Shantrelle P Lewis’s despair about the media’s representation of black men peaked six years ago when, swamped with stories of gang-related murders, violence in African countries and dubious reality television, she decided a partial counter-balance was required amid this depressing state of affairs.
Thus the Dandy Lion Project: images by emerging photographers and filmmakers from the African diaspora, portraying young black men around the world, stylishly dressed and (in the smartest, most elegant terms) sticking it to the often narrow yet widely-accepted imagery of urban black communities.
“I was exasperated by the repetitive and oversaturated manufactured image of black masculinity,” says Lewis, a US curator and researcher whose extensive work on the diaspora has seen her take up fellowships with the UN Programme for People of African Descent and the Andy Warhol Foundation. “The image of today’s sagging pants wearing youth is not one of rebellion by the lumpenproletariat but a buy-in into a corporate controlled image that is the result of negligent public policy and a failed education system. To dress outside of that uniform is to act from a place of agency, to contradict, to rebel.”
There is an understandable sense of frustration and forcefulness to Lewis’s words: the overarching negative portrayal of black males, she says, has been created to maintain a “grotesque” and “glorified” sense of manhood and masculinity, and it’s one she feels is perpetuated by mainstream hip-hop and the Prison Industrial Complex. The styles on show, from the pink hats and cravats to the cheekbones and loafers, are invariably, enviably on-point.
They’re often funny and playful: Osborne Macharia (a self-taught commercial and advertising photographer who was born in Kenya, has a bachelor’s in architecture and was involved in the triumph of her home country’s first ever Cannes Lion last year) imagined the League of Extravagant Grannies – a fictional bunch of classy, now-retired 1970s corporate and government leaders, seen shading their eyes on landing strips in braces, embracing polka dot ties and short trousers or standing in front of sunset backdrops carrying cigars.
“They now live the high life, travelling to exotic and remote areas within Africa to explore, party and enjoy exclusivity,” says Macharia, explaining why the trio appear to be heading for baggage reclaim. “Little is known about them ‘til now. We managed to catch up with three of them in Somalia after they landed.”
The Brighton Photo Biennial represents the UK premiere for the exhibition, which has also travelled to Chicago and the Netherlands and will form an installation in Miami before the production of a Dandy Lion book next spring. The works are not specific to their locale, and the artists are setting their sights ever more expansively. Tebogo ‘Harness’ Hamese, a photographer in Johannesburg, is currently embroiled in a project spanning all 54 countries in Africa, titled Who Taught You What Beauty Is?
The 28-year-old’s prefix is a stage name taken in respect of his camera strap, and the subtitle of his exhibition takes Khumbula – the Nguni word for remember – as a way to emphasise the “dark, mysterious but drop dead beautiful” reality of the continent. “We started Khumbula because we felt African stories are not told the way they should be told,” says Hamese. “The interpreters of our stories tell them the way their audience would like to receive them. They show them what they want to see. So we took it upon ourselves to tell these stories one wouldn’t normally see on TV, using fashion to appeal to our consumers. And it was easy because we didn’t have to change anything in our lives to do this, so our stories came naturally.”
African fashion and swagger is the starting point, but the dandies also take classical European elements. Lewis says they exert a certain amount of trickery in this – particularly in dressing in ways associated with “the other” and, as she puts it, “performing” their identity.
“Throughout history, most notably the past two centuries, particularly in the west, Black men have used fashion as a tool of rebellion,” she points out. “When self-styled, the African diasporan man has relied upon his innate sensibilities to express his masculinity, his humanity, his individuality. Most importantly, an integral part of this performed rebellion entails posing before a camera.” That’s good news for the Biennial and, you hope, for the chances of perceptions and realities shifting in a more positive direction.
The Dandy Lion Project, University of Brighton Galleries, October 1st-30th 2016
Loads of great exhibitions and events are taking place for Brighton Photo Biennial.