As a teenager growing up in St Andrews in the eighties, The Face was my introduction to so many things – one of my favourite bands New Order, the photographer Arthur Tress (his image ‘Hermaphrodite behind Venus and Mercury’ is burnt into my consciousness) and indeed the idea of style itself. It was also my first introduction to Buffalo, the work of stylist Ray Petri and the photographer Jamie Morgan. To the teenage me, this was like stepping into a whole new world. I particularly remember a stunningly handsome black man, dressed to kill, stylish and flamboyant, and a million miles away from the portrayal of black men on tv and in the media.
Fast forward to today and we find Jamie Morgan collaborating with Grace Wales Bonner, on a shoot that’s redolent of the studio photos migrant workers sent back to their families, many miles away. Grace is challenging ideas of conventional and traditional masculinity, and specifically black male identity and sexuality. As the first menswear designer to win the prestigious LVMH Young Fashion Designer Prize, she has dressed some of her black south african friends in a wonderful fusion of african style, blaxploitation and stunning tailoring, complimented by unexpected jewellery.
‘Fashion seems to be where most daring ideas about identity start to translate and then be interpreted into more mainstream ideas, so I think it’s really good that people are challenging ideas about what a man can be and look like.’
Grace Wales Bonner
This celebration of black culture, history and flamboyance is examined in ‘Made You Look – Dandyism and Black Masculinity’. This exhibition at The Photographer’s Gallery has been curated by Ekow Eshun and doesn’t limit itself to one decade or even one continent. The earliest images are from the edwardian age and and continue through to the present day. The glass plate negatives of stylishly dressed men from 1904 were thought to have been shot in Senegal by an unknown photographer. They stand proudly in bowties, suits and blazers, one with a cane by his side. Exuding confidence, there is look of almost defiance in their eyes.
This hyper-stylishness and overt fashion sense is the essence of the dandy, a concept first introduced in the 18th century of Beau Brummell. The appropriation of dandyism by black men allows them to flaunt expectation with wonderful patterns, colours and styles. In an extremely strong collection, the standout images in this show for me were the vibrant portraits of african artists and musicians by the moroccan photographer Hassan Hajjaj. Dressed in clothes designed by the photographer, the images combine African studio traditions with modern club culture, and provide a commentary on identity, the power of money and commercialism today.
‘Such images point to the subversive power of dandyism to reveal masculinity itself as a performance, as something provisional, open to reinterpretation, rather than a set of inherited characteristics fixed in the skin. And they also highlight how, for black men, style is a form of radical personal politics.’
The stunning images in this show, shot across the 20th and 21st Century, show that the personal style of these men can transcend the negative stereotypes that are thrust upon black men on both sides of the atlantic. Go and see for yourself.
Made You Look – Dandyism and Black Masculinity at The Photographers Gallery, London, until the 25 Sep 2016.