We live in an era in which the invention, perpetuation and refutation of cliché bounces up and down the court of keyboard warrior opinion that is Twitter. Where any hints of cogent information are quickly lost or buried. No wonder that we, as visual creatures, are better off (in a way) looking at images instead and drawing conclusions from what we see. Besides, we can always express our thoughts via social media immediately afterwards
Thus, even for such a relatively short selection of artists and images, in Made You Look, Ekow Eshun’s carefully curated choices both fulfill certain expectations of African (and African-American) male splendor, while refuting some of the canards that some are likely to bring with them to the exhibition.
Perhaps Made You Think would be a more apt title, for just as Africa and dandyism themselves are no monoliths, neither are the men and boys in works from the likes of Samuel Fosso, Malick Sidibé, Liz Johnson-Artur and Isaac Julien.
All are strong visualists in their own right – witness the gorgeous still from Julien’s 1989 Harlem Jazz Age reverie, Looking For Langston, or the deliberate Africana made from wax prints and framed with familiar-to-motherlanders tinned or boxed commodities that comprises Hassan Hajjaj’s portrait series.
But whether through naturalistic reportage – Kristin-Lee Moolman, Jeffrey Henson Scales, Colin Jones – or art-directed pose – practically everyone else, save for in-between partisans like Sidibé – commonalities and differences are unambiguously apparent. The subjects not only enjoy their clothing, but also delight in presenting their self-fashioning (or modelling) for the camera.
Dandyism is hard to define, but if you are to find it at Made You Look, don’t make the mistake of taking it at face value.
Whether colluding with the person behind the camera (suggested in the c. 1904 images from the Larry Dunstan archive; blatant in the case of Hajjaj; the same thing in the case of self-portraiteer Fosso) or preserving a real moment in posterity’s lens (Sidibé again), the confidence and desire to be who they are or want to be, and whatever the circumstances, permeates each shot
Dandyism is hard to define, but if you are to find it at Made You Look, don’t make the mistake of taking it at face value – as a mere material desire for clothes. For in the minds of these subjects, it may well be a desire for the right clothes – and the results are clearly very different, context and time be damned – but it is more than that. These are their choices expressed: who they are, where they are and how they want to be seen.