In exploring the wealth of identity, the black dandyism exhibition at The Photographer’s Gallery serves to subvert the generalisations centred on black masculinity. Poignantly, the power lies within the subjects’ ability to manipulate their external image within a white, patriarchal society. It is something which requires courage, as the inversion of conventions is never looked upon with a welcoming glance. We are met with the pictorial manifestation of the black ‘double consciousness’, which W.E.B. Du Bois observed it as ‘this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.’ The stark dualism of Du Bois’ worldview serves as a reminder that the minority undergoes the most complex formation of identity; at each turn, an attempt to move beyond the confines will be met with hostility and derision. Despite the socio-political barriers, this vibrant photographic collection reveals the creativity present within the black masculine sphere.
The notions of black masculinity are buried beneath stereotypes which transforms the human subjects into objects. Images of primitiveness, ferocity and menace have been woven into the social consciousness, which narrows the scope of ‘black identity’. The black male figure exists outside the white codes of polite behaviours, which renders it to become cast out in the social wilderness. A culture of fear surrounds the primordial black figure, which renders it into a grotesque but spectacular object; it is something to be scrutinised and gawped at from afar, but never to be approached. In light of this, the nature of spectatorship comes into play when partaking in the exhibition; to look at a series of static figures who wish to be noticed for their difference reveals a tension between the need for independence and the need for validation.
Working within the confines of a narrow framework has a twofold effect; on one hand, it stifles the flourishing of the self’s ‘true calling’—yet it encourages us to look to the past and fuse it with a contemporary mind-set. Although Dandyism is rooted in the elite social circles of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it has been imaginatively reshaped for the needs of the largely working class black population. In The Painter of Modern Life, Charles Baudelaire defines the Dandy as a ‘wealthy man, who blasé though he may be, has no occupation in life but to chase along the highway of happiness, [a] man nurtured in luxury, and habituated …to being obeyed by others.’ Of course, the refashioning of an elite identity in the hands of the underprivileged strikes as odd; why would they have an interest to embody an entitled figure of oppression? What becomes evident, is that the photographic subjects repurpose an aspect of white identity which contrasts the primordial imagery attached to the black male. Moreover, they manifest a joyous way of cultivating the idea of beauty in their own persons, which satisfies their freedom of feeling and thinking.
Existing within W.E.B. Du Bois’ imagined realm of black ‘double consciousness’, wherein the minority has ‘two unreconciled strivings’, exemplifies the tensions at work within the dominant ‘white gaze’. Moving between dualities signifies the narrowness of racial paradigms within the perceptions of society at large; by embracing the feminised dandy, black men have the opportunity to work beyond the confines ‘of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.’ Indeed, there is a sense of pride radiating from the images, as the men pose with nonchalance in their carefully crafted outfits. The sense of artistry pervades both white and black Dandies, as Max Beerbohm notes that the movement ‘is ever the outcome of a carefully cultivated temperament.’ There is a deliberateness on both sides of the spectrum, as the essence of the Dandy is art—Beerbohm goes on to note that it is ‘his supremacy in the art of costume as in itself an art’ which draws spectators. It is in this transformation in black style, from an object designed to declare the power of white masters, to subjects who dress flawlessly to proclaim their provocative presence. The photographs present arbiters of style, who artfully use clothing to define their identity within a changeable socio-political landscape.
Liberation manifests itself in the flourishing of self-expression; it is a method of exploring the still waters of the mind. To form a new persona within a tight frame, is a method to overcome the oppression of the self. To this day, the black male is still a figure ensnared in a mediation of racial, cultural and class based signifiers of identity, which complicates the escape towards freedom. Although costumes can be interpreted as superficial creations to define character, the exhibition proves that it is a method of survival within the grey confines of a rigid society.