Julia Hango: Techniques of Asserting Humanity

POSTED ON: May 6, 2021 IN Bongisa Msutu, On Artists, Word View

by Bongisa Msutu

How individuals of differing society define their humanity is based on what that particular society prioritises. The modern western colonial point of view prioritisesthe sense of sight. All things, people and processes are judged according to what or how they look, and this is why the human body has become the site onto which social construction of differences are mapped. [1] Humanity was and still has been reserved for bodies that look a particular way – white European bodies. Discriminatory systems were legalised to ensure that bodies behave in an acceptable manner socially and politically. Black female bodies – within the modern colonial framework – have been subjected to legislated systems of sexism, hypersexuality and racism in an effort to justify their abuse and to dehumanise them. Even beyond the eradication of these discriminating legal systems, the doctrine (Christianity) that advocated them still exists, and the narrative thereof is deeply entrenched in society. Modern western citizenship is not available for female bodies, as they (‘naturally’) transgress social and cultural constructions of sexual appropriateness and political acceptability. [2]

However black women activists, artists and feminists have taken it upon themselves to use their bodies, as they are, to claim their humanity. They have appropriated the very thing that transgresses and is not acceptable within the modern colonial bounds of being, to assert their humanity. Julia ‘JuliArt’ Hango is such an artist and feminist. A Namibian native, Hango makes use of their natural naked body to assert themselves. They interrogate the boundaries of what is acceptable by confronting their audience with what has been deemed non-human.

This essay will explore the number ways in which Hango experiments with and claims their humanity through nakedness, naked protests and the erotic, by analysing their artworks, as well as photographs posted on their Instagram handles @nakashwa_thewildwoman and @body.positive.namibia. To begin with, the text elaborates on why black women need to claim their humanity: what happened for black women to be in a position where their sense of being is questioned? And on what normative political basis is Julia Hango going about this claim?

The modern or modernity referred to in this text is that which pertains to western modernity, and native and black are used interchangeably. ‘Bodies’ as a term referring to people, is dehumanising. It is used in this text to denote this, and in referring to the artist’s subject matter.

Indigenous Women in precolonial Africa – Namibia

When lamenting gender relations of African precolonial societies, we run the risk of creating myths and dichotomies that feed into Manichean European colonial thinking. Marjorie Mbilinyi, a Tanzanian scholar and gender activist, warns against creating the ‘mythical’ dichotomy of a “progressive tradition and backward modernity”.[3] However, researchers do agree that the re-reading of gender relations in precolonial African societies indicates that these relationships were more egalitarian, refuting the image of African tradition being oppressive.[4] Research has shown that in precolonial Namibia, native women had held positions of great power and influence. Women occupied significant positions as healers and ritual leaders (Ovapitifi), as well as queens and/or other female leaders amongst the Kavanga and Owambo people. [5] Matrilineage, where it was in effect, tempered the control a husband could have over his wife and his children, allowing for non-oppressive social relations for all. [6] Some women held positions as teachers, thinkers and repositories of history and knowledge – they were deeply involved in the transmission of oral history and traditions, while also enjoying substantial measures of autonomy, authority and agency in their sexual and economic lives. [7] The difference of biological anatomy as a category of gender distinction and hierarchy was not important in precolonial Namibia. Rather, age and rank within society – proximity to nobility – mattered more. The body did not have a life or logic of its own, and one could not tell one’s social position or belief by merely looking at one’s body.

Nakedness and nudity in precolonial African societies was a norm – for both men and women. Scantly-dressed or ‘undressed’ individuals on the continent did so for functional purposes: most African countries, particularly Namibia, are hot. The Hereros, Ovambas, the Khoisan, the Nama, the Kavanga, and many other Namibian natives dressed in garments made from bark cloth, animal skin, bird feathers, grass or plant fibre that covered just the genital area, or wrapped around the waist. [8] It was neither sexual, nor was it an indication of immorality. It was a way of life and an integral part of how Namibian natives lived. Precolonial Namibian societies defined their humanities differently, therefore distinctions and hierarchies were based on different ideas – for both men and women.

