by Chérmelle D. Edwards
For the past five years, Shantrelle P. Lewis has curated images created by contemporary photographers and filmmakers to document the articulation of the sartorial identity of the black male. This month—as a guest curator at Columbia College Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Photography (MoCP)—she brings five years of discovery into the first comprehensive exhibition on the subject with Dandy Lion: (Re)Articulating Black Masculine Identity.
The diverse and varied group of global photographs span three continents—the United States, Europe and Africa—and encompasses nearly 30 men and women whose documentation of style provides a visual identity to the premise of her exhibition. Lewis’ selected images of dandies in global landscapes caters to an urban trope where the male identity is supported and celebrated. Altogether, they act as a visual counter argument to what has previously been embraced by the mainstream. Further, the photographers in the exhibition propose an alternative conversation about identity through rich color tones, precisely framed subjects and native backgrounds. All of this functions in service of moving beyond a “monolithic understanding” of black men.
One of the photographers, Rog Walker (the man behind the official Solange Knowles wedding portraits), was previously a subject in Lewis’ curatorial history. With this installation, Walker (who now mainly shoots analog film on a medium format camera) was asked to submit an image as a photographer. The Dandy Lion that Walker photographed—Nigerian-born menswear blogger Steven Onoja of Ostentation & Style—stands in the exhibition as a 19-foot tall print. “I didn’t make this image. I couldn’t even try; I took this image,” Walker tells CH. “This image of Steven is by virtue of him being him. And that’s why I feel Shantrelle chose it. It’s authentic and real, it’s very much a document—his pose, his motion, his essence.”
Reflecting on his role behind the camera as a photographer, Walker says, “Re-articulating black masculinity is a very natural conversation. Being from Jamaica, I had traditional parents and [ideas about] what was deemed proper when you come to America. To be artistic goes against that very nature. To do this thing, and communicate using this medium and on the other side, this is also how I express my masculinity—those two things go at odds in culture in general. So, it’s my radical voice and their radical voice having a conversation.”
With an array of voices in the exhibition, “Dandy Lion: (Re)Articulating Black Masculine Identity” functions as an updated and current conversation through global eyes using a universal tool: the camera. The exhibit runs through 12 July 2015 at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Photography.
Images courtesy of Museum of Contemporary Photography, Columbia College Chicago