Zalika Azim, Until these calamities be overpast, 2018, digital C-print, 20 × 30". From “In Conversation: Visual Meditations on Black Masculinity.”

Zalika Azim, Until these calamities be overpast, 2018, digital C-print, 20 × 30". From “In Conversation: Visual Meditations on Black Masculinity.”

“In Conversation: Visual Meditations on Black Masculinity”

African American Museum in Philadelphia

Recently, my five-year-old asked, “What is an ancestor?” This triggered a crisis of middle-aged forgetting. I have no memory of not knowing about slavery, so how little could I possibly have been when I learned not only that chattel slavery had once existed in the Americas, but that the cockamamie-sounding truth had to do with me? “Your ancestors were stolen from their homes, taken across the Atlantic Ocean, and sold as things,” I will tell my son soon.

So when I climbed the ramp of the African American Museum in Philadelphia to see “In Conversation: Visual Meditations on Black Masculinity,” I was really troubled by thoughts of having to put this heaviness on my boy, and I wasn’t prepared for the thing that Walter Benjamin says happens to happen: A memory of moving through that museum’s galleries when I was four “flashed up”—a displaced voice saying, through those old trumpet-shaped speakers, words about the Middle Passage, while my barely toddling sister hugged a nearby wall on which was painted an image of a ship. My father had dressed me up in a pink pantsuit for the occasion. Winter 1976: The museum was newly open.

I’m saying that the historical-educational purposes of the African American Museum itself—distinct from the purposes of the white museum but not entirely distinct insofar as both delimit the social and aesthetic imaginary of black subjects (but not black people)—crowded (out) my encounter with “In Conversation.” I shuddered to think, This is where black children are taken to become historical.

Let’s consider “In Conversation” as, therefore, a place where black children, with their parents, might first encounter the double whammy of race and gender as ideas with visual—that is to say, perceptual—consequences. The exhibition might establish for them the terms of not just having a body but of being an object body, seen, named, and fixed as woman, man, femme, masculine—and also black.

Already crowded by the institutional frame, the 128 photographs on view by fifty-five women and nonbinary artists further crowd one another. The decision to include so many pictures might be understood as a celebration of a wide range of possible appearances of “black masculinity.” This was not my understanding. Instead, I found myself wishing for an organized and impactful openness, or hopefulness, about heteronormativity’s end, something the show simply does not offer.

Each photograph is accompanied by an artist-authored text. These vary so dramatically in tone, diction, and perspective on the show’s organizing theme that the English teacher in me concluded that they have been lightly, if at all, edited. The words of Lola Flash, accompanying a photograph of the musician Toshi Reagon (daughter of Bernice Reagon, the iconic founding member of Sweet Honey in the Rock): MASCULINITY IS A CONSTRUCT, SIMILAR TO RACE, IN THAT IT IS COMPOSED OF ERRONEOUS PRECONCEIVED NOTIONS. . . . THUS, THE NOTION THAT MASCULINITY IS A QUALITY EMBODIED ONLY BY MEN, FADES INTO INSIGNIFICANCE, ESPECIALLY WHEN CONSIDERING MY BELOVED QUEER COMMUNITY. I’m pretty sure Reagon is wearing a Borsalino, my father’s hat of choice—and mine. Danielle “Jazz” Noel admires her partner as primary caregiver to their infant daughter in her comment on Assata, at lunch, 2019 (the most prominently displayed photograph in the show, mounted on the wall on which the introductory text appears): IT’S THE MOST MASCULINE I’VE EVER SEEN HIM. Viewers are left to reconcile these divergent statements in a manner that the photographs do not independently demand.

As is bound to be the case in such a large show, there are many captivating works here. Standouts include Deborah Willis’s In the closet of Ken Ard, 2019, in which a bare-torsoed man is pictured in two different postures, both of which involve his head being framed/sculpted by a hat apparatus made of chain links; Salimah Ali’s candid photo of Teddy Pendergrass backstage in socks, shoes, and a bathrobe; and Zalika Azim’s ethereally smoky and apparently double-exposed scene featuring two men and a pile of burning brush.

That there are different strategies for seeing and performing black masculinity is a fact. Whether black women and nonbinary artists will meditate on masculinity is not a fact—it’s an open question. I ask, in turn, can such artists only be recognized historically when in conversation with masculinity? Depends what you mean by historically.