Despite black men being visible and influential trendsetters in the worlds of film, music, and fashion they still suffer disproportionate rates of incarceration both in the UK and the US.
The Photographers' Gallery in Soho's current show Made you Look:Dandyism and Black Masculinity proposes to show black culture, 'dandyism', as a 'form of radical, personal politics, a deliberate transgression of a social order that would otherwise render them unseen or beneath regard'.
Curator Ekow Eshun speaks, in a short film, about this dichotomy between overt visibility and abject invisibility. Also he speaks about maleness as a performance and how black people have taken control of their images - both as artists and models. Subverting the white gaze if you will.
When he says 'people' he means, of course, in this instance, men. It's a necessary corrective. For this is part of the ongoing conversation about what it is to be a man in an age when both gender informed roles and indeed the very notion of gender itself has become more fluid than ever.
These are huge themes and there's no way that one average sized gallery room could possibly hope to answer any of the questions but it's a show that's not afraid to ask questions. It makes a bloody good job of it too.
Liz Johnson Artur was born in Bulgaria in 1964 and has covered the UK grime and garage scenes, Jamaican dancehall, and the fashion rituals of Congolese sapeurs. On the whole her works are colourful, bold, confident, and contain at least one example of a wildly misguided hairstyle. Her portraits of Yellowman and Linton Kwesi Johnson (looking dapper, yet righteous, in a pub) spoke to this reggae fan on the day he heard the news of Prince Buster's death.
The Larry Dunstan archives show the same assertive presence but date from much farther back (the series began in 1904) and from Senegal. The photographer is unknown pointing, perhaps, to a lack of interest in recording black and African culture in the past.
Things had changed by 1989 when Isaac Julien's film Looking for Langston (about Harlem renaissance poet Langston Hughes) drew on noir, nudes, fashion shoots, and funeral photography to depict (a possibly imagined) Harlem of the 30s and 40s. It's as stylised as a Chic album cover refracted through the lens of Hollywood's golden age.
It's quite a contrast with the work of the Moroccan photographer Hassan Hajjaj. Hajjaj mixes up pop art, couture, and club culture. He works in interior design and also fashion. It'll come as no surprise that he was responsible for the outfits worn in the photos above and below. The tins of mackerel in tomato sauce that contribute to the frame put a witty African spin on Warhol's soup can aesthetic.
Colin Jones is more documentarian than colourist. In 1973 The Sunday Times commissioned him to shoot The Black House. He spent four years on the project chronicling the Harambee housing project on North London's Holloway Road. A government funded initiative that offered support for young black men having problems with employment, education, and law. Judging by the second photo Satanism was less an issue!
Malick Sidibe, who died earlier this year, captured the dynamism of his native Bamako following independence and the end of French colonial rule. Motorbikes, telephones, flares, and garish shirts indicate an outburst of confidence and a flowering of new ideas. They're a joy.
The harsh colour of South African Kristin-Lee Moolman's work is edgier altogether. Her disregard for frames is matched by her subjects' disregard for convention. The androgynous figures that populate her images conspicuously reject fixed labels of gender and sexuality and do it within what I, perhaps incorrectly, imagined to be the fairly strict confines of township culture. It's by far the most contemporary thing here and so it should be. She was born in 1986. I'd left school by then.
In 1975, at the age of 13, Cameroonian Samuel Fosso opened a commercial photo studio in Bangui, Central African Republic. At night, after he shut up shop, he'd experiment with self-portraiture. Through dress and deportment the teenager played with representations of masculinity, status, and power. As the Central African Republic's mililtaristic ruler Jean-Bedel Bokassa had banned the wearing of such items of clothing as bell bottoms, tight shirts, and platform shoes this made for a small, personal act of rebellion. Initially intended to remain unseen they later made up the series 70s Lifestyle. A precursor, surely, for Moolman's South African collection.
An annex includes Harley Weir's photos of Young Thug for Dazed & Confused magazine alongside albums by Prince, Isaac Hayes, Kendrick Lamar, Max Roach, Cameo, Eric B & Rakim, Rick James, and Art Blakey.
I'm embarrassed to admit that James Baldwin was the only name I recognised on the literary shelf. Suggesting that, although we've come a long way, there's still a lot of work to be done. Under the calm, inspired, curatorial hand of people like Ekow Eshun we're headed in the right direction. Give him a bigger room next time. I'm confident he'll use it well.