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Sabelo Mlangeni’s House of Allure
Sabelo Mlangeni, “James Brown” (2019) | Digital ultrachrome archival print | Image courtesy of the artist and blank projects, Cape Town

Sabelo Mlangeni’s moving photos of life inside a Nigerian queer safe house

The photographer spent two months living among the inhabitants of the House of Allure – a safe space for the queer community of Lagos

Photographer Sabelo Mlangeni discovered the House of Allure almost by accident. He was in Lagos to take pictures of a transgender woman who’d achieved celebrity status but, after they didn’t answer his messages, he was forced to come up with an alternative idea for his project. Researching the local area, Mlangeni heard of a safehouse for queer Nigerians which promised to offer a refuge from the country’s hostile attitude to the LGBTQ+ community. Fascinated by the idea of this safe, almost sacred, space, he got in touch with some of its residents, and, after a vetting process, ended up living at the House of Allure for two months. There, he forged strong relationships with the extraordinary people he met and took portraits of. What follows is a privileged and moving insight into the everyday lives of the House of Allure and its inhabitants, all trying to preserve a space where they can safely live in plain sight of their fellow human beings. 

Now featured as part of a free and public group exhibition in London called Face to Face, curated by Ekow Eshun and organised by the Fund for Global Human Rights, Mlangeni’s The Royal House of Allure will be shown alongside other photographers whose work also touches on themes of social inequality, racism, and authoritarianism, such as Kyle Weeks, Mahtab Hussain, and Medina Dugger.

Below, we speak to Mlangeni about marginalised communities, life in a queer Nigerian safehouse, and his experiences in the House of Allure.

Can you tell us about how you came to hear of the House of Allure?

Sabelo Mlangeni: Through social media. My starting point was investigating how social media has shaped celebrity culture in the city of Lagos. My initial idea was to continue following Bobrisky and Denrele (queer social media influencers) as I’ve been following them on Instagram. Things took a turn when I got to Lagos and my messages were not answered. I went back to Facebook, where I found a dance video of James Brown, Tonnex, and Ruby. In the video, I found the Facebook and Instagram handles of James Brown and Tonnex and wrote to introduce myself and request a meeting. When I wasn't getting a response, I went back to James Brown and Tonnex’s accounts and friends. I checked on close friends and I found Oluwa, who also had a WhatsApp number on his Facebook. I also attached a PDF of Country Girls (an itimate portrait and book Mlageni made about gay life in the South African countryside). The following morning, I got a response from Oluwa, who asked for more information about what my work is about, a picture of myself, and told me that every move is calculated in Lagos for the LGBTIQ community, which was why James Brown and others had not responded to my request for meetings. Oluwa told me about Mr. Morrison (the mother of the House of Allure) and that I will have to talk to him to access his friends. On Sunday afternoon, Oluwa managed to arrange a meeting with Mr. Morrison and other members of the house who came to my residency house. On that evening after our first meeting, I got invited to a prayer meeting for hope in the house. The rest is in pictures...

You spent two months living at the House of Allure, what was life like there?

Sabelo Mlangeni: It was familiar – at times familiar like my own skin. Bafana's house in Ermelo is not formally a safe house but it’s because it is exactly what the House of Allure is offering to LGBTQ community, a sober space, space where we could be ourselves without worrying about the outside world which is just at the doorstep. Where we have to take a different face whenever we walk out the streets because of danger.

Can you share any anecdotes of your time at the safehouse? 

Sabelo Mlangeni: There are many memories to share of my time at House of Allure but two pop in mind:  the spontaneous photo shoots were fun because the house had other creatives like makeup artists, fashion designers, stylists, singers, dancers performance, writers. Some shoots happened there and some because we had outsourced location and paint we had planned but these moments for me were the best: seeing talented, enthusiastic, young people pushing against the odds.

The highlight was a dinner organised by the members of the house on my day of leaving Lagos. As a photographer this said a lot about how people at the house felt about my presence. Something that is always part of the question whenever I am working out of my comfort zone is: how do I get accepted? What does my presence mean? In this dinner, when every member of the house shared poetry, notes, and comments about our encounter, I was humbled. It was then I asked for permission to use House of Allure as the title of the coming work, and my request was received with joy by everyone who was present at the dinner.

Were there any particular individuals you connected deeply with?

Sabelo Mlangeni: I connected with everyone. (Laughs) but James Brown wasn't friendly at first until I took a few pictures of him with his phone for his Instagram. He asked me, ‘If my country kicked me out because I collaborated with you, would your country give me a safe place to hide?’ It’s a question that wasn't easy to answer, but I assured him that if this happens, the community is big out there. 

