SEMA, ISTANBUL (Left) MADAM JHOLERINA BRINA TIMBO, NAMIBIA (right). Portraits by Gabrielle Le Roux in collaboration with the activists.

Gabrielle Le Roux, a South African artist and activist, is in San Francisco for events around her work including a show of her portraits, which opens tonight at the LGBT Community Center at 1800 Market St. at 6 p.m.  Galería de La Raza will be showing a video series and hosting a discussion with Le Roux and the artist Julio Salgado on Monday, Oct. 27th at 7:30 p.m.  Mission Local sat down with Le Roux to talk about the work. 

ML: What work are you sharing in San Francisco and where?

Gabrielle Le Roux: I’ve come to SF for the first time to show the “Proudly African & Transgender” portrait and story series I co-created with trans* activists from Zimbabwe, Namibia, South Africa, Botswana, Burundi, Uganda and Kenya in 2008, together with a selection of portraits from the “Proudly Trans* in Turkey” collaboration with eighteen trans* activists from across Turkey. The portraits and stories will show at the SF LGBT Centre at the invitation of the Queer Cultural Center and SFSU Sociology Dept.  At tonight’s opening, US-based trans*activists Christina Mavuma from Botswana and Grace Lawrence from Liberia will co-present the work and share their experiences on the continent.

Galería de La Raza will be showing the 18 part video installation of the Proudly Trans in Turkey exhibition, through which trans* activists from across Turkey explore the issues they want to discuss on film.

ML:  Art and activism has a long history, maybe you could tell us what is different about this movement at this particular time?

GLR: We are sharing information in previously impossible ways, the internet and especially social media allow ideas and images to spread around the globe faster and be part of multiple very different, but gradually connecting, conversations. We are also facing new challenges prompting the move from work that is purely critical to work that envisions new people-led solutions. What I’ve seen of art activism a lot of protest art in response to a visible enemy and in this kind of late capitalist phase what we’re up against is more diffuse and that has to do with not really being able to see the reality. Where do things we buy come from, where does our food come from, what are the costs to us and our planet.

I see art activism as increasingly about creating a platform for talking about real change in practical and visionary ways.

 ML: How did you find this particular work or how did it find you?

 GLR: For a long time I couldn’t find a space for my self-taught passion for drawing portraits from life, in the context of my life as an activist working with NGOs. But from 2001 I began to combine my political and creative passions and to make work that is intended as an intervention. Because of the elite history, portraits carry a weight, they are seen as markers of respect, signals of importance and so I use that to signal the importance of people whose work and lives and experience has a lot to teach but who are not valued or who are silenced or stereotyped.

I also feel that we transform each others lives with our stories; that our stories hold the key to a complex understanding of how everything connects. As soon as you go into someone’s story you get into the messy complexity of life and the multiple challenges that we face.

With this trans*-focused work, I am engaging specifically with activists who have something to say and want to use this as a platform and a tool. And their expectations are high. Victor Mukasa, a Ugandan activist and my key collaborator, reflecting on why he chose to make this project happen in 2008: “Transgender Africans have been silenced for quite a long time. We have been invisible as though we did not exist. Today, many of us speak, we show our faces, we write and we express ourselves openly. This exhibition is an extension of all that, whenever we are unable to be present in the physical. The portraits are our images and they speak our words, they tell our stories, they express our feelings, they exhibit our pride, even our fears, they are our history, they are us today and the history of the African transgender struggle in future. They are strength, hope and pride to generations after us.”

ML:  Have you taken your inspiration from any earlier movements/artists?

GLR: Yes, for example, the role of art of all sorts in the anti-apartheid struggle was central to communicating the message for every protest and campaign, there were vibrant images that spoke powerfully to the issues at hand, struggle songs, people’s poets.  They all rally people around a cause; they articulate and make clear a shared vision or a call for justice. The faces and voices of people who have something to say. At that particular time it was like water on dry ground.

ML:  Can you define your message and how it resonates differently here than in, say South Africa where you are from?

GLR: Being raised white in South Africa meant having to unlearn all the lies that made it possible on the southern tip of Africa to make white, heterosexual, middle-class and male the default setting for human. Here we see the same struggles and the same systemic rot at the root that creates the racist, patriarchal, hetero-normative confusion we live in. For me it’s not so much about how it resonates differently in South Africa. If it shows in a queer café, or printed on placards on a march, or in a contemporary art museum it reaches people as an encounter with the activists featured. The message in my work is always about the urgency of listening to and learning from the people and worldviews we have been systematically taught to be deaf to.

ML:  What do you hope to convey in the portraits of the trans activists?

GLR: The first purpose of the work is to co-create work in which a rich diversity of trans* and gender non-conforming people see themselves reflected, and their voices amplified using portraits and stories as the tool. Because of the collaborative nature of my work, which entails inviting the people I draw to write a message of their choice directly onto the portrait, the message conveyed by the work itself is layered. An example of someone whose message summed up an experience was Skipper Mogapi from Botswana, a Trans man, who wrote “Black African man is who I am, the man who no one sees. Rejoicing was my mother the day I was born, happy to have given birth to a baby girl. Little did she know I am trans.”

It cuts to the heart because everyone who is pregnant assumes they will know the gender of their child by looking at their genitals. And that becomes fixed in ways that are deeply problematic.

My hope is that the work will leave the viewers who relate to it feeling affirmed, like they have met friends from another place. And for those to whom it comes as news that there are more than two genders, I hope it leaves them embracing confusion, aware that there are as many gender expressions as people on the planet, keen to learn more, and committed to learning from the people who can speak first-hand about their experiences. Also I hope that everyone will question their own assumptions about themselves and find the process transformational and liberating.

ML:  Are you engaged in other projects using art to further a political message?

GLR: Since beginning to combine portrait drawings from life with first-person stories recorded in a range of media – text/voice/video – I have worked with a wide range of collaborators including Dominican centenarians, the oldest of whom was 126 when I drew her in 2001; people who were forcibly removed from District Six in Cape Town under apartheid who returned there as successful land claimants in 2004; community health-workers from the townships around Cape Town whose voluntary contribution to their communities was saving lives; people infected, affected and working with HIV/AIDS in SA 2002; women social movement builders from around the world in 2006.

This is just some of the work, all of it is political and all of it is or was used in the context of movement building/archiving of areas of struggle. For me all the struggles are connected and it is one big body of work.

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Founder/Executive Editor. I’ve been a Mission resident since 1998 and a professor emeritus at Berkeley’s J-school since 2019 when I retired. I got my start in newspapers at the Albuquerque Tribune in the city where I was born and raised. Like many local news outlets, The Tribune no longer exists. I left daily newspapers after working at The New York Times for the business, foreign and city desks. Lucky for all of us, it is still there.

As an old friend once pointed out, local has long been in my bones. My Master’s Project at Columbia, later published in New York Magazine, was on New York City’s experiment in community boards.

Right now I'm trying to figure out how you make that long-held interest in local news sustainable. The answer continues to elude me.

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