Artist works to
take show to Africa
by Elliot Owen
Yvonne Fly Onakeme Etaghene is doing something revolutionary. Three months ago, the self-identified Nigerian dyke poet founded Guava, a multimedia performance project about queer African sexuality to be performed in Nigeria and South Africa in partnership with localized LGBTQ African organizations. The project seeks to highlight complex experiences born out of queer African identity by using various forms of creative expression.
Though the performance element of Guava is still in its preliminary planning stages, Etaghene, 32, will integrate spoken word, monologues, music, dance, and video to create live performances that address issues ranging from love and heartache to homeland issues, dual identity, and activism.
"Guava is about recognizing the amazing work that's happening on the African continent and supporting that as much as I can as someone who lives in the states," said Etaghene, who moved to Oakland from New York City in December. "It's about joining my voice into the amazing chorus that's already happening. I don't know anybody that's doing exactly what I'm doing, which makes my voice unique and necessary."
While global conversations about the meaning of queer identities is steadily diversifying, it remains difficult to find queer Africans who tell their own stories in their own ways without Western interpretation or critique. A queer African herself, Etaghene understands the value of sharing her own story on her own terms. In doing so, she hopes to provoke, encourage and inspire future dialogues within the larger queer African community.
"Queer Africans need to speak for themselves, to have conversations with each other about how to address homophobia and heterosexism at home," she said. "It's not just about contrasting existing Eurocentric, racist, imperialist views of Africa; all of our lives can't be lived in defense. It's about finding what we want our communities to look like and working within our own genius to create a space where we can live happy, fulfilled lives."
After each Guava performance, Etaghene plans to open the space for attendees to share their own stories. She also plans to leave behind an anthology of some of the work performed in addition to creative and community engagement workshop materials to document Guava and encourage the creation of future queer African art and activism on the continent.
"It's important to document who we are. Without documentation, it's very easy to think that we don't exist," she said.
While it's clear that Etaghene has much to offer the queer African community, she is very cognizant about avoiding the recreation of a paternalistic "savior" mentality so often enacted when people go to Africa to help. That's why she is partnering with African organizations – to support and collaborate with people actually doing the work on the ground.
"Even as an African I recognize that there's certain privilege that comes along with being an African who hasn't lived consistently in Africa since I was a child," Etaghene said. "How I even approach returning has a lot to do with not asserting privilege."
As a child moving back and forth from Syracuse, New York to the Delta region of Nigeria, Etaghene grew up trying to reconcile the very different worlds she was exposed to. At age 9, creative expression became her refuge.
"I had just come back from being in Nigeria for two or three years and I had an accent," Etaghene said. "I did not fit in. I was sad about that so I started writing. I would write about all these people that were my friends only in the stories. That's where I went to have community."
In sixth grade she started writing poetry and by age 19 she began performing spoken word pieces, marking the beginning of her evolution as a performance artist. The past 13 years of her life have included three solo tours and shows in over 30 U.S. cities. She has shared stages with Amina Baraka, Bonfire Madigan, Sharon Bridgforth, Staceyann Chin, climbing poeTree, Aya de Leon, and many others.
"I can rock a show anywhere," Etaghene said. "It's just so easy for me. I rarely ever get nervous. It's where I m most me."
As her various identities overlap and color each other, her multiple forms of creative expression present themselves just as uniquely, often as powerfully dynamic, provocative, and humorous pieces that reverberate throughout any room. Etaghene has self-published three collections of poetry, produced four solo art exhibitions, and is currently finalizing a novel. She is also the founder of Sugarcane, a writing workshop for LGBTQ people of color.
Etaghene is currently fundraising for Guava. Her goal is to hit $10,000 by the end of the year to finance the success of performances in both Nigeria and South Africa. She'll depart by June.