The Right to Black Queer Life 

Dagmawi Woubshet 

 

I am so taken by the face I lose sense of the photograph, summoned first by Gazi T Zuma’s gaze—a fearless, quiet beckoning that says to me, as if channeling some sacred vow of human conduct and communion, I have the right to look. It is there in the eyes, steadfast, discerning, and in the slightly furrowed bridge, relaying not so much a stern look but one of deliberate, even heightened, intention, which I read as sovereign presence. Zanele Muholi is the photographer and “Gazi T Zuma, Umlazi, Durban, 2010” one of over three hundred portraits of LGBTI South Africans the artist has shot since 2006 when they launched the series, “Faces and Phases.” A pioneering work, “Faces and Phases” is also the most extensive representation of queer women and trans Africans we have to date, a series brimming with unapologetic aesthetic and political vision. Perhaps the most constant feature among these portraits is how the participants meet the camera’s gaze directly and enact a look that is self-willed. On display is a wide range of eye-speak—communicating daring, defiance, pride, joy, gratitude, sensuality, serenity, wonder, anguish, vulnerability, yearning…—an aliveness palpable in each photograph and in so many simply moving to witness. Also on display are forms of gender embodiment and expression that are so capacious quantifying and qualifying them here simply as butch and femme or cis and trans would miss the mark. Taking a careful inventory of “Faces and Phases,” and Muholi’s work more broadly, one is compelled to think more expansively and deeply about the very act of looking: the terms of the human gaze and the camera’s, on the one hand, and the protocols of appearance and enfleshment, on the other. Thus, in this talk, I will consider closely Muholi’s work and explore the prerogatives of black queer life.