A stare—let us not call it a gaze—is solicited. Staring is persistent attention, bafflement, return. Again and again, “what is this?” and “how is it calling to me?” and “why is it calling to me?”
The siren song of visual objects.
I encountered Lebo Ntladi’s “thebeautifulonesarehere,” one of four in a series, at the Critically Queer exhibition curated by Jabu Pereira at the University of Cape Town. “Encounter” does not quite capture the multiple times I returned to look at the photograph, captured, first, by the recognizability of a human form, face-to-chest, and then by its dispersal into space, its accumulation of known and unknown cityscapes and landscapes, its vibrant colors and geometries, its making and unmaking of gendered (and other) possibilities.
Captured, I begged Lebo to send me photos of the work so I could try “thinking with it.” Lebo graciously agreed, sending me digital files of the entire series and ways of framing the entire project.
This particular encounter, these textual fragments, might be considered attempts at joining an ongoing conversation.
My name is Kelebogile Ntladi, I am a social documentary and portrait photographer based in Johannesburg, South Africa. Thebeautifulonesarehere are photographic portraits, an ongoing body of work about identity. As someone who is a masculine presenting female, I often feel uncomfortable in public spaces, more than often lately in clubs, social events, parties, where there is a large black male presence. A constant discomfort every time someone male feels the need to establish their presence, in whichever way, as the Alpha male. It could be through a handshake, a shove, disapproving comments or more violent actions. I had often assumed that people in my own age group, mid twenties, and younger are generations more open, knowledgeable and understand different gender identities.
These collages are made from photos I took of various spaces in Johannesburg, the city and surrounding areas. Barbershops, inner-city schools, fences, abandoned buildings, the morgue, caskets, portraits of fashion, queers, and self portraits. I worked in layers. I drew portraits on paper of humans with animal-like features, horns, ears and trunks. I then added objects relating to science fiction or technology, sunglass like, futuristic frames. In each image I tried to make reference to urban cultural norms, body piercing, robotics, jewellery or “swag’. The second layer involved cutting the photographs and creating the collage, I like to work with images or spaces that I can control, structure and deconstruct. I chose a colour closer to gold referencing the history of Africa, The looting of wealth and identity and the reclaiming of that wealth and identity in the future.
One of the themes around this work is Afro-futurism, described as a literary and cultural aesthetic that combines science fiction, fantasy and afro centricity and can be identified as artistic, scientific and spiritual. Created to debate and interrogate the struggles of people of the African Diaspora by envisioning a utopia in the future where people of colour will have advanced technologically, socially, culturally and beyond current dystopian realities.
Lebo provides expansive frames: the public making, unmaking, and policing of gender; the (queer) optimism invested in generational change and youth cultures; the personing of geography and the geography of personing, and, here, it might not be out of turn to add (im)personation and (un)personing; the person-producing and person-disrupting possibilities of collage; and the liberationist possibilities of Afro-futurism.
Given Lebo’s frames—the beautiful and indispensable theorizing of “thebeautifulonesarehere”—my fragments, still trying to emerge, might be read as (mostly unnecessary) footnotes, attempts to catch up with the intelligence of the work and the artist.
I search my research files frantically, looking for thinking on “the face,” the “African face,” “face-ing,” and, possibly, “face-me(a)nt.” Sexology has taught me how to think about “the African body,” the genital-as-person metonym. Metonymy is spatial displacement, but to use synecdoche, ostensibly a more accurate term, demands that I accept an impossible relationship between racist representations and the people represented, that I accept the fiction and faction of human-unmaking representations.
I cannot do this.
One notes that African faces appear in colonial archives as relations of proximity to (idealized) European faces. These relations of proximity will be called “tribe.” Or, faces appear as the absence of light—as “darkness,” “blackness,” “night,” “unfathomable.” Or, faces appear as affect-bearers, as “horror,” “blankness,” “terror,” “rage,” an excess of emotion—but they cannot blush. The face as “mask-like,” the face as “masking,” the face as “mask.” The face as “shrunken head,” as “trophy,” as evidence of primal violence and ancestor veneration. The face is always appearing as a series of effects on the watcher—“I was scared”; “I was disturbed”; “I was restless”; “I was excited”; “I was aroused”; “I was disgusted.” It is a face of spectacular effects, wild and brutal and inhuman and unhuman. And a face that, years ago when I was thinking with images, did not exist to be read, a face that unappeared in liberatory and progressive attempts to discuss the harm enacted on black bodies. With a caveat that the face cannot be read in isolation—one must look at the slope of the neck, the angle of the torso, the torques that show and hide.
Elsewhere in the exhibition, the family of a murdered lesbian, Andritha Thapelo Morifi, gazed out of their sorrow. The poses were familiar—I have seen them in many Kenyan portraits: arms folded in front of the body, body arranged in school-trained angles, face aware of, but not sure how to interact with, the camera. The formal postures of grief.
I spent many years looking at photographs from my grandfather’s funeral in 1983. Perhaps I was trying to erase the experience of seeing his cotton-stuffed nostrils through the little glass pane in the coffin. Perhaps I wanted to recapture the red-eyed vulnerability on grown-up faces that seemed to disappear after the funeral. Those images taught me about the choreography of grief, about the postures of mourning, postures I recognized in the Critically Queer exhibition.
Behind these postures, histories of (dis)engaging from intrusive gazes.
Lebo’s images pose other questions, removing me—removing us—from the face-posture normativities that we know so well, and know not at all. The fluencies I have cultivated begin to unravel: I search for different words, different frames, different possibilities.
Katherine McKittrick teaches me that to say gender is spatial—or geographic—is to say that gender is always produced within and around space, even as gender produces the space around it. Space engenders and gender spatializes.
