Made you look: Dandyism and Black Masculinity at The Photographer's Gallery

As the title suggests, the Made you look show at the Photographer’s Gallery presents a plethora of photo-based works which bring the audience’s gaze to a halt. The common thread of the diverse range of works, spanning from fashion photography to photojournalism, is their sitters; Black male characters from various settings and time periods, all dressed to impress - whether that being in a traditional dandy-like manner or in a gender bending way. Their carefully constructed physical appearance makes heads turn, or in other occasions reflects a need to stand out from the crowds.

Hassan Hajjaj, 2012,  Afrikan Boy . 

Hassan Hajjaj, 2012, Afrikan Boy

Made you look introduces the audience to the work of Moroccan artist and designer Hassan Hajjaj, who photographed esteemed North African creatives dressed in his own creations, against lively patterned studio backgrounds. As seen in his 2012 large scale photograph featuring musician African Boy, there is an explosion of geometric patterns and vibrant colours which take up the entirety of the frame. The sitter’s laid-back attitude is contrasted by the energetic patterns which emit a wave of excitement, commanding the audience to move their bodies. It’s also fascinating how Hajjaj correlates the African-patterned clothing his VIP sitters are wearing with their high social status, advocating that their over-the-top fashion is a contributing factor to their ascendance from the masses. Interestingly Hajjaj’s photographs are contained within white wooden frames with shelving units, filled with canned fish and match boxes. Combining the photographs of his high-status sitters with these mundane products, Hajjaj links these influential figures with mass culture, similarly to how Andy Warhol theorised that coca cola - a mass produced object consumed by the rich and poor alike - was able to bridge the gap between celebrities and their audience.

Kirstin-Lee Moolman, 2015,  Wayne Swart  from 'Oath lookbook'.  

Kirstin-Lee Moolman, 2015, Wayne Swart from 'Oath lookbook'.  

The show also presents two of Kirstin-Lee Moolman’s photographs from Oath’s spring/summer 2016 lookbook; a landscape and a larger portrait print mounted on the wall. The photographs depict a young black, mixed-race looking man in gender bending clothing; Rendering effeminate jewellery such as pearl necklaces and earrings with masculine silhouettes and a lion-mane afro. This label-defying character poses leisurely in and out an 80’s middle-class styled home in Soweto - an underdeveloped urban area in South Africa. The one-story house is decorated with lot’s of lace and shabby furniture and has a rundown 80’s car parked outside its entrance. 

The settings seen in the two photographs awake a certain nostalgia in me, as they remind me of my grandmother’s house - where I spent most of my childhood. The vintage interiors ooze my deceased grandmother’s unconditional love, providing warmth and acceptance to the nonconformist young man, who reminds me of myself. Whereas this reading might be a cry for intimacy on my behalf, it also elucidates how the strategic positioning of this character in a family home, sheds light on the natural occurrence of gender queer individuals around the world. Moolman’s photographs advocate that these individuals emerged from the same households as everyone else, thus urging the audience to be accepting towards their unusual appearance. 

Collin Jones, 1973-76, from  The Black House, Holloway Road, London . 

Collin Jones, 1973-76, from The Black House, Holloway Road, London

Moving on to documentary territories, the show features Collin Jone’s commissioned photo series, capturing the lives of black men living in the Harambee hostel between 1973 and 1976. This government funded housing project based in Holloway Road (London), was erected to support young black men facing prejudice and its negative affect on their lives. Jones records that through one of his many monochrome photographs, depicting two young black men posing in the Harambee estate grounds. The two gentlemen are dressed in smart-casual clothing consisting of tailored trousers, a blazer and a crew-neck sweater. Their relaxed body language denotes a familiarity with their surroundings, which is contrasted by the confused look of the man on the left-hand side, perhaps wondering ‘why is this man taking out picture?’. The most prominent feature in the photograph is the graffiti on the rough Harambee walls, spelling out the words ‘war’, ‘black’ and ‘power’. These three words echo a sense of empowerment brought about by the hardships in these young men’s lives, who were victims of discrimination. 

Overall Made you look is an exhibition that showcases the diversity of black male power through curating black and white photographs from our history, alongside colourful label defying photographs of our future. This culmination of images is a testament towards the indestructible spirit of black men, who have taken a stance against racism by standing up from the crowds and letting the whole world know that they are here and their lives matter!