During a rather long layover at Heathrow last week I met up with fellow students Holly Woodward and Simon Chirgwin at the Photographer’s Gallery in London. It was absolutely brilliant to actually meet a few of my fellow students – definitely helps to cut back on the long distance gap. After much chatting and exchanging views Holly and I went on to view the Made You Look exhibit, while Simon had to dash back to the office. Thanks for arranging this Holly!
The definition of a dandy is a man who cares too much about his clothes and appearance, but it is also concerned with “using dress to deliberately flout conventional notions of class, taste, gender and sexuality” (Eshun 2016), while masculinity means “having the qualities or appearance thought to be typical of men”. What then is black masculinity? The stereotypical, historical argument for black masculinity, according to Ferber (2007) “defines Black males as hypersexual, animalistic and savage”. But does that definition still apply today? The classic stereotype is a Western one and not necessarily similarly translated by Africans, or African-Americans. It is interesting then to see the juxtaposition of these two terms in the exhibition title.
The exhibition features black and white photos of dandies in Senegal dating back to 1904 smartly clad in their colonial suits, complete with hats and walking sticks, alongside three of Hassan Hajjaj’s large flamboyant prints with their interesting frames, two of which incorporate tins of pilchards and the other boxes of Le Papillon, which I am guessing is a brand of soap. These cans of fish keep bringing the phrase “he’s an odd fish” to my mind. Hajjaj’s prints feature portraits of men clad in very bright clothing with repetitive patterning (rather like cheap curtaining material of the 1960’s era) against gaudy printed backdrops and dropcloths, all wearing sunglasses.
I would be rather remiss if I didn’t include South African photographer Kristen Lee-Moolman’s work in my write up. When I first looked at the photographed there was a familiarity that I immediately recognized as from South Africa and was pleased to confirm this from the wall text. Lee-Moolman’s dandy stands posed rather akwardly next to a white car, sporting an afro hairstyle. He is wearing overly long white bell bottom trousers that are dragging in the dirt. His top looks more like a woman’s blouse with its cut-away shoulders and long sleeves. A white trench coat belt is tied around his waist. Perhaps the punctum in this photograph for me is the double string of pearls he wears around his neck and the drop earrings in his ears.
Throughout the exhibition, though, one is acutely aware of the performance acted out by the subjects in the photographs. The exaggerated stances and poses and even the clothing are all indicative of men trying on various identities to see which will fit better.
The Black man, like many other races and sexes, is striving to adjust his identity to what pleases him …The identity struggle in black men is different from the identity struggle of men in general because race does play a role in the performance of Black masculinity.
Gender, Sexuality & Women’s Studies Program (2012)
Below is a video featuring curator, Ekow Eshun explaining the concept behind the exhibition.
Eshun Ekow (2016) Look, A Negro! [online] taken from Loose Associations Vol 2, iii. The Photographer’s Gallery: London Available at: http://thephotographersgallery.org.uk/images/Look__A_Negro_low_res_579a05484dfaa.pdf [Accessed 5 September, 2016]
The Photographer’s Gallery (2016) Ekow Eshun on Made You Look: Dandyism and Black Masculinity [user-generated content online] Creat. The Photographer’s Gallery. 5 mins 39 secs. Available at: https://vimeo.com/175688734 (Accessed 5 September, 2016)
Ferber, Abby (2007). ‘The Construction of Black Masculinity | White Supremacy Now and Then’ In: Journal of Sport and Social Issues Vol 31 No 1 p 11 – 24
Gender, Sexuality & Women’s Studies Program (2012) Performing Black Masculinity [online] University of Pittsburgh. Available at: http://www.wstudies.pitt.edu/blogs/ola8/performing-black-masculinity [Accessed 5 September, 2016]
Oxford Advanced Learners’ Dictionary of Current English (1989), 4th edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press