Two mirror images “face” this image, green reflecting into green, and, if one looks closely, a human-like figure turned toward or facing distant houses that, despite their distance, loom large in this green imagination. A tent-like shape (a shelter?) “centers” the face, an off-center “nose” that anchors and disrupts the ostensible symmetry of the mirrored images. A split nose. A history of harm. But also all the possibilities of green—as stolen, as fertile, as fading, as reclaimed. The “off-center” histories that make green so contested.
Atop the face, a helmet—curved like a bull’s horns, shaped like a gladiator’s implement, at once past and future, traditional and futuristic. High school history returns to whisper about Shaka Zulu’s “bull horn” formation—the word “assegai” lingers. My masculinist fantasies—filled with Klingon warriors—reach for two male-looking figures. On the right horn, a figure who appears to be running away from this helmet masculinity, trying to emerge and depart, balanced, on the right shoulder, by a half-face that looks out from an “engulfing darkness.”
I’m trying to “face” this figure, trying to unlearn my need to “face” it, which is to say, to gender its facing.
Symmetry returns, again, in the ear-like or hair-like protrusions that (un)balance the horns. Extending from the green in the face, the extensions look leaf-like, fall leaves, leaves in transition. As with the “face,” where green space gives way to human-made structures, the ear-like:hair-like structures inhabit flux—the asymmetrical vertical and diagonal lines, as with the mirror-image face, refuses the organization of symmetry, the taxonomic boast that to see a half is to see the whole.
A necklace-laced opening flirts with the unmaking labor of necklacing.
I’m still looking for a language to describe this photograph’s doing and undoing, its fantasies and its desires, its histories and presents. The rich, desert-like background it inhabits and emerges from.
This was not the image hanging in the gallery.
Before I learn to unlearn, I ask Lebo if the photographs engage with, or respond to, Armah’s The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born.
A quick no.
Arrested, I linger. Become overwhelmed. Turn away—glance back. Stare again.
Perhaps it is the text, “choice”; “CLASSIC HAIR CUTTING.” The promise of feminist freedom jostles against neoliberal agency—eroding subjects mutter, “I chose this.” A memory intrudes—the smell of barber shops, line drawings of hairstyles that my father taught me to ignore, desperate attempts to recapture River Road barbers in downtown Pittsburgh.
A nipple—is it a nipple?—peeks.
A “face” takes shape as an un-face, as the obscene inside of skin. The word “flay” rushes up from my archives.
Layers make “fore” and “back” difficult to assign. “Face” folds into “face”—a forehead-covering eye mask (or is it?); nose-like features build on each other, white-edged repetitions.
(I’m still trying to “face” this image)
My efforts to “face” this image, my failures to “face” it, make me think of Simone Browne’s work on face-discerning technologies, and their failures. The face-making labor of surveillance technologies: the unfacing labor of surveillance technologies. Which faces register and which ones “error.” The alien-ness of the “non-face.”
The symmetrical, collarbone-adjacent flashes of skin tug at my frames, muttering that this figure is too humanoid not to have human-like features. My failures to “face” this figure, then, resonate as ethical failures to “face” the other.
Lebo’s techno-face reminds us that gender-fuck and gender-play unsettle the “face-ing” of gender legibility.
(a sliver from a tv show: “is this a man or a woman?” screamed to a rapacious crowd)
Among many other things, gender-legibility circulates as a persistent demand, the place where “the human” is personed, or (im)personates.
8. Critical Aids
How does being beyond recognition open or close the field of political possibility?
—Kylie Thomas, Queer African Reader
To reveal the ways in which I am affected by a photograph is to be exposed, describing what I see is an act that ‘outs’ me, one that positions my intimate self in a public sphere. ‘Giving myself up’ before a photograph is also to occupy a subject position beyond or outside of my own.
–Kylie Thomas, Queer African Reader
This thing that I am has no name. At least not in the language of my people; the language of the people of my grandmother; those of my mother and those with whom I share similar identity documents. Pardon me if to claim a people is to implicate myself in an imaginary collective that can never be mine. Forgive what appears as a dis-connect from obvious modes of intelligibility. Pardon me if to use the pronoun “my” is to situate myself in a position of possession; a possession that appears as an exaggeration. But this is necessary.
–Neo Musangi, “In Time and Space”
A map, then, is only a life of conversations about a forgotten list of irretrievable selves.
–Dionne Brand, A Map to the Door of No Return
Africa has to mean a present and a future home again for those who strive for a freedom linked to the freedom of others like and unlike us.
–Pumla Gqola, “The Time Again for an Africanist Imagination”
Seeing an image means not dying.
–Marie-José Mondzain, “What does Seeing an Image Mean?”
This will be a full nine. To reach ten suggests a closure that must be inconceivable when futures must be imagined. And so ten, the roundness, the completion, must be deferred. Forgive the ethnographic lapse.
Collage can be experienced as violent assembly. Reading Kylie Thomas’s writing on how violence is memorialized in Zanele Muholi’s photographs returns me to the white edges in the second image, the traces of tearing; makes me see the barbed-wire fence that makes the blue sky background seem impossible; suggests cutting and jostling, struggles for space, struggles in space.
Struggle is an optimistic word.
If struggle names present conditions of un-freedom, it also points toward futures saturated by freedom. The futures Lebo’s work anticipates—beyond the violence of gendering and the violence against non-normative manifestations of gender—remain marked by struggle, marked by tears and scratches and scars. Marked by familiar cityscapes and landscapes, histories and presents of prohibition and access. This image, these images, enter the future bearing their histories.
*the images here appear courtesy of Lebo Ntladi, with Lebo’s permission. I asked.