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Kristin-Lee Moolman: Wayne Swart (from the OATH lookbook), 2015
© Kristin-Lee Moolman
Courtesy of the artist

Work / Photography

A stunning exploration of black male identity and dandyism

Resplendent in glorious clashing patterns, posing for clandestine self-portraits in outlandish bellbottoms or simply standing tall with a chair full of fizz, the subjects of a new exhibition at London’s Photographers’ Gallery are full of character, life and a thousand stories.

Made You Look: Dandyism and Black Masculinity showcases the work of a number of photographers from the early 20th Century to the present day, and collectively explores ideas around the identity of the black dandy.

This highly performative, stylised and influential look is a shape-shifting one, as demonstrated as you move through the images’ chronology. What unifies it is a sense of pride and taste; and the clothes act as as departure point to show that there’s no such thing as a stable masculine identity.

Even in the 21st Century, racism is rife – something events of recent weeks have sadly highlighted, yet again – and this exhibition comes at an important time to show that while black men today are seen as “influential trendsetters,” in the words of the photographers’ gallery, the dandies of today and yesteryear have still faced vulnerability and discrimination.

That’s why the flamboyance they exhibit is so important, and why it’s so wonderful to see this moment so beautifully documented. Among the highlights are Cameroon-born Samuel Fosso’s images, self-portraits shot in secret at a time when in his country, clothing like bellbottom trousers and tight tops were banned.

There’s a beautiful burst of light in both the images and the framing of some recent works by Hassan Hajjaj, where tinned fish and matchboxes form vibrant three-dimensional frames for images of men in sharp suits festooned with traditional African prints.

Throughout the shows ideas of gender fluidity loom large, both in recent works and more historical pieces. South African photographer Kristin-Lee Moolman deliberately shoots her subjects in outfits and poses that subvert traditionally masculine tropes, while Isaac Julien’s stills from his 1989 movie Looking for Langston explore black gay male desire.

“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,” says The Photographers’ Gallery. “This exhibition seeks to consciously problematise ideas of a male identity through dress and deportment that is arresting, tantalising, louche, camp and gloriously assertive.”

Made You Look: Dandyism and Black Masculinity runs from 15 July – 25 September at The Photographers’ Gallery

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Jeffrey Henson-Scales: Young Man In Plaid, NYC, 1991
© Jeffrey Henson-Scales
Courtesy of the artist

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Hassan Hajjaj: Afrikan Boy, 2012
© Hassan Hajjaj
Courtesy of the artist

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Isaac Julien: Homage Noir, from Looking for Langston (Vintage series),
1989/2016
© Isaac Julien
Courtesy the artist

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Malick Sidibé: On the motorbike in my studio, 1973
© Malick Sidibé
Courtesy CAAC – The Pigozzi Collection, Geneva

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Liz Johnson-Artur: Untitled, from Black Balloon Archive
© Liz Johnson-Artur
Courtesy the artist

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Unattributed, circa 1904
Courtesy The Larry Dunstan Archive

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Samuel Fosso: Self Portrait from 70’s Lifestyle, 1973 – 1977
© Samuel Fosso
Courtesy J.M. Patras/ Deutsche Bank Art Collection

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Colin Jones: The Black House, 1973 – 1976
c. Colin Jones