According to World Population Review, Nigeria ranks first on the list of most violently homophobic countries. In the northern region, there is a death penalty for homosexuals. Then there is a punishment of 14-year imprisonment for individuals found guilty of engaging in homosexuality under the Nigerian constitution’s SSMPA (Same-sex marriage prohibition act). Aside from these laws, queerphobia is deeply rooted on the nation’s shores.
Despite the raging violence, the internet has fostered a safe space for queer individuals living in societies that inherently see their queerness as a taboo or foreign concept. Using this medium in my day-to-day encounters, I have come across creatives who are also queer, and they remind me of the folklore about the tortoise and its broken shell. These individuals have embraced brokenness as a tool for existing and living unapologetically.
Since the beginning of man’s existence, creativity has been used as a tool for self-expression. The reality of this bred my curiosity to know if queerness influences creativity. The subject seems broad, and to find a way around it (or some parts of it), I decided to interview three queer creatives whose works emit intensely queer auras.
My first guest, Temmie Ovwasa, is a singer, songwriter and artist. They identify as a non-binary lesbian and released the first openly Nigerian queer album, E be like say dem swear for me. The album takes us through the escapades of a lesbian while addressing the oppressive ills of Nigerian society. Temmie’s lifestyle and unwavering resilience are symbols of the famous pidgin adage, “You no fit kill who don die before.” This simply means you can’t erase what was meant to be.
My second guest, Verena, is a neurotic creative writer who is in love with the world and all the chaos it brings. She identifies as a lesbian. Her use of words and poetic style has a lingering effect- the type that leaves you thirsting for more. Her most acclaimed poem is Vagabonds after Eloghosa Osunde. This poem summarises the tale of what it means to be Nigerian and queer, as told in Eloghosa’s recent novel, Vagabonds.
My third guest, Jaden is a skilled writer and doubles as a singer. He identifies as a gay man and describes himself as tumultuous. He is in an intense relationship with books and music. In his leisure time, he enjoys being a harlot for men.
To begin, I asked each person if they think their queerness influences their creativity. Temmie believes their queerness and creativity are indivisible. “My creativity is rooted in my queerness,” They said. It’s not an influence as much as it’s who I am. I am queer; therefore, my art is inherently queer. One cannot be separated from the other.”
On the other hand, Verena and Jaden think their queerness influenced their creativity and played a role in helping them discover certain aspects of themselves. “I think my queerness has a large influence on my creativity in the sense that it gives me direction on what I need and want to write,” Verena said. “Before I realised I was queer, I didn’t know much about myself; I didn’t know I loved nature or listening to spoken words. So, that realisation fueled my curiosity to know more about who I am, and I guess that has influenced the kind of poems I put out. Also, I would love to be a photographer someday and capture the everyday, ordinary lifestyles of queer folks (and other people, of course). That’s a creative side of me that I’m willing to explore because of my queerness.”
Jaden hit the realisation when he experienced his first heartbreak. “I didn’t even know I had a creative side till I had my first heartbreak,” he said. “Cliché, I know. I wrote my first poem because of it.
My creativity snowballed when I started experiencing all these emotions. All I could think of was getting them out of my system.”
Although Jaden’s response comes from the perspective of a heartbroken man, the highlight of his queerness comes from looking at another man and loving him enough to write about him. “The queerest thing I’ve done with my art is write about the boys I liked,” he said.
Over the years, it appears that queer individuals are increasingly steering the wheels of various creative industries with more visibility. I asked if this stems from a place of seeking safe spaces and finding them in the creative industry, especially for folks living in violently homophobic countries. Or if it originates from art being an instinctive medium of self-expression. Or perhaps if there’s a balance between both factors.
Verena’s response struck a nerve, “Queer people have been misrepresented and underrepresented for so long that actual queer people need to correct those narratives.” So for me, it goes beyond seeking safe places because this world won’t give them to us; it’s about creating and carving out those places for ourselves. So, when you exist in a country where you’re told your love is wrong, it’s essential to hold space with art and other forms of creative expression.”
Temmie’s standpoint buttresses Verena’s point and gives insight into the wily semblance of the creative sector, “The creative industry allows queer people to express themselves, but it isn’t necessarily a safe space. It is secure compared to many institutions. Those institutions are so violent that the creative industry only pales in comparison; it is not a safe space. We just find that many things are overlooked by society under the guise of creative expression, which is always stifled because those spaces, although created by us, are designed to function within the framework of cisheterosexuality. We are made the butt of jokes, portrayed as stereotypes, and even when we get that one minute of fame, the conversation always revolves around our queerness when it is just inherently who we are and isn’t necessarily the basis for our expression. A huge part of it? Yes, but we offer so much more. This is what happens when you build from the closet; you’re essentially shut out, invalidated, or made to feel like you should be grateful for getting access that comes at the cost of your truth.”
Jaden’s perception correlates with Temmie’s. “Queer people need their safe spaces, and the creative industry is mostly accepting, and even in the instances when it isn’t, we’re creating our own safe spaces.”
If the creative industry is at least a valuable tool in the queer expression of self, what’s the queerest piece these creatives have made?
For Jaden and Verena, it comprises poems they’ve written about the people they are inclined to romantically. “Every poem I’ve written where I called my lover and women gods will always feel very queer to me,” Verena stated. Jaden is on the same page. As stated earlier, his queerest pieces revolve around his love interests.
Temmie is of a different school of thought. They disagree with the quantification of their art, “I breathe and live my queerness every day,” they said. “It is not a spectrum. When I create, there is no yardstick to measure my queerness. No scale can determine which flavour of queerness beats the other. Everything I make is very queer because I am a queer creative; I am a queer person.”
Temmie’s vantage point prompted me to introduce Rigel Gemini’s opinionated article, “Why are queer people creative?”
The author is of the opinion that generalising queer people as creative is problematic. He believes that not all queer people are creative, and not every creative person is queer. This notion led me to ask my guests, “Is your art a separate entity from your person?”
The unanimous response, in summary, is no. They all agreed that their art is an inherent part of their quiddity. Thus, both elements are integral.
Verena’s reply is piquing, “Well, I’d like to think that my art reflects who I am. I try as much as possible to create things that people can relate to, but it’s often a representation of myself. In literary academia, there are arguments about whether artists should be separated from their work or be seen as a major part of their art. I believe that whether or not I go with either theory, my work will still be interpreted from the reader’s perspective. So basically, my duty is to be as authentic as possible. While my work can be interpreted and understood outside of my person, I believe I am not a separate entity from it.”
The debate of whether or not artists should be separated from their art has been a bone of contention for a long time, and I believe it is quite challenging to separate the artist from their art because people create from inside their bodies and soul. Is it possible to separate one’s soul from oneself?
Likewise, the topic of whether queerness is a catalyst for creativity revolves around the same concept, and it’s, in fact, a thought-provoking one.
While this article is centred around my curiosity and the vantage points of my guests, I am in accordance with Temmie’s statement where they said, “Queer people are not a monolith, and I cannot speak for everyone.”
I believe this conversation is open, and discussing it through my lens is just one way of viewing it. I am confident that there are several alternatives. Moreover, is the beauty of queerness not in its diversity?