Small Town Gay Community

Published: November 15, 2012

CHICAGO — In the United States, the idea of a rural gay community may bring to mind snapshots from the 2006 documentary Small Town Gay Bar, which captures the goings-on of two gay bars in the rural Deep South. Historically, the gay bar has been a community gathering spot, a place where queers can socialize and be themselves, and enjoy the lubrication provided by alcoholic beverages. Another association with rural gay is the more communal, loosely organized worldwide network of Radical Faeries, a group of mostly gay-identified men — though it’s still very queer in nature — that have sanctuaries in rural spots. For example, there’s one in Short Mountain, Tennessee, and another in Zuni Mountain, New Mexico. Both the small-town gay bar and the Radical Faerie sanctuary are constructed rural environments: Without careful planning and someone to fund them, they wouldn’t happen.

Johannesburg-based South African artist Sabelo Mlangeni‘s photographs of rural gay communities in South Africa are about as far as you can get from the American film Small Town Gay Bar. His photos depict a celebratory, positive, and campy-funny queer life in the countryside. Curated by Chicago-raised, New York-based artist Carrie Schneider, who met Mlangeni while at a visiting artist lecturer at the Centre for Contemporary Art in Lagos, Nigeria. This exhibition is the South African artist’s first solo show in the United States. Working in black-and-white photography, Mlangeni captures rich moments that represent strength and pride, but not in a cheesy, Pride-parade kinda way. Every image is full of both heavy queer signifiers and quiet, tender same-sex moments. His work depicts an otherwise unseen, but not closeted, slice of South African life. This cohesive body of work is both thoughtfully and meditatively constructed by an artist who understands and respects this world.

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