Indigenous Women within the Western Colonial Framework

The west’s age-old staple of biological categorising of people brought about problematic ways of differentiating and discriminating, such as gender, sexuality, race and class. [9] The logic, within the modern colonial framework, was that women were embodied individuals whose bodies were purely for the sexual pleasure and gaze of men, while men were labelled thinkers and possessors of knowledge. With this distinction, men were considered superior to women. According to Oyéwúmi, in European thought, despite the fact that society was seen to be inhabited by bodies upon which distinctions were made, only women were perceived to be embodied.[10] Two oppositional and dichotomous categories were constructed: “Man of Reason” (Thinker) and the “Woman of the Body”. Men were seen as citizens (human), while (black) women were ‘othered’ – dehumanised. Oyéwúmi further explains that the reason behind the body being such a presence within the European’s logic is because of their judgments of all things by sight – the western gaze or lens became an invitation of difference. [11] At colonization (and coloniality), the west used its Eurocentric privileging of judgment by sight to describe, subjugate and invalidate cultures that defined their humanities differently. The biology and anatomy of being male and female is the lens through which gender (and sexuality) was culturally interpreted within the western framework. As previously stated, public nakedness in indigenous precolonial Namibian society was a norm, due to very hot climatic conditions. However, according to European culture, nakedness – especially that of native women (embodied beings) – was seen as profane, indecent, shameful, sexual and immoral. This was one of the justifications of the “civilising” mission of colonialism – legitimising oppression and degradation of native women. Black female bodies were (and still are) framed within a context of patriarchal, pornographic and racialised sexualisation[12]. The colonial methods of ‘civilising’ Africans was through religion, western education and criminalising the “immoral” ways of being – linked to the way women dressed. Indigenous African women, Tamale laments, as a symbol of progress and modernity, had to cover their bodies, particularly the areolae, nipples and curves of their breasts, their butts and their genitals.[13]

These uncompromising beliefs about public nakedness came from the European Protestant Reformation Movement of the sixteenth century, led by Martin Luther and John Calvin. According to Tamale, the Reformation (Puritans) associated women’s bodies with sin, the devil and witchcraft – spiritually hazardous – more than they did men’s bodies. [14] The Reformation set the patterns of morality for the west, and it is this brand of Christianity that was brought into Namibia and other African countries at colonialism. [15] What is presented today as tradition, Becker clarifies, reflects the impact of the ‘civilising’ Christian mission ideas about appropriate gender relations. [16]

Opaque Feminism

Black aesthetics, Lewis Gordon explains, is a political project that calls for the valuing of black life. [17] Simply, that black people are human beings – in the myriad ways they choose to be – and should be afforded dignity, love and respect. Julia Hango’s works of black aesthetics are rooted in African or black feminism – claiming an alternative ideal of being that is outside of western hegemonic cultural representation.

Julia Hango is a feminist – a native Namibian feminist artist.

Black or African Feminism is a political way of thinking, knowing and doing that questions the existential struggles of black women in a patriarchal anti-black world. It allows for black women to define themselves in however many ways that are not linked to western patriarchal standards. In so doing, it advocates for the equal recognition of the humanity of these women and, in all aspects of their lives, to have autonomy, authority and agency over themselves. Western (European and white American) feminism deals with gender, sexuality and class struggles of women, while African (or black) feminism addresses the oppression of women in terms of gender, sexuality, class and their race – a phenomenon Kimberlé Crenshaw described when she termed the idea of ‘Intersectionality’. The systemic nature of the social construct that is race is so defining in a world that privileges sight, that it perceives and relegates blackness – in a hegemonic patriarchal global community – to embodied non-human.

Hango also invokes the politics of Edouard Glissant’s ‘Opacity’, which speaks to the irreducibility, to western standards, of (non-western) people, as well as the assertion of different communities and societies’ humanities, on their own terms. Epistemologically, opacity does not involve hierarchy in the way of western societies, but rather a recognition of the many legitimate ways in which indigenous colonised societies choose to be human.[18] ‘Pro’Sobopha asserts  – true to colonial hierarchical dichotomous idea of humanising – that while the white body has always been represented and seen as holy, pure, civilised (human), the black female body has been viewed as impure, savage and embodying evil (non-human).[19] Through their use of nakedness, naked protest and eroticism, Hango appropriates the very thing that had rendered black women non-human, justifying their subjugation and sexualisation – their bodies – to assert their humanity.

Julia Hango identifies with being non-binary, whose pronouns are ‘they or them’. Non-binary as an identity is unlimiting of traditional gender categories where unlike within anatomical gender prescriptions of coloniality, one is able to oscillate amongst all gender and sexual identifications and expectations despite their anatomy.

