The Photographers’ Gallery presents, a group exhibition exploring the identity of the black dandy as performed in studio and street photographs from London to New York to Bamako.
In the early 21st century, black men are influential trendsetters in fashion, music and culture. This increased prominence however, has not had an impact on the state of high vulnerability still experienced by black men – as illustrated by disproportionate rates of incarceration the UK and USA. Dandyism, with its emphasis on dress and flamboyance, is examined as radical personal politics and a provocative counter to stereotypical representations and physical objectification of black masculinity. This exhibition seeks to consciously problematise ideas of a male identity through dress and deportment that is arresting, tantalising, louche, camp and gloriously assertive.
Social and gender norms are negotiated in the studio space where the roots of the dandy are traced back to 1904 in a rare series of outdoor studio prints from The Larry Dunstan Archive. Thought to be taken in Senegal, the images depict young men asserting a powerful personal presence through stylish dress. In Malick Sidibé’s (1936-2016, Mali) commercial studio, men were encouraged to model in animated poses while playfully engaging with personal props, including motorbikes and boxing gloves.
The studio as a site of bold experimentation and fantastical expression is explored in the works of Samuel Fosso (b. 1962, Cameroon) and Hassan Hajjaj (b. 1961, Morocco). Fosso’s 1970s self-portraits picture the artist in varying guises, assuming imagined black males identities. Hajjaj’s images, produced in collaboration with his subjects, feature men meticulously dressed in vivid African prints and photographed against bright backgrounds of clashing colours. The results are placed in frames handmade from food and drinks packaging, emphasising craftsmanship and the individual styling of each sitter.
A collection of street photographs celebrates the ordinary elegance of the dandy and his ability to transform everyday attire into ostentatious style statements. In his series the Black House (1973 – 1976), Colin Jones (b. 1936, U.K) captured the careful and discreetly extravagant styling of young men living in an Islington Housing Project. Liz Johnson Artur (b. 1964, Sofia) presents her work from the last thirty years of photographing on the streets of London, Detroit and Kingston, Jamaica, while Jeffrey Henson Scales (b. 1954, USA) covers a similar period in New York.
Complex notions of gender and sexuality are visited in Isaac Julien (b. 1960, UK) and Sunil Gupta’s (b. 1953, India) still shots from the set of Julian’s pivotal movie Looking for Langston (1989). Blending archival and scripted scenes, the film portrays black gay desire during the liberal explosion of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s. Gender is further explored in the context of contemporary South Africa with work by Kristin-Lee Moolman’s (b.1986, South Africa). Tapping into youth and township culture her images feature androgynous characters that reject labels and oppose stereotypes.
The exhibition is curated by writer and broadcaster Ekow Eshun.