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Dressing to express

Dressing to express

Ranging from New York to Soweto, a new exhibition shows the power of clothes to challenge assumptions about race, class and gender

Ranging from New York to Soweto, a new exhibition shows the power of clothes to challenge assumptions about race, class and gender

Fleur Macdonald | July 29th 2016

In 1975 a teenage photographer called Samuel Fosso opened his own studio in Bangui, in the Central African Republic. During the day he would photograph clients; at night he would use up the unexposed rolls of film, taking photos of himself in different costumes and poses, sending some to his mother in Nigeria to reassure her that he was alright.

In one self-portrait he poses in an outfit that could have come out of David Bowie’s wardrobe: platform shoes, football socks and white fringed shorts. It was a provocative way to dress in a country then under the tyrannical rule of Jean-Bédel Bokassa. In 1979, the dictator reportedly sanctioned the execution of 100 schoolchildren for not wearing the correct school uniform.  

“Dandyism”, said Roland Barthes, “is condemned to be radical or not exist at all.” The dandies featured in “Made You Look”, an exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery in Soho, London, range from fops wearing pearls and flares in modern-day Soweto to Senegalese men in bowties and bowlers at the beginning of the 20th century. All sport the same mixture of pride and insouciance.  

As Ekow Eshun, the show’s curator, explains, certain black men invest a lot in how they look, dress and carry themselves: “not purely for superficial reasons but as a kind of personal politics, as a way of defining an identity against a white gaze, against a society that can often caricature them, ‘other’ them as a brute, and define them by the colour of their skin rather than the texture of their inner lives.”

The exhibition is definitely on trend. “Dandy Lion” at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco takes a similar premise, while “2026”, a futuristic exploration of black masculinity and fashion, has just opened at London’s Somerset House.

It’s not a coincidence that people are interested in these themes now, Eshun tells me. “Some of the biggest cultural figures on the planet are black men but at the same time black men are pretty vulnerable…You just have to look at the Black Lives Matter [campaign].” He is fascinated by how black men negotiate these spaces between “high visibility” and “high vulnerability”.

“Made You Look” celebrates men who have used fashion to question assumptions about race, class, gender and sexuality. Encompassing North America, Britain and Africa, over two centuries of intense social and political upheaval, this exhibition cannot possibly represent the full spectrum of black dandyism. But perhaps that’s the point.

Samuel Fosso, “Self Portrait from ‘70’s Lifestyle” (1973–1977)

A young man trying on different identities until one fits, Fosso here possesses a fragile confidence. His work seems all the more precious given his home in Bangui was looted in 2014. Luckily many of his prints and negatives were found, littered on the streets.

Malick Sidibé, “Au cours d’une soirée (During a party: the poses)” (1964)

Sibidé knows how to photograph a dance move. He took photos of people having fun, letting loose and being young. He captured the optimism and pride of a young nation (Mali had recently gained independence from France), and its citizens’ assertion of self-identity. Eshun explains: “This young guy has gone to the studio and has chosen to dress the way he dresses, to represent himself how he wants to look. It’s a move away from colonial-era photography of African people as anthropological subjects. He wants to be seen on his own terms, in his own light, in his own clothes…”

Kristen Lee-Moolman, “Wayne Swart” (2015)

The South African photographer references Fosso in her playful portraits of young men from Soweto. They are “quite louche and quite camp,” Eshun says, pointing out that they echo gender-fluid role-models from America, like the rapper Young Thug or Will Smith’s son Jaden, who wears a skirt. “Young men in influential positions are consciously insisting on a blurring of [gender] boundaries. A couple of years ago, it would have put them in a very vulnerable position.”

Liz Johnson-Artur, “Kingston” (1991)

This young man confidently “owns” the camera, challenging the viewer to accept his authority. “He carries himself with such self-assertion, such inner belief that he [rises above] his circumstances” says Eshun. “As a black man you spent a lot of your life being told ‘you are this’ or ‘you should be that’ and so to arrive at a place where you can say ‘this is who I am’ is very powerful.”

Jeffrey Henson-Scales, “Young man in plaid” (1991)

This photo of a young man waiting in a doorway in New York City, his chest sticking out, is captivating. You can’t help but wonder who or what he’s waiting for. His louche, subversive dress is deliberately reminiscent, says Eshun, of historical dandies like Lord Byron or Oscar Wilde. And that is the strength of this exhibition: while it is very much about race, it’s also a reminder that true dandyism transcends race, as well as time and place, age, sex and background. The clothes we wear are an outward expression of our personality, a clue to what lies beneath, and a warning not to define us by something as arbitrary as skin colour.

Made You Look: Dandyism and Black Masculinity Photographers’ Gallery until September 25th 2016

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