Nakedness

One of the contexts within which nakedness, or rather nudity is accepted, is in the arts. To be clear, there is a distinction between nudity and nakedness. Nudity describes a body that is accepted within and adheres to the ideal western cultural representation of the ideal form of a particular gender. For women, the ideal is hairless, smooth, even and fair skin, long flowy hair, docile and non-confrontational – ultimately, anti-black. Nakedness is the body ‘unclothed’ or ‘undressed’, outside of the ideal cultural representation. The black female body – Julia Hango’s staple subject matter – exists in the realm of nakedness because it does not adhere to the faultless standards of white porcelain skin, long silken hair and delicate tempered features. If the cultural ideal is socially constructed, as it is, it stands to reason that there exists descriptions of the exemplary in other cultures, providing an alternative but equally real ideal of the naked female body. [20] People and societies who define their humanities differently, will define their ideal cultural representation differently. Hango’s depiction of nakedness and the ‘imperfect’ is an experimentation of being human, in opposition to the hegemonic standards – a long-lived experience of being black in an anti-black world. [21]

Filling the Void, 2014, Photograph (Courtesy of the artist)

Colonial western patriarchal ways of defining humanity are what has dictated the ways in which bodies are perceived in the arts and in society at large. According to Farrington, the female nude, since antiquity, has been understood as a passive creature: she reclines, poses placidly in a pastoral setting or in a domestic interior for the benefit of the male viewer. [22] Hango’s naked female figures are always in strong and energetic movements, sometimes in literal opposition to the white male. In the photograph “Filling the Void,” Hango juxtaposes their body against that of a white male. The black female body and the white male body share a nylon stocking – each occupying a leg. Both figures are moving in opposing directions where the female figure is bent over backwards, exposing their hairy genitalia, while the male bends over forward – also exposing his hairy genitalia – with one arm in the stocking, ‘filling the void’. Perhaps this is a depiction of how this body type – white and male – takes up space socially (in a patriarchal society) and physically, occupying a ‘natural’ leadership position. Black women, on the other hand are constantly lagging behind, and have to bend over backwards to be seen, and humanised – a plight addressed by African Feminism. As a point of departure, asserting one’s humanity from the point of the non-human means acknowledging one’s position as a product of colonisation and coloniality – and one’s place within this framework – because, unfortunately, nothing has gone untouched by imperialism, capitalism and racism. This piece does that.

Julia Hango
Spitzkoppe, 2016. Photograph (Courtesy of the artist)


Uunity conCiousness is Ourr Birthright…, @nakashwa_thewildwoman, 7 December 2020 (Instagram)

Spitzkoppe are photographs of dynamic, energetic black female figures – neither passive nor romantic. The former depicts a naked female figure, legs spread wide, exposing her pubic-haired genitalia, and whose smooth skin juxtaposes with the roughness of the boulders upon which she stands. The positioning of the figure makes it so that the genitalia becomes the focal point, forcing the viewer to confront the neither sexual, bizarre nor uncivilised exposure. Similarly, the latter, where amongst the rough, rocky and barren landscape of Namibia, the hand-standing naked, pubic-haired, female figure becomes the focal point. This is a far cry from the placidly-posing nude in a pastoral setting, for the benefit of the male gaze. Hango’s foregrounding and depictions of the black female body as high art, asserts the humanity of the ‘imperfect’. Exceptions to the passive female ideal in western art do exist, states Farrington, however, they are associated with being animalistic, evil or allegorical creatures of legends – non-human. [23] The modern patriarchal view is that the naked, virile, unrefined black female body doesn’t romantically appeal to the male gaze, thus it deserves to be sexualised and dehumanised. Hango appropriates this view, and through nakedness asserts their identity as a black non-binary ‘woman’ and forces the viewer to confront the ways in which they define their humanity. When a woman photographs or paints female nakedness – using her body or that of a model –  there’s often a self-referential fluency, Farrington points out, that allows for a more expansive and less trivialised (male) ‘gaze’. [24] In becoming the object of her own work, Farrington continues, the creative process counter-acts the male viewer and male artist as they’re suddenly replaced by a female viewer and female artist – the target audience shifts to being female and, possibly, feminist. [25] This replacement means that Hango no longer plays to the gallery of patriarchy, rather they inscribe autonomy, authority and agency (feminist ideals) over their naked female body.

