The creative arts scene of Botswana is full of grapevine truths which people carry around (rather in the manner of beasts of burden) like guilty secrets. “Guilty” because, although everyone is free to air these general truths, they are only ever tempted to do so under duress or in instances of extreme passion – offensively or defensively. One of these guilty secrets is the neglect of the queer artist.
According to Tate glossary, queer art is “Art of homosexual or lesbian imagery that is based around the issues that evolved out of the gender and identity politics of the 1980s”. By a rare piece of luck (perhaps it’s a cultural imperative) we have had a spate of queer artists: individual, collective, old, new. But it is neither possible nor desirable to separate this sudden appearance of queer art from the extant political mood. And since art and politics are, in this case, inseparable, there is no better time than now to create standards.
This resurgence has forced the realisation of many loopholes, errors and prejudices in the industry. For instance, there is an intense conflict between the older cisgender artworld gatekeepers and queer youth artists. It is fugitive and unexplained, funny and; in short, like life itself. Institutions like Thapong Visual Arts Centre to this day fail to realise how damaging it is to have the absence of queer artists in the spaces where certain conversations definitely require the relatable voices of those who can rise to the occasion, and shut down the ridiculousness that homophobia tends to cook up for a feast that devours their brothers and sisters.
The survival of the older generation artists in Botswana and so-called “creatives” (‘cause let’s face it, most of them are as creative as a piece of dry toast without butter) which was in a large part dependent on their “keeping their place,” is a demonstration of the stigma affecting everyone. However, that code for survival has not deterred the young queer artist. One would think that the gatekeepers’ mentality of the older artists would have been enough testimony to discourage queer artists, but no. Queer artists make the sort of demands for showing up, criticize flawed systems, and so on. Something our elders failed to. The present attitude reflects that we are not only the future but the present, should one give us a chance to shine.
Frequently, young queer artists insist that they are not creating what should be termed “queer art”. In a sense, this is an escape from reality. Any artist who does not want to be identified by their race or sexuality is inherently indulging a subtle form of passing. There is a paradox here and the inconsistency is partly why certain questions must be addressed. Questions such as; why many Botswana queer artists given their role in the creative sector, continue to be excluded from a number of platforms and art narratives in Botswana? Is queer art a fad or simply humorous to the creative elite? One may start to list a few names but is immediately bombarded with questions like, “who are these people? Are they any good? How many followers do they have?” What idiots are those who pose the latter questions! Is not the relative merit of these people as artists (you know, their work), but rather the curious fact that queer artists exist.
There are moments in history when the time seems ripe for an attempt at defining terms. One such moment is now. The weight of exposure being given to LGBTQI+ people in all walks of life is second to none in Botswana’s history of which they are now firmly a part. We are witnessing a revolution, a queer revolution of unmanageable scale and what is imperative is that out of it, some standards must emerge. The one area being significantly ignored in local discussions is art. So, the question comes up again. "Is there a separate queer art, as opposed to straight art?" The fact that the question is asked puts in doubt the existence of queer art. Yet, on a universal level the answer has got to be yes.
What distinguishes or creates the uniqueness of the queer artist is not only their sexual orientation, but the experience they bring to their art that forge, inform, and feed it and link them essentially to the rest of the queer community of Botswana. We live in a culture where heteronormativity is pretty much the only narrative, to the point where people don’t even think that their existence is valid. Queer is beautiful. It deserves to be appreciated and celebrated as much as possible.