Maverick Life


‘their closets, their caskets’: Joburg exhibition explores what it means to accept one’s queerness

‘their closets, their caskets’: Joburg exhibition explores what it means to accept one’s queerness
Exploring artists' studios at Contra.Joburg. (Picture: Ogorogile Nong)

Lerato Mbawu and Troye Alexander speak to Tara Veronica Hall about ‘queer mourning’, in their photography exhibition taking place during Contra.Joburg.

The emotional experience of coming out as queer is loaded and complex, with the metaphorical closet acting not only as a means of hiding one’s authentic self but also as a site of death, letting go and transformation. 

their closets, their caskets, an exhibition by art collective everything in; out which will show during Contra.Joburg explores the ‘mourning’ queer people face when accepting their queerness and letting go of preconceived ideas that they or their loved ones may have had about the heteronormative life they will no longer lead.

It presents works by LGBTQIA+ artists, who will exhibit their work inside closets, alongside photographs and features relating to their personal experiences and responses to this theme.

Hosted by The Creative Uprising Hub (at Transwerke), their closets, their caskets is one of many shows one can view as part of Contra.Joburg (previously known as Open Studios Joburg).

It is an immersive two-day visual arts festival, in which a hop-on hop-off shuttle bus takes ticket holders to a host of participating art studios in Joburg’s inner city.

The Creative Uprising Hub, Transwerke, is one of the stops on the Saturday programme. This building offers creatives affordable art and creative spaces for rising creatives in this city.

According to Lerato Melchior Ntiso Mbawu, a photographer and member of the everything in; out collective, their closets, their caskets explores the queer experience of  when coming out, “the first façade that you have to put up to the world dies…[when] that part of you dies there’s always a space and a time of mourning”.

He states that the overarching theme of the exhibition is “the journey or transition from what you thought you were or what other people perceived you as [to] finally coming to terms with who you are and [allowing] in to show in the world”.

A commercial photographer by trade, Mbawu’s art is comprised of a selection of highly stylised studio photographs which explore and deconstruct the artist’s beliefs around masculinity and relationships, revealing a world of sexual tensions and forbidden desires in opposition to societal norms.

Mbawu’s photography challenges the traditional beliefs he was taught about masculinity in his Zulu upbringing.


‘Lemon Love’ by Lerato Mbau, part of the exhibition ‘their closets, their caskets” at Contra.Joburg. (Photo: Supplied)

“I’ve always had a feminine side,” he says, “[and people] forget that there’s still a man in me.”

The femininity that Mbawu incorporates throughout his photographs “obscures…masculinity because…we can always look strong, but we can dress as we want, firstly, but also embody our feminine side”.

When describing his photographic style, Mbawu credits a lecturer’s philosophy from his days as a student at Tshwane University of Technology:

“If you can control the lights, you control the feeling of the image.”

Mbawu meticulously transforms his studio into a world he creates that is guided by specific scenarios and emotions. Colour therefore plays a symbolic role in his work.

In the series Lemon Love, in which the model drapes himself over a watercolour blue decorated set strewn with lemons and yellow flowers, Mbawu’s choices of blue and yellow represent tranquillity and possibility, respectively, with the yellow of the lemons also invoking their sour taste.

“We’re exploring the sourness of relationships,” Mbawu explains, “it was a conversation about some relationships where one person is so invested and the other one is emotionally unavailable, and there’s this longing.”

“I feel like I have a stronger voice through photography,” says Mbawu.

When asked what he’d like viewers to take away from his work, Mbawu says he tries to “make everyone feel like they’re not alone. But at the same time also, it helps me feel like I’m not alone.”

Nene Mahlangu

The work of artist Nene Mahlangu at August House. (Picture: Ogorogile Nong)

Returning to analogue

Troye Alexander, another participant in their closets, their caskets, takes a more literal approach to the idea of queer mourning. Gold Dust Cowboy is a series of analogue photographs in which Alexander explores the idea of mourning through ‘material remembrance’ in collaboration with his model Ayabonga Ngoma.

Both having recently lost maternal figures, Alexander tackles loss, remembrance and the complexity of maternal relationships via Ngoma, who dresses up in their late mother’s clothing. It functions as an ode to their dressing up together when Ngoma was growing up.

The dresses evoke memories and Alexander uses Gold Dust Cowboy as “a way of reclaiming those memories but also re-existing in those memories [of] all of the trauma of growing up queer and [what happens] behind closed doors…being able to see that in the same light but also the nurture from a parent’s side that you only understand with nuance and age”.

Gold Dust Cowboy exists both as a tribute to Alexander’s foster mother and Ngoma’s mother, and provides catharsis. Alexander describes the shoot as emotional and ideas of mourning and transformation for both him and Ngoma as “physical” as well as psychic.

As Alexander’s relationship with his foster mother was complex and nuanced, remembering can unearth trauma. However, he credits the work with allowing himself to let go. “[Gold Dust Cowboy] was kind of like washing [that trauma] off. In the moment when you’re grieving, in my case, I was just very angry. And I didn’t know what to do with those feelings.”

Troy Alexander, Contra.Joburg

Photograph by Troy Alexander, part of the exhibition ‘their closets, their caskets” at Contra.Joburg. (Photo: supplied)

Alexander’s choice to shoot with an analogue camera stems from a family background heavily involved in old-school photography.

He recalls “the days where you still edited your photos with paint in the darkroom.”

Analogue photography also plays into the themes around Gold Dust Cowboy, which aims to highlight the fleeting nature of memory, as well as mortality.

“I take analogue pretty seriously as part of how I navigate [through] my own things,” says Alexander.

“Closure doesn’t just take a day,” observes Alexander, “in the case of mourning a past life, or past person, it takes time. And it takes active work.”

In the context of queer mourning, Gold Dust Cowboy casts an eye on the re-imaging and re-remembering of maternal relationships in relation to both Alexander and Ngoma’s queerness.

“It’s the hindsight 20:20 thing,” he explains, “[death] really makes you look at the things you’ve dealt with, with this person, even in the metaphorical sense and the death of a past life, it really makes you reflective.”

What Alexander hopes for viewers to take away from Gold Dust Cowboy is that “death is traumatising [but] it allows you a moment to find the gold between the lines or the silver on the cloud lining” through taking a critical look at your memories of the deceased, whether that is a loved one or a past iteration of oneself.

“All we [have] is the memories. You choose to make them bad.” DM

This text was generated by the African Art Content platform funded by the Spier Arts Trust. 

their closets, their caskets is on show at The Creative Uprising Hub (at Transwerke), located within the Constitution Hill Precinct at Sam Hancock Street, Braamfontein. This exhibition and studio building is open to the public through Contra.Joburg on Saturday 25th May 2024 and is open from 10:30am – 5:00pm. Tickets cost R80 and ticket-holders may view any other gallery exhibiting on 25th May in addition to The Creative Uprising Hub (at Transwerke). Tickets are available via Quicket and more information can be found here.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Malcolm McManus says:

    My goodness, I never realized how complex the mind of a gay person is. One would have thought that you simply realized you were gay and lived a normal gay life. Why do gay people make things so complicated. Generally the straight people around them don’t take much notice of them nor give their gayness much of a thought. Much like they don’t give their straightness much thought. In this modern error, gayness is so common its normal. If anything, straight people should struggle with being normal. Normal is the new abnormal. Weird world.

    • Lil Mars says:

      Artists, gay or not, tend to look at the world in all it’s complexity and layers.
      Most gay people are completely ordinary like the straight ones. I know, it’s crazy.

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