The artist, naturally so, makes the association of native bodies to land. Due to colonial imperialism – the violent removal of natives off of their land for politics and profit – African land is a politically contentious issue. Land speaks of identity: where one is born, where one’s ancestors are from, and where one dies. Land also provides food for the sustenance of bodies, and is a source of profit.

Untitled, 2020, Collage (Courtesy of the artist)

In Untitled, a collage, Hango is the actively reclining naked figure, widely open and exposing their hairy genitalia and armpits, and wearing a horned oxen skull as a mask;, wearing wrist, ankle and waist beads, and a pair of dirty All Star sneakers, with socks pushed all the way to the bottom of their legs. Waist beads are an indigenous remedy of tending to female reproductive health – a theme that Hango addresses in some of their works. Levitating above the skull is an image of planet earth, while jaggedly crowned by the indigenous Namibian succulent, the Conophytum Uviforme. Hango’s composition of this piece is in keeping with the unrefined, cut-and-paste nature of her collages. A roughness that is carried through their depiction of the female figure. In western nude art, saints and other holy people were presented without pubic hair, according to Górnicka, and only common or evil characters were presented with pubic hair. [26] It was considered repugnant, impure, shameful and animalistic (non-human). Hango’s @body.positive.namibia Instagram post shown below, of the hairy genitalia, whose pubic hair protrudes out from under red lacy underwear, romanticises and celebrates that which the cultural ideal considers non-human – hairy black female nakedness.

Julia Hango
@body.positive.namibia, 22 September 2020 (Instagram)

Throughout the colonisation of Namibia from 1884 to 1915, the Germans imposed their tradition of what they perceived as farmstead architecture (from Germany) – but was actually the neo-Tudor European style – throughout Namibia. [27] In In Haus Carkes , a digital collage, Hango depicts a colonial neo-Tudor styled structure, in Swakopmund, designed by Otto Ertl in 1906. [28] As the background, the image of this building is superimposed by an image of a naked native woman, dressed in a traditional Herero cattle head dress. [29] The female figure in the foreground is seated upright on bent and open legs, with her back towards the viewer. Arms are held up half way, hands are open and painted white – assuming a posture of surrender. This is perhaps a comment on the surrender to the coercion, epistemological and physical genocide visited upon the Nama and Herero – specifically – during 1904 and 1908. This naked figure is, however, defiant in their surrender: insultingly opening their legs and exposing her genitalia towards the ‘Germans’, as it were, while wearing the traditional head dress, refusing coloniality’s perceptions of what is human, even in the act of surrendering to the violence of genocide.

Julia Hango
In Haus Carkes, 2016. Collage (Courtesy of the artist)

Julia Hango refuses the universal embodiment by making high art of what has been loathed, othered and dehumanised – the naked, hairy, strong-gestured black female body. It is a practice that is against the hegemonic claim of universal cultural representation, one that speaks to a European definition of being. What is important in Hango’s work, is the assertion that nakedness is neither bizarre, innately sexual, uncivilised nor is it anything new to indigenous African natives. [30] It has just been constructed that way.

Naked Protest

The act of resorting to nakedness (as protest) discards the idea of the black female body as docile and a passive subject of patriarchal sexual consumption. [31] Marches and other political actions are enacted through and by the body, thus the body has become such an important vehicle of protest. The issue of women having autonomy over their bodies is still – in the twenty first century – a major feminist struggle. Namibian women activists and feminists recently hit the streets and staged a protest, demanding a reform of the Namibian Abortion and Sterilisation Act of 1975 that is still in effect. Essentially, the Act states that abortion is illegal to women and girls except in cases of rape, incest or where the mother or the child’s life is in danger. [32] In the images below, uploaded by @body.positive.namibia, on 6th of July 2020, Julia Hango makes use of the unruly politics of naked protest to advocate for the cause.

My BODY My RULES, @body.positive.namibia, 6 July 2020 (Instagram)


Julia Hango
Pro Choice!!!!, @body.positive.namibia, 6 July 2020 (Instagram)

Hango is depicted shielding their body with a poster, on which is written “My Body My Rules”. In the other image, they are quite literally using their naked body as a site of protest, inscribing “My Body My Rules” on their abdomen, and “Pro” and “Choice” on either front thigh. Rendering their naked body as part of the political, they foreground the area that is most physically affected by the unavailability of this choice – the abdomen and uterus area.

