When I was 16, my Dad and I were parked outside the Express Dairy in Wembley, chatting in the front seats of our car. We’d been there for about ten minutes when there was a knock on the window. It was a policeman. Someone had reported the presence of two suspicious men in a vehicle.
As we drove off, my dad chuckled to himself at the idea that anyone could think of us, a middle-aged man and his son in a Volvo estate, as a threat.
I laughed too, but I wouldn’t have if I’d realised incidents like this were soon to become commonplace. Here was an end to boyhood and the start of my journey into adulthood – into becoming a black man.
What this meant in practice was that my body was no longer my own.
Being a black man means being subject to the white gaze. It means becoming an object of prejudice and fascination, simultaneously hypervisible and invisible to white society – your body objectified, your emotions and inner life ignored.
The tropes are familiar: black men as supernaturally gifted at sports and entertainment, in possession of hulking bodies and ungovernable sexuality, liable to lapse into violence and lawlessness.
The caricatures are well worn but they’re still potent. When I walk down the street, the sense of being scrutinised and judged and typecast 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. Because being forced out of your own body, being prompted to look out through more than one set of eyes, is also a privileged position. It lends a presumption of complexity to how you see the world. And through that awareness of how different, contradictory different perspectives can flourish simultaneously, great art can emerge; art which puts black men at the centre of an image as nuanced subjects not stereotypes.
Made You Look, a new exhibition I’ve curated at The Photographer’s Gallery in London, is an attempt to explore these themes of identity, maleness, race and power. The show examines how black men shape their self-image in front of the camera. It gathers work by artists including Malick Sidibe, celebrated for capturing the vibrant life of a newly independent Mali in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Samuel Fosso, the tricksterish self-portraitist, who pictures himself in a variety of slyly amusing guises and assumed identities, and Hassan Hajjaj, whose images feature men meticulously dressed in vivid African prints and photographed against bright backgrounds of clashing colours.
The exhibition takes place at a time of marked gain and loss for black people. Because even while this is a period of unprecedented black prominence – from Obama in the White House to the success of artists such as Beyoncé, Steve McQueen, Marlon James, Kanye West – blacks still remain victim to the consequences of entrenched racism.
More than 500 black and minority ethnic people in Britain have died in suspicious circumstances while in state detention over the past 25 years, without a single official being successfully prosecuted. In America, one in three black men can expect to go to jail in their lifetime. And the list of African-American men killed in recent years solely because of their skin colour – Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and Freddie Gray amongst them – only continues to grow.
Against this fragile backdrop, Made You Look focuses on the figure of the black dandy. Dandyism, defined as a man “unduly concerned with looking stylish and fashionable”, might seem like trivial concerns in the era of Black Lives Matter. But as the killing of Trayvon Martin, shot by George Zimmerman for looking “suspicious” in a hoodie attests, how you dress can sometimes be the difference between life and death.
But dandyism is also about using dress to deliberately flout conventional notions of class, taste, gender and sexuality.
This is certainly the case with some of the men featured in Made You Look, like the majestically louche Soweto youth decked out in flared sleeveless suits and pearls, shot by South African photographer Kristin-Lee Moolman, and the strikingly beautiful young man photographed in New York by Jeffrey Henson Scales.
Such images point to the subversive power of dandyism to reveal masculinity itself as a performance, as something provisional, open to reinterpretation, rather than a set of inherited characteristics fixed in the skin.
And they also highlight how, for black men, style is a form of radical personal politics.
As a teenager, having to grapple for the first time with the force of the white gaze, I’d ask myself this question: how do you live without fear or debilitating anger in a world where you’re reminded always that your body doesn’t belong to you?
The answer, as proposed by the works in this show, is to demand to be seen on your own terms, via the style and attitude that announces your ambitions and desires, your sense of pride and inner belief.
For the most part the men featured in the exhibition aren’t wearing the finest of clothes. They seem less concerned with what they wear than how they wear it. Their style is by turns flamboyant, provocative, arresting, camp, playful and assertive.
It is about confounding expectations about how black men should look or carry themselves in order to establish a place of personal freedom: a place beyond the white gaze, where the black body is a site of liberation not oppression.
Made You Look is on display at the Photographer’s Gallery in London from 15 July – 25 Sep 2016