Reflecting on “Made You Look: Dandyism and Black Masculinity”
Made You Look was, for me, an exhibition of historical significance as much as anything else. Curated by Ekow Eshun, the exhibition charted the work of several photographers who had been drawn to shooting black male subjects – subjects who expressed personal integrity, identity and freedom through fashion.
These subjects – ranging from Sapeurs in the Congo, through men expressing gender fluidity in South Africa, to dignified black males at the fringes of Western society – each embody a human resilience. They are statements of freedom and integrity, arising in a context of resistance – sometimes loud and flamboyantly, sometimes quietly – to historical colonial oppression.
What was striking about Made You Look, also, was the negotiation of identity representation within each set of images. With black men in wider Western society overwhelmingly stereotyped as ultra-masculine, as Eshun says, the images show how black masculinity is far more nuanced and complex. Whilst identity representation is a complex negotiation for any subject, Made You Look left the impression that decades of oppression and colonialism have made the negotiation of black identity especially challenging. Stereotyping of black men may be a latent after-effect in the post-colonial era.
Today, the challenge for black men in representing their authentic and personal character to a world which readily stereotypes is still very real, but lesser. Made You Look is, I think, a poignant reminder of a time when black rights and freedoms – and with them black identity – were significantly constrained. With many black men now leading figures in fashion and music, the exhibition’s images show the potential of (what at first seems like) simple personal and social expression for driving social change.
Image 1 – Sapeur
It is no coincidence that this Sapeur is dressed brightly, standing out to make a statement against his social invisibility as a subject. The diversity of bold colours used by Sapeurs also puts a distinctive stamp on the otherwise colonial suit and tie combination; instead of passively adopting the socially dominant form of fashion, the Sapeur makes it his own. Like most Sapeurs, the man’s clothes are immaculately kept, in a statement of personal integrity against historically disadvantageous structural, material conditions.
Image 2 and 3
These images show men flouting big shoes and flares, both flamboyant forms of clothing that – in deviating from conventional and ascribed clothing – are statements of freedom in a new, post-colonial world. A femininity lingers in the images, too. Both men pose with a tenderness and vulnerability, allowing the photograph – taken in the relatively formal context of a portrait – to capture a decisively complex picture of each subject’s character.
This image was my favourite of the exhibition, compositionally. The quiet monochrome and careful symmetry of the composition brings a timeless dignity to the subject, which honours his bold personal politics. Taken in Soho, I believe, the man’s clothing is not only unconventional in the context of black stereotyping and oppression, but in the context of gender convention too. The viewer is led into uncertainty about the character himself: able only to speculate and to wonder about his personality and motivations, the viewer can better appreciate his complexity as a human being. By wearing clothes that clearly evade stereotypical boundaries and, in doing so, drawing attention to his complex self, the subject makes a radical statement about his personal and political freedom.
Written by: Ben Dickenson Bampton