Olalere was magic from day one. When they came to my residency house Arthouse Lagos I was surprised because I expected Mr. Morrison, Tonnex, and Oluwa. To my surprise, it was a full car. When I was invited to the house for the prayer meeting, Ola was one person who encouraged me when I was doubting about making photographs on my first day, something that hardly happens because I believe in building trust. Here I was in my first meeting being asked to feel free and make photographs.

The spontaneous shoots created learning and exchange of even basic things like names of those who lived in the house and those who came as visitors. The house during the day had more people because some came to spend a day. But also the shoots were a continuation of the initial idea of a follower and a witness with a camera. Through these shoots, I was introduced to make up artist Thom Smith, Daniel, stylist Tobi, Samej, and designer Matheu, who later made me a Yoruba outfit after I was worried to wear this traditional attire as an outsider without understanding its history.

There were also moments of rehearsals where sofas and tables and chairs were pushed out for the dancers, and Tonnes will go head to head with Ruby, at the same time teaching young dancers like Nonso and Fakors.

And Olumide, who became my right hand and showed me how to use normal transport to reach the Mainland from the residency house in Ikoyi, later showed interest in photography, which I encouraged him to do by leaving my Canon digital camera at the house. 

What is the socio-political climate in Nigeria regarding the LGBTQ+ community? Are the people in your portraits committing an act of resistance by allowing themselves to be pictured? Could they face any consequences?

Sabelo Mlangeni: They have been in resistance way before me. How I bumped into the video online like that, reading the comments in that video, or Instagram posts by Bobrisky or James Brown, I find that most comments are hateful, but this doesn't make them stop posting pictures of themselves being themselves. What is happening here is plugging into something that the LGBTQ community in Lagos, Nigeria, have been doing. I think accepting me and allowing me in their space with the camera has to do with the line I have mentioned earlier, about the difference between South Africa and Nigeria when it comes to the conversation on issues of sexuality and LGBTIQ community. In Nigeria, these conversations are shut (off) completely, while in South Africa they are more open.

At the first showing of House of Allure during the Lagos Biennial in 2019, we were worried about how the work was going to be received. We were worried about what might happen. We had to use incorrect names (as an alias). For sure photographs are or can be used as evidence and this puts the community at risk. This is why it was important in preparation for this exhibition that we have this conversation with Mr. Morrison, even text had to go via him for the green light. I invited them to the opening and they were happy how the work was shown.

What does it mean for these images to be exhibited to a European audience? 

Sabelo Mlangeni: This question has been in question since my first presentation of Country Girls in Europe. The experience was distasteful and exposed how audiences in Europe still lack knowledge, not only for the LGBTIQ community, but the continent a whole.

So this experience has shaped how a work like House of Allure and other work that I continue doing on the LGBTIQ community (is) a work that I choose not to show with every curator or institution who have an interest in showing. 

I understand the urgency, but I started questioning how institutions want to show Black bodies without context or proper research. It sort of troubled me because Black bodies have experienced this kind of gazing before from the same audience, in a different time. This is when I started to carefully select a curator or institution.

For example, when Ekow Eshun invited me for this exhibition Face to Face, his proposition was to show Country Girls, which is part of the travelling exhibition we worked on together in Africa State of Mind: Contemporary Photography Reimagines a Continent curated by Ekow. For sure there is a thin line between Country Girls and House of Allure, but I felt that in the context of an exhibition like Face to Face, House of Allure, was a better fit. Not only that it's a work realised out my comfort zone, but a work that is opening up questions of a landscape where the work was realised, a landscape that hardly openly has a conversation about LGBTIQ community, where LGBTIQ bodies are criminalised – although it’s not that the South African community does not also experience hate and homophobia. We have to understand that homophobia and hate are like racism, they exist almost everywhere. As with all these questions, I felt that this program can be beneficial to the community in Lagos and I trust enough people like Ekow who understand these issues, and are upfront about these conversations. 

“We want to be listened to. We want to be allowed to be who we are at any space without worrying about being criminalised, rejected, or even killed” – Sabelo Mlangeni

How can we help protect these vulnerable and marginalised communities? How can people reading this affect change? 

Sabelo Mlangeni: We want to be listened to. We want to be allowed to be who we are at any space without worrying about being criminalised, rejected, or even killed. We live in constant fear because of hate. These are the things for me that can bring up change. When people are allowed to be themselves, allowed to express themselves freely without fear of the unknown, we will see change.

What lasting impressions would you like to make on your audience?

Sabelo Mlangeni: That Africa is not an island. That we are part of global conversations. That Africa is not a place of backwardness. Africa is exactly where the world is today. I believe what is happening in the LGBTIQ community in Lagos is happening somewhere in Paris. I don't want people to look at this work and community as a thing that is happening outside of what is happening in the world today. We are the world. We are part of the world.

Face to Face is organised by the Fund for Global Human Rights, in The King’s Cross Tunnel, 7th October – 1st November 2020