Dandy Lion

Dandy Lion: (Re)Articulating Black Masculine Identity
Museum of Contemporary Photography
April 6 – July 12, 2015

Dandy Lion: (Re)Articulating Black Masculine Identity is the first major exhibition to document contemporary Black dandyism, a style (if not an attitude) that displays regional variations, but generally mixes European fashion with an African aesthetic. This universal aspect of the style allows for a tightly-focused show of portrait photographs despite its sprawling scale and global span. Dandy Lion includes 27 established and upcoming photographers who merge fashion, fine art, and straight documentary photography to capture the Black dandy in diverse locales ranging from the US, South Africa, the Congo, to Western Europe.

Black dandyism’s roots date to 15th Century colonialism when African rulers were introduced to European fashions. In a quest for sophistication rooted in the insecurity arising from the cultural hegemony overseeing them, they combined European styles with traditional African clothing. Concurrently, slave owners in Europe and the Americas dressed slaves in Western wear. Colonially-imposed dandyism continued its troubling history for centuries, moving to operatic and theatrical performance, including the 19th Century American Black minstrel show.

In the 20th Century, though, dandyism transitioned from forced stereotyping to liberating self-definition for Black men. The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and the 1930s was significant for introducing the independent Black dandy, particularly the queer Black dandy, who infused the dandyism of 18th and 19th century Europe into African-American culture. In Harlem, Black dandyism reinvented itself as an artificial construction of cosmopolitanism that upturned gender conventions. Its rebellious individualism contrasted sharply with what the early twentieth-century popular media was actually seeking: a sweepingly definitive Black male identity for the emergent African-American culture of the time.

The queer Black dandy’s cultural sampling for personal transformation remains representative of Black dandyism. Indeed, Charl Landvreugd conveys this notion of identity transformation allegorically in Atlantic Transformerz: Faidherbe (2014). Wearing a finely-tailored grey suit and white shirt, a man poses confidently on an urban rooftop. More unusually, a black, shiny cyborg-like mask disguises him. The photograph’s title and mask collaborate to form a cinematic reference to Transformers, a film in which robots morph into sundry configurations in response to the enemies at hand.

The Harlem Renaissance remains germane to Dandy Lion not only for establishing the shape-shifting dandy, but also for its photographic history. In fact, the first photographer to document dandy styles was the Harlem portrait photographer James Van Der Zee (1886-1983). One of the exhibited photographers, Russell K. Frederick, pays implicit homage to him. Fredrick depicts the dandies of Bedford-Stuyvesant, the New York City community where he resides. Bed-Stuy has traditionally been Brooklyn’s Black neighbourhood; however, gentrification has pushed out many residents. His photographs take on a particular resonance, then, for their documentation of a vanishing culture. In Untitled (2014), the formal dress of six men — loafers, fedoras, and naturally, suits and ties — bears a vintage look enhanced by the black-and-white print. These men face the camera with pride and confidence as the strong, enduring survivors of a tradition dating to the Harlem Renaissance.

Still, no matter how individualistic the liberated African-American dandy might be, the Black dandy remains undeniably tied to colonialism. Take for instance, the Congolese sapeur, a member of La SAPE (the Congolese Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes), a group of dandies that Radcliffe Roye, a Brooklyn-based photographer, captured in his Sapologie Au Congo series (2011). La SAPE originated in the 1920s in Brazzaville, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s capital. Its members’ penchant for Western clothing dates to the country’s colonial past, when slaves returning from Antwerp brought European clothing as gifts. Another source was the second-hand European clothes available in 19th century French missions.

In Royes Untitled No. Five (2011), a sapeur sports a lightly plaid red suit with gaudy, psychedelic-patterned lapels. He accessorizes with a splendidly eccentric shoulder bag with two hanging ornate black tassels. Such works complicate normative Black masculinity just like the queer dandy did. The foppish finery of La SAPE stands out in a country where gender roles are typically traditionally delegated.

Gender politics intersect with racial politics elsewhere in this exhibition, most visibly in For every strong woman, there are strong men Khumbula (2014), by South African photographer Harness Hamese, featuring a main female subject in this exhibition of Black males. The striking black-and-white image places her front and centre in the composition, her eyes confronting the camera with steely resolve. She holds her clutch ahead of her, brandishing it like a weapon. Standing well behind her are six nattily-dressed men in trench coats and pinstripe suits: her posse.

Like For Every Strong Woman, There are Strong Men – Khumbula, Dandy Lion is about more than the sweet joys of rebellion against the norm. It is equally about conveying an impactful political message: culture, gender and race are malleable constructions that can empower individuals. In Dandy Lion, the political is personalized and accessorized.