In the days between organising and conducting my interview with Ekow Eshun, the curator of a new exhibition at The Photographer’s Gallery called Made You Look: Dandyism and Black Masculinity, two things happen: Calvin Klein drops a new campaign featuring everyone from Frank Ocean to Young Thug. And Alton Sterling and Philando Castile are killed, in separate incidents, as a result of police brutality in America.
The disparity between these events – the celebration of black men by an international fashion brand helmed by a white designer, and the unnecessary deaths of black men by members of a force compliant in institutional racism – is at the core of Made You Look, in which journalist and broadcaster Ekow Eshun employs the medium of photography to explore ideas of identity, masculinity and aesthetics.
“Everyone who stands in front of the camera has to offer an idea of what it can be to be a black man,” he explains below, “but what that leads you to ultimately is that there is no single way you should be, and for me that’s the most exciting, inspiring, healthy, entertaining thing.”
Zoe Whitfield: What initially inspired the show?
Ekow Eshun: Possibly no more than walking down the street. Actually, two things, one is that it seems a time of historic visibility for black men, if you look at President Obama, the most powerful man in the world, you look at writers, musicians, artists, entertainers, from Marlon James to Kanye to Iris Elba, all those people have a historic level of visibility, or cultural prominence to a level that black people – black men – have never had before.
“It seems to be a moment simultaneously of high visibility and high vulnerability for black men.”
But then simultaneous to that, black men are also incredibly vulnerable – think about Black Lives Matter, think about the long roll call of black men being shot or killed or incarcerated in America or the UK, for no other reason than the colour of their skin. So it seems to be a moment simultaneously of high visibility and high vulnerability for black men, and I was fascinated how, within those circumstances, black men carried themselves and conduct themselves in situations where they’re both hyper visible, but also sometimes invisible in terms of their inner world and their inner lives not really being credited. So I was interested in that, and how that represented photographically and how black men define their self image in front of the camera.
ZW: What informed the title?
EE: Well, in a way it’s a reference to some of those issues around visibility and invisibility, and in part its influence comes from Ralph Ellison’s novel The Invisible Man, but also, Made You Look is the title of a Nas song, which has a great line about the importance of looking good and the importance of looking stylish; so in crude terms I borrowed it from Nas, but I liked it because it had a much larger resonance.
ZW: How easy was it defining the line-up of photographers?
EE: It was a constantly evolving list, I started off with about half a dozen photographers, half of which ended up in the final thing, then you add a few more and you take away a few more; the figures I started with were, I guess some of the iconic studio photographers of their time: Malick Sidibé, the iconic Malian African studio photographer, Samuel Fosso, who’s a brilliant, iconic, clever, artistic genius and photographer.
The final version features nine photographers from three continents, gathered together from over a century. I was looking for works that could surprise me, for photographers, not just to shoehorn into the theme, but whose work provided a window into the ideas that I wanted to explore; I think each photographer has a unique relationship with the ways they explore and express representations of black men in front of the camera.
“The difficult, slightly elusive nature of the thing is when you’re ultimately talking about a white gaze, talking about racism and prejudice, those are concepts that people feel uncomfortable with.”
ZW: Did you work with a specific audience in mind when you were curating the show?
EE: Being selfish, I sort of had myself in mind, but the main thing was I wanted to have a conversation with the public. The difficult, slightly elusive nature of the thing is when you’re ultimately talking about a white gaze, talking about racism and prejudice, those are concepts that people feel uncomfortable with, and that are hard to articulate or address outside of statistics. They’re hard concepts if you haven’t got direct experience of racism, and what I wanted to do with the show was look through the prism of style and identity, not just how black men see themselves, but the context within which black men and people as a whole operate. I wanted to look at the things that are difficult and unhappy, through work that I found inspiring and exciting and elegant.
“I wanted to look at the things that are difficult and unhappy, through work that I found inspiring and exciting and elegant.”
ZW: Last year you chaired a panel called Kanye West and the paradox of black male identity in hip-hop, and I wanted to ask you about Young Thug, following the release of that Calvin Klein video.
EE: I’m actually writing a book about Hip Hop so these things are on my mind a lot, but having listened to Hip Hop for decades, you go through phases of being depressed about it, because it can be limited, but right now I’m optimistic because of people like Young Thug; I love the fact that a few years ago you would have been run off the streets if you looked like Young Thug, now, for me he’s a leader. You’ve had this really interesting path, opened up by the Kanye’s and Drake’s, where it turns out it’s ok, as a black man, to be able to talk about your inner world, about the things that aren’t great in your life, so they opened a path, but Young Thug takes it further, at least stylistically, which is fantastic. Basically the more that Hip Hop looks like the complexity of the world, rather than the caricature of the world, the happier I am.
Made You Look: Dandyism and Black Masculinity opens tomorrow, 15th July and runs until 25th September at The Photographers Gallery, 16-18 Ramillies St, London W1F 7LW
Follow Zoe Whitfield on Twitter @zoemaywhitfield