ekow eshun on the black dandy
The writer and broadcaster discusses his new exhibition, a photographic archive that traces black masculinity across the ages and across the world to uncover the politics of dressing up.
Samuel Fosso, Self Portrait, 1973 - 1977
There's a politics to dressing up as a man, a dance around flamboyance and acceptability, around notions of gender; it's a politics that's heightened when seen in relation to black masculinity. Black masculinity is often figured through stereotypes of realness and authenticity, or through opposing reductive visions of decency and criminality.
These worlds, issues and themes are what writer and broadcaster Ekow Eshun explores in his new exhibition, Made You Look: Dandyism and Black Masculinity, that traces the similarities in the diasphoric black male experience across the globe, across a hundred years of photographic documentation of it.
It finds its traces in the streets and the studio, in street style images and the performance of the studio, it explores the hybrid spaces, places of heightened realities, and in these arenas it finds a kind of freedom of self-expression as oppositional to the racism and rigidity of society.
I wanted started by talking about your initial inspiration to bring these works together for this exhibition?
To be honest it's very much to do with being a black person, living in the country of Black-Britain, and coming to see how black men carry themselves. For me, the way they walk, they dress, these aren't random things, there's a politics to them because these are questions of identity. These men are striving to represent the versions of themselves that makes sense to themselves. I was interested in the fact that you can look at images of black men taken in London or Jamaica or Bamako or in New York, and there's a similarity in the poise.
Like you say, the exhibition is very international in its approach, what brought you to the photographers you included.
I started off with two things really, there's a school of very classic African studio photography, represented by Malick Sidibe. You look as Malick's photographs and they are all about blackness, about black self-image and about how black people represent themselves. You see very clearly in his work how important those questions of elective identity are.
Then one of the other starting points was the work of Liz Johnson Artur, who when I worked in magazines, I used to be the editor of Arena, I'd commission Liz, so I'd been working with her for a while. She has the fantastic ability to find the inner grace of all the people she shoots. She seemed the perfect example of how you can capture this striving for black self-assertion, for black identity.
So I started with people I knew and people whose work I knew, and then, I started to look for work that surprised me, things that were new to me, that I hadn't encountered before, but had a similar sensibility to these works. So that took me further and further afield, to obscure parts of America and Africa, but the extraordinary thing was that I kept on finding images from across the world that had this similar sensibility. For example I found this wild set of photos taken in Senegal in 1904, that showed these black man, dressed up in immaculate clothes, properly styling, properly presenting an idea of themselves to the camera.
The similarities between those images and the images from the 70s and images taken right now, are less to do with clothes and more to do with attitude, deportment, and self-confidence.
The exhibition spans the globe, but also time, as it takes in about 100 years of photography. You've said you looked for things that revealed similarities, but what about difference? What unexpected things did you find?
It's an interesting question, because essentially the thing the show is dealing with is this diasporic black identity; the identity of a people who've been scattered across the world. So yes, some things stayed the same, this assertion of elegance and grace,
The most contemporary works in the exhibition are by Kristin Lee Moolman, shot in South Africa this year. They're louche, they're camp, they're obviously really different from some of the images that are defiantly masculine. There's a set of images in the exhibition by a British photographer called Colin James, which were all shot on the Holloway Road in the 70s, and the men in those photos, they look great but they're working really hard to insist that they look like men. But the men in Kristin's images are much more interested in asking questions about what being a black man means, what a black man has to look like.
The shorthand for all this of course is dandyism, a styled out representation of man, but it's a question as well, a question of what being a man means.
The Dandy is often seen as being quite effeminate, to be dressing up, taking care of your appearance, being interested in fashion, but there's something oppositional in it as well, a reaction to how society might chose to view you. That's what is so striking about these pictures, that they combine these two different ideas.
Exactly that. The concept of Dandyism suggests something that is quite dramatically superficial, a man who is unduly concerned with style and dress. But when you place this idea in relation to the black man you introduce a definite politics to dressing up. It's a politics of social opposition that states that states that we want to be seen on our terms, but also a politics of gender that deliberately blurs accepted conventional notions of masculinity, taste, and acceptable style. It's about shaking things up, fucking things up.
Often black men are objectified, they are seen in relation to their bodies, they're defined by their skin colour, by their masculinity and muscle, or by being seen as irredeemably criminal. In a way the purpose of this show is to interrogate, go beneath the surface, go beyond stereotypes of black masculinity and show in the interplay between subject and photographer, there are in fact multiple narratives of black masculinity to be explored.
How would you describe the relationship between the world of exhibition and the fashion industry, and the way these threads of influence move between the street and the catwalk.
The show in a way has two main arenas that it takes place in, the street and the studio. The fashion world has always had this ability to appropriate everyday style, and play it back for people to see in a different way. The relationship between this and black culture has always been a fraught thing, which can be seen as either exploitative or collusive.
I'm slightly generous, I don't think black culture or black identity is being totally ripped off by fashion, it's not as straight forward as that. The thing I find more interesting is the process of invention, when you can walk down the streets of Kingston or London and find black men constantly reinventing ways to look, carry themselves, style themselves… now some of these things, might, at some point, end up on a catwalk or in a magazine, but fashion moves slower than the street, and there's not a finite supply of style to goes round. By the time fashion has often started taking notice of something, the streets will have moved on.
The street and studio are the two sites of the exhibition, but you can also describe it as documentary and fiction, but it's interesting where they overlap and you can't quite tell one from the other.
There's actually a third space, between the street and the studio, which is a blurred space, a perfomative space, there's works in the show that speak to that though.
For example, in the work of Samuel Fosso, he's a genius, really, a very enigmatic photographer. He started taking photos in the 70s, and he had a very conventional studio. But at night, when there were no customers, he'd take self-portraits, and these self portraits are fantastic parodies of the people of the day. He dresses up, takes on different guises, performs ideas of what a black man can look like. Its a heightened version of reality, he shifts his identity, from looking like he's going to a disco, to looking like a business man. It's about how there isn't a real, singular image or way of being a black man. Black culture is often defined in terms of realness, of authenticity, that there's only one way of expressing or exploring what black identity can be, but when you get into that heightened realm, anything can be possible.
What do you hope people will take away from the exhibition?
I think people are welcome to take away anything they want. But from my point-of-view, I live all the time with an idea of the value of complexity.
We're in a very dark time in Britain at the moment, post Brexit it feels nightmarish. The Brexit model of Britain is a place where there's only one way to be British, and everything else is suspect, and foreign. I've lived all my life with the opposite feeling, which is that the identity you carry within yourself in a hybrid one, that the identity of a nation and its culture is a hybrid one as well, difference should be an hour. The nature of the show, hopefully, is about how black men embrace uniqueness, embrace otherness, embrace difference. These are things that deserve to be at the heart of who we are.
Text Felix Petty