Queen Fifi, 2016. Photograph (Courtesy of the artist)

Tamale points out that African women’s embodied protests predate colonialism. [33] Hango’s Queen Fifi illustrates an Igbo customary practice of naked protest known as ‘sitting on a man’ or ‘ogu umunwaye’ – invoked to punish disrespectful men. In this photographic piece, Hango – the semi-clothed female figure – uses their body to subdue the white naked male figure, sitting on him as they casually sip on a glass of red wine. Within the moral dictates of the cultural representation of western standards, Hango is more dressed – however scantly – than the white male figure, and is therefore more morally abiding. However it is their blackness, their gender and the exposure of their female genitalia – which has been sexualised within these standards – that relegates them to repugnance and immorality. They nonetheless use their body in a move towards a different kind of humanising politics – unruly politics. Politics, according to Khanna, Mani, Patterson, Pantazidou and Shqerat, has a grammar and procedure that is defined and enforced by those in power. [34] Unruly politics is when citizens refuse to speak that language and adhere to that procedure, rather insisting on another language.[35]

Naked protests, according to Jimlongo, are unruly politics because they disrupt the heteronormative binary of protest action, giving political agency to bodies which traditionally have been read as passive, have been sexualised and/or rendered non-human in western society – black female bodies. [36] Nakedness dwells outside of what is appropriate language of public discourse and protest within the hegemonic society. This, in aligning with the ideology of opacity, is what Hango uses to demand the humanity of black women.

Traditionally, in African societies, exposing the nakedness of elderly women and mothers – as Julia Hango is – is the ultimate curse, Tamale recounts. [37] “The reason is said to be that through pregnancy, childbirth and nurturing, women are givers of life. By stripping naked in front of men old enough to be her children or grandchildren, a mother is symbolically taking back the life that she gave, and so in a way, pronouncing death upon them”. [38] By this logic, naked protests call for the recognition of native women’s issues and humanity, even if it comes at the risk of ridding the target or the viewer of their humanity.

Martyr, 2016. Photograph (Courtesy of the artist)

In Martyr, the black naked female body is depicted as occupying a position of power. It depicts a naked Hango taking an axe to a naked, anally-exposed white male’s head. Perhaps the white figure is a martyr of German colonialism and coloniality, being decapitated as reparation. The power in the embodied subversive protests demonstrated in Hango’s work is derived from the reversal of positions where the socially superior (white man) is subject to not just being the spectator, but the target of violence inflicted by the naked spectacle of the socially inferior. [39] The naked woman, in that moment, is no longer in a position of sexualisation, the scientifically experimented upon and the dehumanised. She has authority and agency of her body, using it as a tool of political action that calls for the recognition of the myriad ways she chooses to be human.

Blacklivesmatter, 2016, Photograph (Courtesy of the artist)

Blacklivesmatter” is another example of the naked woman subduing the white male naked body. However, as Sutton points out, a (black) naked woman’s body cannot completely control the interpretation others will ascribe to her naked performance – sexualisation and dehumanisation is always a possibility.[40] The rope loosely wrapped around the male figure’s neck, over his back and piled up on the floor could be indicative of either lynching or an erotic sexual encounter. Hango’s wearing of the platform shoes and their foot-on-neck gesture, while leisurely drinking red wine, lends to either interpretation. Though, as the title suggests, the piece speaks of the black aesthetic project of valuing and humanising black life. [41]  

Black women should have the space to express their sexuality, without running the risk of re-inscribing the dominant dehumanising discourse onto their naked bodies, or being criticised for disrobing being the only means of expression in their arsenal. [42] The dictates of western standards require black women to be a certain way – to adhere to Christian puritan morality – to be deserving of respect and humanity, regardless of how they choose to define their being. Rightfully so, Hango should be able to oscillate between naked protests and expressing the erotic without worrying if their politics will still be taken seriously. Black feminism and Glissant’s opacity advocates for self-determination in however many ways.

For black women to reclaim their humanity through their naked bodies, it means “to challenge the authority of colonial patriarchal boundaries – boundaries of gender and identity, between art and obscenity, the permissible and the forbidden.” [43]

The Erotic

One of the numerous ways in which individuals express their humanity is through their practice of the erotic. To be clear, the difference between the erotic and the pornographic is that pornography invites a depersonalised view – a voyeuristic, keyhole view, while eroticism involves the process of identification with the depicted sexual human relations. [44] According to David Carr, in his The Erotic Word: Sexuality, Spirituality and the Bible’ (2003), eroticism occurs at the intersection of the spiritual and sexual identification:

