Made You Look: Dandyism and Black Masculinity

Journalist Ekow Eshun has curated an exhibition at the Photographer's Gallery that offers different perspectives on fashion and black masculinity

On the night of 28 February 2012, in Florida, George Zimmermann fatally shot Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African American high school student. The investigation report states that Zimmermann acted because he judged Trayvon Martin as being an “unknown, but very suspicious black male wearing a hoodie and jeans”. Zimmermann who claimed he shot Martin in self-defence, was judged as not guilty by the Court of Florida.

The case of Trayvon Martin, fatally killed by George Zimmermann for looking “suspicious”, illustrates that the colour of your skin or the way you dress can be the difference between life and death. Indeed, in the United States, the situation is more than alarming: one in three black men can expect to be incarcerated in their life. The list of African-American men shot in recent years just because of their skin colour — Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice amongst them — continues to grow. Just recently, an incident occurred involving two police officers and the African American Alton Sterling in Balton Rouge, Louisiana. According to The Guardian's Counted project, Sterling’s death marked the 558th fatal encounter involving US law enforcement officers in 2016.

On the other side of the Atlantic, in Britain, more than 500 black and minority-ethnic people have died in suspicious circumstances while in state detention over the past 25 years, without a single official being successfully prosecuted. Even though black males are influential trendsetters in contemporary fashion, music and culture, they are still in a state of vulnerability and often exposed to racism or discrimination.

Made You Look - Dandyism and Black Masculinity, curated by journalism Ekow Eshun at the Photographer's Gallery, focuses on the figure of the black dandy by exploring themes of identity, maleness and power.

A dandy is defined as a man who is unduly concerned with looking fashionable and stylish. The term dates back to early 19th-century England, where the model dandy George Bryan “Beau” Brummell repudiated wigs, frills and colourful finery for a subtler, more masculine look. The exhibition brings together a diverse mix of international street and studio photographers, showing the subversive power of the black dandy through images of black males from Bamako to London and from Kingston to New York.

The exhibition features work from the renowned street photographer Malick Sidibe. The Malian artist is celebrated for capturing a newly independent nation in the 1960s, and is especially noted for his black-and-white studies of popular culture in Bamako, the country’s capital. Under colonial rule, Mali was known as French Sudan. A major aspect of French imperialism was the desire to expand French culture beyond the country’s European borders. French customs were established in colonial schools and institutions, and French influence pervaded such cultural domains such as art, music, fashion and sports. Local cultures and traditions consequently suffered. In September 1960, the colonists left French Sudan and the area proclaimed itself as the Republic of Mali. A new cultural identity flourished, combining French with traditional Malian elements.

Sidibe’s photography is a vital document of this moment. Malian males looked up to the elegance and hauteur of the departing colonialists. By adding local elements such as traditional patterns and bright colours, they created their own unique dandyism. Fashion was an accessible medium for the Malian people to express their pride, their independence, and their freedom.

At a different time and place, British street photographer Colin Jones captured young black male subcultures in London in his series the Black House, from 1973 to 1976. Jones captured the careful and extravagant styling in an Islington terrace that served as a hostel for vulnerable black youths. “Style came naturally to them,” recounts Jones. “They would look good in anything.“

Jones expands in an interview with Time Out: “You have to remember the background to this. The black community had been displaced twice: once when they were taken as slaves from Africa to the Caribbean, and then when they come over to work for us in the 1950s." The economic crisis of the 1970s affected black minorities acutely, leading to unemployment, racism, poverty and the 1981 riots. The riots of 1981 were largely sparked by racial issues. In Brixton, the police targeted more and more young black men in the belief that it would stop street crime, resulting in further conflict between racial groups. Jones’s imagery captured the life of poor black communities in London from the 1970s to the early 1980s, unwillingly showing that style and fashion can prevail through dark times.

Made You Look also features Hassan Hajjaj, nicknamed “the Andy Warhol of Marrakech.” His work captures men and women dressed in vivid African prints and patterns, often against bright backgrounds of clashing colours. Based in London, Hajjaj is influenced by the city’s hip hop and reggae scenes, as well as his North African heritage. His dandyish subjects juxtapose modern and traditional styles: three-piece suits combined with babouches, and polo shirts combined with a fez. Each of Hajjaj’s works is placed within a frame handmade from food and drinks packaging, emphasising the craftsmanship and the individual styling of each sitter.

Curator Ekow Eshun believes that fashion for black males is about establishing a place of freedom. In an article for The Guardian, he wrote that “the black body is a site of liberation rather than oppression.” This is exactly what Made You Look demonstrates. Eshun continues:

“When I walk down the street, the sense of being scrutinised and judged and typecast still is never far from my mind. It’s an uncomfortable feeling to live with. But, given the option, I’m not sure I’d ever choose to surrender it. Through that awareness of how different, contradictory, perspectives can flourish simultaneously, great art can emerge; art that puts black men at the centre of an image as nuanced subjects rather than stereotypes.”