Explorations IV: Masculinities opens on Sunday, December 6. Read more about Gallery 5 in this six-gallery exhibition:
Once upon a time black male ‘cool’ was defined by the ways in which black men confronted hardships of life without allowing their spirits to be ravaged. They took the pain of it and used it alchemically to turn the pain into gold … It was defined by individual black males daring to self-define rather than be defined by others.
― bell hooks, We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity (2003)
At first glance, style and fashion may seem like the most superficial of the themes that structure this exhibition, but this is deceptive, since it is also one of the most politicized sections. Style and fashion provide major channels for the definition and performance of masculinities but are also particularly prone to change, variable interpretations, and contestation. In the portrait of Benjamin and Mary Pusey (c1775) in gallery 2, for instance, the high status of the protagonists is reinforced by their mode of dress, but Benjamin Pusey’s powdered wig and stockings, while once markers of high male status, would today be regarded as effeminate. Cosmo Whyte’s interpretation of the iconic photographs of the archetypal “badman” Ivanhoe Martin from The Harder They Come, which is on view in gallery 3, derives from an image that epitomizes “rude boy” swagger and poignantly illustrates the oppositional, subversive potential of style.
Two early photographs in this gallery – a 1901 view of Castleton Gardens by A. Duperly and Sons and the portrait A Jamaican Negro (c1908-1909) by Sir Harry Johnston – shed light on the sartorial politics of black Jamaican men in the early 20th century. The nattily dressed, suited black figure in the centre of the lush tropical foliage in the Duperly photograph disrupts anthropological conceptions of “the native” by introducing the figure of “the dandy” – it speaks to a changing social environment and the emergence of a black middle class. A Jamaican Negro, on the other hand, appears to represent a male servant, who in a strong marker of low status is barefooted, although the man’s confident air powerfully challenges that status. The incongruous “feminine” element of the printed fan in his hand also reminds of the subversive drag of Belisario’s Koo-Koo, Actor Boy in gallery 1. The spirit of cool, confident defiance is also evident in Osmond Watson’s iconic Johnny Cool (1967), a youthful portrait of one who may well be a “rude boy” in the making. Johnny Cool has a contemporary counterpart in Marlon James Jabari (2007), although this portrait also captures major changes in Jamaican youth culture that move away from prescribed Jamaican identies: an adept of anime, Jabari wears a Japanese school uniform jacket.
Ebony G. Patterson’s blinged-out collages from the Khani + di Krew (2009) series and Peter Dean Rickards’s Proverbs 24:10 (2008) take us to the contemporary and decidedly oppositional world of Dancehall, and its male dancers. Rickards’ mesmerizing, slow motion video captures the graceful poetry of the dance movements and frames the dancers’ individual performances as moving rituals of self-actualization, seemingly suspended in time. Patterson is the artist who has most consistently interrogated the gender contradictions in contemporary Jamaican culture and her “gangstas” reflect the feminised, flamboyant male aesthetic in Dancehall, which stands in contrast with its hyper-masculine and often homophobic rhetoric. Most of her subjects have bleached faces, a practice which is both aspirational, as it amounts to a generally futile attempt to ascend into the race-colour hierarchies, and oppositional, as it flouts middle class values about black self-affirmation. The visual codes of masculinity, race and class, as expressed through fashion and style, are also a major theme in the paintings of Phillip Thomas. His two canvases – Mr Chin, Yuh Fish Sell Di Right Ting and Nuh Mix Di Original, both from 2015 – reduce these codes to their bare essentials, with a few carefully placed disruptions such as the shocking pink Afropik, and he subtly and ironically connects this essentialized imagery to prevailing (and arguably failing) concepts about nationhood.
This section of the exhibition would not be complete without reference to fashion photography, represented by two photographs by Wade Rhoden, a young Jamaican photographer whose edgy style crosses the boundaries between fine art and fashion photography. The Calling (2013) and the related image Untitled (2013) represent prevailing male body ideals in the fashion industry, which are often as unattainable as the body ideals in female fashion photography. The imagery in these photographs also exists in an unexpected and provocative dialogue with the heroic, idealized body-focused depictions of black masculinity of the nationalist school, such as the work of Edna Manley, Alvin Marriott and Archie Lindo in galleries 2 and 3.