“I work… on that premise—that sexuality and spirituality are intricately interwoven, that when one is impoverished, the other is warped, and that there is some kind of crucially important connection between the journey toward God and the journey toward coming to terms with our own sexual embodiment. Both sexuality and spirituality require space in one’s life to grow. Neither flourish amidst constant busy-ness and exhaustion. Both require an openness to being deeply affected by someone outside oneself, whether one’s lover or God. Both involve the whole self. Finally, at their most intense, both spirituality and sexuality involve an interplay between closeness and distance. Neither sexuality nor spirituality work if one is seeking a constant ‘high.’”[45]

Hango’s work on the erotic includes the political in this intersection. In their podcast ‘Masturbatorium’, they often refer to different types of sexualities and practices, including ‘cosmic sexuality’ – of universal energies, meditation and the tantric sex tradition. The Tantric sexual/spiritual tradition (based on Hinduism and Buddhism) is that of using sexual energy and the excitement generated in the pelvic region to raise psychic energy up through the chakras, up to the head (crown chakra), where one connects with a cosmic orgasm generated from within. [46] Practitioners of this tradition – as Hango is – believe that such sexual activity unites one with God, or the Cosmic energy that flows through all creation. What makes the erotic political is that it is an aestheticised sexual representation within a specific culture. Nead explains that the erotic defines the degree of sexuality that is allowed within the aesthetic representation of a culture or society. [47] Hango’s black women aesthetic representation – in asserting the many ways women can be human – is political.

@body.positive.namibia, 18 July 2021 (Instagram)

On @body.positive.namibia, Hango posted an artwork (above) of a full-figured naked woman sitting on the floor, facing the viewer with her legs wide open. She cusps with both hands a light source that appears to be rooted in her womb area – the sacral chakra, which is responsible for emotions, creativity, sexuality, desire and feelings of intimacy. This woman is very confrontational in her posture and facial expression – unlike the idea of the placid, according to the colonial view of women. This light from her womb is the sole light source lighting up the environment within which she sits – illustrating the power of the resource that is the sacral chakra, where life is conceived and incubated. There seems to be a spark in the centre of her chest – the position of the ‘heart chakra’, a point of unconditional love, compassion and intuition. Lorde’s understanding of the erotic – as a source within each woman that lies in the deeply female and spiritual plane – as firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed and unrecognised feeling, is illustrated by this work so accurately. [48]

We have a looooong journey…, @body.positive.namibia, 17 July 2020 (Instagram)


@body.positive.namibia, 7 January 2021 (Instagram)

In another post, Hango uses their naked body in striking a sensual/sexual pose, revealing their hairy genitalia and armpits – opposing the depiction of women in western nude art. Each breast is a light source – cosmic in nature – as though, through their sexual stance, they are connecting with cosmic energy. This photograph is indicative of the erotic: the intersection of the sexual, spiritual and the political. The presentation of the black female (naked) body is at the centre of feminist cultural politics, Nead asserts, and artists – such as Hango – are using images of female bodies to make visible a range of feminist identities, which speak to the myriad ways women choose to define their humanities and their identities. [49] The same can be seen in another photographic piece posted on Instagram. The ropes are of the Shibari or Kinbaku tradition of Japanese decorative erotic rope bondage. [50] Hango depicts the intersection of the sexual (bondage), the spiritual (cosmic light on her breasts) and the political (black naked female body) – an expression of eroticism.

Kurt Falk, a twentieth century German Anthropologist conducted research on the sexual tendencies of native Namibians: the Ovambo, the Ovahimba, the Herero, Khoi-san, the Owambo, the Nama and the Nguni. Amongst all of them, he found that the long-standing practice of homosexuality, homoeroticism and gender fluidity was understood as something natural – as natural as eating and drinking – and that they saw nothing special (or immoral) in same-sex intercourse, provided it was not talked about. [51]Soulmates”, 2015, depicts two naked native males holding hands, foregrounding a desert dune. The two figures are surrounded by specks and washes of light, indicative of stars in the universe – the cosmic. What appears to be the sun is rising within a black vacuum from behind a mountain of crystals. Perhaps the homosexual and homoerotic practices of these males is rooted in the cosmic, with a strong connection to their land. The association of black bodies with land is a staple motif in Hango’s work. Land is not only a political issue (imperialism), it is spiritual to native Africans, as land is a requisite for an ancestral alter where birth, coming of age, and death ceremonies take place.

