exploring the relationship between dandyism and black masculinity
Writer and cultural commentator Ekow Eshun has collated a new exhibition of photographs exploring the black dandy from New York to Bamako.
© Jeffrey Henson-Scales Young Man In Plaid, 1991
The original dandys arose in England and France in the late 18th century as a vain, aristocratic reaction to the rise of revolutionary feeling in society at the time — a desire to look more regal in a society of sans-culottes. A dandy, Charles Beaudelaire later wrote, "must have no profession other than elegance... no other status but that of cultivating the idea of beauty in their own persons... The dandy must aspire to be sublime without interruption... Dandyism is the last flicker of heroism in decadent ages." Dandyism was a kind of opposition to modern world that was being built at the time, and has continued as such throughout the ages.
A new exhibition, curated by Ekow Eshun, explores how that dandyism became tied up in black masculinity, on the streets and in the studio, from New York to Bamako, Europe to Africa, hip-hop and beyond. In the 21st century black men influence style more than ever before, through fashion and music. This prominence hasn't affected the vulnerable position many black men across the world find themselves in; whether that's the levels of incarceration in the US and UK, endemic police violence, or social factors like unemployment and poverty.
Made You Look: Dandyism and Black Masculinity explores the relationship between the two — dandyism as a response to the precarious position of the black male in society. Flamboyance as a kind of defense, a provocation against stereotypes, an assertion of ostentation as freedom. It's seen in the studio portraiture of photographers like Hassan Hajjaj and Samuel Fosso — who created color-filled worlds for their sitters to inhabit — and by the street photographers who uncovered the everyday dandy. In the paradox between those two extremes, you can find the crux of the dandy: performance and everyday elegance — transforming the streets into a catwalk. The street photography combines the work of Colin Jones, who captured the style conscious young men of an Islington council estate in the 70s, to Jeffrey Henson Scales, who spent 30 years capturing the streets of New York.
Dandyism, in its flamboyance, has been questioning traditional notions of gender for 300 years now. Eshun finds the modern repository of it in photographers like Kristin-Lee Moolman, a South African photographer whose recent images of townships highlight androgynous characters who find ways to blow apart stereotypes in outré outfits.
© Malick Sidibé, Les trois amis avec moto, 1975
Made You Look: Dandyism and Black Masculinity runs July 15 - September 25, 2016 at The Photographer's Gallery.
Text Felix Petty