London

Photographer unknown, untitled, ca. 1904, digital fiber print, 16 × 12". From the Larry Dunstan Archive. From “Made You Look: Dandyism and Black Masculinity.”

Photographer unknown, untitled, ca. 1904, digital fiber print, 16 × 12". From the Larry Dunstan Archive. From “Made You Look: Dandyism and Black Masculinity.”

“Made You Look: Dandyism and Black Masculinity”

Photographer unknown, untitled, ca. 1904, digital fiber print, 16 × 12". From the Larry Dunstan Archive. From “Made You Look: Dandyism and Black Masculinity.”

Curated by Ekow Eshun with Karen McQuaid, “Made You Look: Dandyism and Black Masculinity” gathered portraits realized over more than a century by photographers based in the UK, US, and Africa. At a moment when black artists, thinkers, and politicians have achieved unprecedented prominence while overwhelming racism continues to target black communities across the world, the exhibition countered stereotypical perceptions of black men based on “archetypal colonial imagery,” prejudice, and psychological projection—elements that “still carry the power to sting,” as Eshun points out in an accompanying publication. How does one pose for a portrait under such circumstances?

The focus here was on the modern dandy as a figure of resistance. Before slavery was abolished, donning a suit meant putting on the garb of a free man. Today, it remains a way to manifest authority and self-esteem. The curators quote Frantz Fanon, who wrote, “I grasp my narcissism with both hands and I turn my back on the degradation of those who would make me a mere mechanism.” The oldest works on display were from the Larry Dunstan Archive, made anonymously circa 1904 and thought to be from Senegal. They show suited-up men posing in a landscape. In one image we see, placed between two men, a chair with two bottles of champagne. The sheer playfulness and boldness of this photograph characterizes many others in the show. Here, in contrast to the colonial imagery, the subjects, not the photographers, maintain dominance over the image.

Other political connotations of a dandy portrait are unveiled by a series of Samuel Fosso’s self-portraits, “70’s Lifestyle,” 1975–77. In 1975, at the age of thirteen, Fosso opened a commercial photo studio in Bangui, Central African Republic. After hours, he directed the camera toward himself and struck poses dressed in his favorite clothes. What looks like play is also a private act of resistance: tight shirts and extravagant clothing were banned at the time of Jean-Bédel Bokassa’s dictatorship. On the other hand, “The Black House, Holloway Road, London,” 1973–76, by British photographer Colin Jones, suggests that the style of one’s clothing may matter less than how it is worn. Jones was commissioned by the Sunday Times to document the Harambee housing project in London, a publicly funded venture to support marginalized black youth. What he found were people who, despite poverty and prejudice, remained hopeful, tried to make a living, and posed proudly for the camera.

“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me,” Ralph Ellison famously wrote in his 1952 novel Invisible Man, quoted in one of the exhibition rooms. The widespread refusal to see beyond colonial imagery and the stigmatization of the black male body continues to cause suffering on personal, social, and political levels. This exhibition opened up a rich trove of alternative images and narratives. Continuing to explore them is a matter of urgency.

Sylwia Serafinowicz