Soulmates, 2015. Collage (Courtesy of the artist)

One of the reasons the erotic is feared or discouraged, according to Lorde, is because erotic knowledge (spiritual, sexual and political) empowers one, and it becomes a lens through which we scrutinise all aspects of our existence. [52] It calls on us to define ourselves in many other ways – outside of coloniality – and to claim our humanity in accordance with those definitions.

Conclusion

The black female body is political, as it is the site on which power is contested and negotiated regarding race, gender, sexuality and class. These are bodies that, within the cultural representation of coloniality, have been subjugated and dehumanised for not adhering to the prescription of what women should be: docile, placid, with long flowy hair, hairless genitalia and porcelain white skin, for the pleasurable gaze of men. Imperialist puritan morality, and subsequently, western nude art made these prescriptions.

Julia Hango, a Namibian native artist and feminist applies the ideologies of feminism – agency, autonomy and authority over one’s body – to create alternative perceptions of naked black female bodies. They foreground, center and confront the viewer with pubic-haired, naked and dynamic-bodied women – the opposite of the west’s dictates. Hango invokes Opacity’s irreducibility in their method that asserts black women’s humanity in an anti-black patriarchal world.

The unruly politics of naked protests depicted in Hango’s work are another illustration of claiming one’s humanity. The language of naked protests is outside of the established ‘appropriate’ way to hold public discourse within hegemonic western culture. The spectacle of the protest gives authority and autonomy to bodies that have traditionally been perceived as powerless and non-human.

Embracing agency, autonomy and authority over one’s body unearths the erotic – the intersection of the sexual, spiritual and political – which Hango uses to assert their humanity, outside of dominant cultural representations. Lorde claims that when one is in touch with the erotic, one becomes less willing to except powerlessness, or whatever forced states of being which are not of one. [53] Through the constant motifs of the naked female body, pubic hair, indigenous natives’ representations, the cosmic and the connection of the body to land, Hango opens up methods of experimenting with black humanity in an anti-black dehumanising world.

Bongisa Msutu is an architectural lighting designer, a part-time design lecturer, a student and an art lover, with a keen interest in design anthropological research and practices. 


Notes.

[1] Nadia Brown and Sarah Allen Gershon, ‘Body Politics’, Politics, Groups, and Identities, 5(1), 2017, 1.

[2] Brown and Gershon, Body Politics, 1.

[3] Heike Becker, ‘Making Tradition: A Historical Perspective on Gender in Namibia’, In Unravelling Taboos: Gender and Sexuality in Namibia, La Font, S and Hubbard, D, eds, (Windhoek: Legal Assistance Centre, 2007), 24.

[4] Becker, Making Tradition: A Historical perspective on gender in Namibia, 24

[5] Becker, Making Tradition: A Historical perspective on gender in Namibia, 25

[6] Becker, Making Tradition: A Historical perspective on gender in Namibia, 25

[7] Becker, Making Tradition: A Historical perspective on gender in Namibia, 25

[8] Sylvia Tamale, ‘Nudity, Protest and the Law in Uganda’, Makerere University: Inaugural Professorial Lecture, Feminist Africa, 22, 2016: 52 – 86.

[9] Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyéwúmi, ‘Visualising the Body: Western Theories and African Subjects’, In The Invention of Women: Making Sense of Western Gender Discourse, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 1.

[10] Oyéwúmi, Visualising the Body: Western Theories and African Subjects, 5

[11] Oyéwúmi, Visualising the Body: Western Theories and African Subjects, 2

[12] Barbara Sutton, ‘Naked Protest: Memories of Bodies and Resistance at the World Social Forum’, Journal of International Women’s Studies, 8(3), 2007, 142.

[13] Tamale, Nudity, protest and Law in Uganda

[14] Tamale, Nudity, protest and Law in Uganda

[15] Tamale, Nudity, protest and Law in Uganda

[16] Becker, Making Tradition: A Historical perspective on gender in Namibia, 30

[17] Louis R Gordon, ‘Black Aesthetics, Black Value’, in Public Culture, 30(1), 2017, 21.

[18] Benjamin P Davis, ‘The Politics of Edouard Glissant’s Right to Opacity’, in The CLR James Journal, 25 (1-2), 2019, 68.

[19] Mgcineni Pro’Sobopha, ‘The Body: Gender and Politics of the Representation’, Agenda, 19(63), 2005, 120.

