More often than not, the presence of a message or cause in art doesn’t carry far past the considered stares of gallery patrons, their necks made stiff from nodding. But when art truly intersects with social activism, the slow moving gears of change can be felt. A couple of cogs might just be set in motion tonight at the Gladstone Gallery in Chelsea, with the launch of the Africa’s Out! campaign and a benefit in support of East African LGBTQI rights.
“Making art as a way to speak out is extremely important, because that’s my language and my weapon and my shield,” explains Wangechi Mutu, artist, activist and founder of Africa’s Out!, in the introductory video for her campaign.
Tonight’s one-night-only exhibit and fundraiser will feature a performances by Solange Knowles and Cakes Da Killa and a silent auction of artwork donated by about 50 artists, including Kehinde Wiley, Carrie Mae Weems and Cindy Sherman. It’s Mutu’s hope that those in attendance will come to better “understand where gay rights are in east Africa and do something that actually makes an impact.”
To learn a bit more, we spoke with Mutu’s studio manager, Alexandra Giniger, about the campaign she’s been helping to plan.
What inspired Wangechi to pursue the idea for this event in the first place?
Last year, Wangechi witnessed her good friend, Binyavanga Wainaina, an acclaimed Kenyan author, named one of Time magazine’s 100 People of the Year, publicly come out as gay. Wangechi was inspired by her friend’s bravery and felt compelled to take action. Binyavanga subsequently introduced Wangechi to Wanja Muguongo, the executive director of UHAI EASHRI. She was so moved by the group’s work and by her friend Binyavanga’s bravery that she decided to pursue the idea for this campaign, making UHAI EASHRI the beneficiary for tonight’s event.
So, how did you guys take things from idea to execution?
For Wangechi and myself, art and activism are inevitably intertwined. So, after meeting with UHAI EASHRI and deciding that something had to be done about the rising homophobic climate throughout the globe, and specifically within parts of Africa, Wangechi’s first instinct was to call upon her community of artists with which to bring about a change. For Wangechi, art is not only a reflection of both our history and present times, but also a way to influence the future.
What happens to the funds you raise once they go to UHAI EASHRI?
UHAI EASHRI describe themselves as an “indigenous activist fund.” They’re based in Nairobi, Kenya and work within East Africa, but are also trying to expand into the Congo. Basically, they fund different LGBTQI organizations, with projects that range from funding films or documentaries, such as the work done by None on Record, a digital media organization working to document stories of gay individuals living within East Africa, in order to prevent these individuals and their stories from being erased. UHAI EASHRI also had a very integral role in overturning Uganda’s anti-gay law that was passed earlier this year, helping to fund the legal campaign that successfully overturned that law. They’re doing some very important, varied work.
I noticed Zanele Muhloli, whose work of course speaks directly to this event?
I think Zanele was one of the first artists we reached out to. We felt that we really needed to have her work included, as it truly is a direct reflection of who we’re aiming to advocate on behalf of with this inaugural Africa’s Out! fundraiser and celebration. That being said, we also extended the call to artists who are not necessarily directly related to this cause, as this really is a human issue.
The campaign describes itself as a “dynamic, far-reaching platform to initiate, create, and make happen the radical ideas that change the way we all engage with Africa and, more specifically, the way Africans reach out to empower one another.” In terms of this broader vision, how do you see yourselves moving forward with potential future projects?
Why I think Wangechi wants to make it known that this campaign is broader reaching is because she does foresee in the future, a time when, say she’ll want to make an album of particular musicians who reflect a different social justice issue that might be most pressing, or for instance, another year she may want to do a feminist African film series. I think really the root of the campaign is to have Africans supporting Africans and to create a space where everyone who is different and non-mainstream is welcome, reflected and respected, and free to live.