I’ve also partnered up with Mmina Gaebonwe on MG Arts & Creatives Workshops where we focus on artist development. 

As Queer Pride Botswana, which Donald and I also founded,  we were well on the way to hosting our first Pride Night when the Government of Botswana ruled to decriminalize homosexuality. If the courts said yes or no, we were still going to exist. The first Pride Night was a collaboration between us and Lesbians, Gays and Bisexuals of Botswana (LeGaBiBo),  partnering together to raise awareness of sexual health and gifting attendants free male and female condoms as well as finger cots and dental dams. Our latest project has been the exhibition boasting the work of Sade Shoalane and Raymond Geoffrey. I want to foster an understanding of wholeness. Who deserves to live a full life? All of it is about confronting gatekeepers – building a front end for Botswana. 

Letlhogonolo Moremi

How would you like to see all of them grow? 

LM: I would like to see Park Grey IP engaging in the legal and empowerment work. The first step has been the creative business workshop. Teaching people what it is and how to use it. With Queer Pride, we want people to care about each other. Our tagline is purposefully “United and Proud” which stood as one of the Vision 2016 pillars – “A United and Proud Nation.”  There is no nation that is going to be United, and no nation that is going to be proud, without acknowledging that we’re all full human beings. We want to connect and build a community and to bridge the barriers within it, because our shared oppression cannot be what binds us together. We have to foster an environment of love. Ultimately as a creative, an activist, a queer person, our existence cannot be boiled down to only an occasional spectacular performance. It has to be an everyday conscious presence. 

Donald Molosi

Donald Molosi performing Blue, Black and White (Credit B. Akoonyatse)

It’s ironic that for many Batswana their pride in Donald Molosi is as a result of seeing him as a symbol of colonialism, having had a spectacular run telling the story of Sir Seretse Khama off Broadway and in print. That, and him also featuring in the critically acclaimed blockbuster A United Kingdom. Currently, he’s running through bylines and credits at a spectacular rate. 

Roughly 6 years in the making has been the careful study and showcasing of Ugandan megastar Philly Lutaaya’s life and work. Lutaaya stood as a crucial, colossal and comforting figure at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic that swept the continent in the late eighties. 

“The first play that I did off Broadway was based off of this man’s life. It was a 4-5 year journey to transform, to meet the people who could help me portray him, to move to Uganda and learn the language so I could understand him, and the songs I’d be performing.” Philly’s brother, AK, shared his family archives and introduced me to Michael Savoie, who shot the film Born In Africa and was always with them. I followed him to LA to meet him, because this story means that much to me. I’ve lost many people to AIDS, so this work was not abstract. Philly’s kids as well continue to be close friends and we’ve been working on putting together a book which can be expected in 2-3 years. Important stories are told both in mega structures and intimate settings. We need to make sure that the message is localized.” 

Post screening, Molosi opened up about the fact that there was an opportunity to share the story with Mme Helen Mhone, who was the first Motswana woman and politician back in 1994 to come out as living with HIV. A year previously, Rre David Ngele publically announced his status as well and both named Lutaaya as an inspiration. 

How did you discover Philly Lutaaya’s story and why did you decide to tell it?

DM: I’d just won my first award for Blue, Black and White as Sir Seretse Khama off Broadway and a Ugandan friend of mine suggested, since I like stories of real people, that I look into this man who was prolific in his home country. The first thing I saw was his video for Alone and Frightened, and in it I could see his body transforming. As an actor, I saw a challenge, but as I went beyond that and saw the message… He was a shaper of times beyond doing art for art’s sake. 

What else appealed to you about his life?

Amongst the numerous reasons why Philly’s story is different, paramount and prominent is compassion and patience. The man, the musician did not cower. With no medication beyond antibiotics and treatments for ailments that inevitably sprang up, Philly toured the nation speaking to crowds and undoing the knots HIV/AIDS had left in the throats and stomachs of many with a care and ease that can only be declared as grace. 

We have all these structures constantly churning out content and insight on HIV/AIDS, why has Philly’s story slipped through the cracks over time? 

DM: I think when I compare it to other AIDS documentaries of the [period], the thing about it is that this one didn’t have a white protagonist. It didn’t fit the narrative. For me as an African accessing stories and the medical history of bodies that look like mine will always be important – especially bodies that have been impactful. It’ll always be important for the continent. To be ravaged by this illness with no drugs to combat that and say, “I’ve been an artist all my life, now I’m going to be art and put myself on display, here, look at the source!” was no small feat. The rest naturally followed. 

Can you take me through Donald at the beginning of this and Donald at the end of the 6 years?

DM: I came in as an actor, wanting to take on this role.  Over the course of it, I transformed. I grew because it helped me heal. As I learned more about Philly’s story, I made contact with his children and we connected over feeling like the generation that just lost people around us; the orphaned children. We gained solidarity. By the time we put this out, I was speaking from a much deeper place, for my aunts and uncles; those who died before they could share that message with us. And here was Lutaaya, who’d done that. 

What is the premise behind the Upright African Movement?

DM: The movement came together because we wanted to decolonize our ideas of ourselves. It was sparked off because Rainbow High School – a prestigious private school in Gaborone – wanted to ban the afro and we intervened and stopped that in 2017. We advocate for Africans to have self- knowledge. The I Am An African screening is about an African accessing our medical history through African bodies. When we talk about AIDS, oftentimes it’s about what white bodies are saying and doing pertaining to it – but using ours. Philly’s story was different.