[20] Oyéwúmi, Visualising the Body: Western Theories and African Subjects, 10

[21] Tendayi Sithole, The Black Register, (UK: Polity Press, 2020), 3.

[22] Lisa E. Farrington, ‘Reinventing Herself: The Black Female Nude’, in Women’s Art Journal, 24(2), 2004,15.

[23] Farrington, Reinventing Herself: The Black Female Nude, 15

[24] Farrington, Reinventing Herself: The Black Female Nude, 19

[25] Farrington, Reinventing Herself: The Black Female Nude, 19

[26] Barbara Górnicka, Nakedness, Shame and Embarrassment: A Long-term Sociological Perspective, (Germany: Springer VS, 2016), 167.

[27] Kenny Cupers, ‘The Invention of Indigenous Architecture’, In Race and Modern Architecture, Cheng,I, Davis, C.I and Wilson, M, eds, (Basel: University of Basel, 2020), 196.

[28] Namibia Stays, The Altes Ampsgericht: Swakopmund, https://www.namibia-accommodation.com/listings/attractions/historic_buildings_and_architecture, Accessed 10 January 2021.

[29] Herero people are indigenous Namibians, historically nomadic cattle herders.

[30] Gcotyelwa Jimlongo, When Women Have Reached the End of their Politics: Nakedness as Resistance, (Hons essay, Rhodes University, 2018), 4.

[31] Jimlongo, When Women Have Reached the End of their Politics: Nakedness as Resistance, 6.

[32] Aisha Salaudeen, and Bukola Adebayo, ‘Abortion is legal in Namibia, but only if a woman is in danger or has been sexually abused. Activists are demanding reform’, (CNN, 2020), Available: https://edition.cnn.com/2020/11/26/africa/namibia-abortion-reform-intl/index.html, Accessed 6 February 2021.

[33] Tamale, Nudity, protest and Law in Uganda.

[34] Akshay Khanna, with Priyashri Mani, Zachary Patterson, Maro Pantazidou and. Maysa Shqerat, ‘The Changing Faces of Citizen Action: A Mapping Study through an ‘Unruly’ Lens’, IDS Working Paper, (423), 2013.

[35] Khanna, et al, The Changing Faces of Citizen Action: A Mapping Study Through an ‘Unruly’ Lens, 13

[36] Jimlongo, When Women Have Reached the End of their Politics: Nakedness as Resistance, 11

[37] Tamale, Nudity, protest and Law in Uganda.

[38] Christine Mungai, Naked Protests in Africa—They Cause Mayhem: Are They Necessary, Useful or Effective?, (Mail and Guardian Africa, April 23 2016), Available: http://mgafrica.com/article/2016-04-21-naked-protests-in-africa

[39] Tamale, Nudity, protest and Law in Uganda.

[40] Sutton, Naked protest: Memories of Bodies and Resistance at the World Social Forum, 145

[41] Gordon, Black Aesthetics, Black Value, 21

[42] Sutton, Naked protest: Memories of Bodies and Resistance at the World Social Forum, 145

[43] Lynda Nead, ‘The Female Nude Art, Obscenity and Sexuality’, (London: Routeldge, 1992), 107.

[44] Nead, The Female Nude Art, Obscenity and Sexuality, 104

[45] David M Carr, The Erotic Word: Sexuality, Spirituality and the Bible, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003) 10.

[46] Christopher MacKenna, Sexuality and Spirituality – Possible Conjunctions, 2007, Available: https://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/docs/default-source/members/sigs/spirituality-spsig/chris-mackenna-sexuality-and-spirituality-asp.pdf?sfvrsn=dd694e64_2

[47] Nead, The Female Nude Art, Obscenity and Sexuality, 103

[48] Audre Lorde, ‘Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power’, In Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, (US: Ten Speed Press, 1984).

[49] Nead, The Female Nude Art, Obscenity and Sexuality, 107

[50] Alicia Joy, ‘A Brief History of Kinbaku: The Art of Japanese Bondage’, 2017, Available: https://theculturetrip.com/asia/japan/articles/a-brief-history-of-kinbaku-the-art-of-japanese-bondage/

[51] Kurt Falk, ‘Homosexuality Among the Natives of Southwest Africa’, In Boy-Wives and Female-Husbands: Studies in African Sexualities, Murray, S.O and Roscoe, W., eds, (US: Palgrave Macmillan, 1998), 194.

[52] Lorde, Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power.

[53] Lorde, Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power.

 

 

 

 

 


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