The exhibition traces a trajectory of black dandyism in the 20th and 21st centuries, defined not as a style but as an approach to using dress as a refutation of a single construction of black masculinity. While spanning continents and decades (the show includes works from 1904 to 2016), it isn’t intended as “a historical presentation,” Eshun says. “The images are not all the same; you have some that are louche, romantic, camp… but there are things that repeat.” Palpable among things that repeat are reminders of the will for resistance, as much as the need for it. The exhibition inevitably alludes to Trayvon Martin, who was fatally shot in 2012 while wearing a hoodie.
Posited as a celebration of the power of individual style to counter the specific narratives forced upon black men, “Made You Look” makes us consider questions around the complicated role of photography in both defining and denying black self-image—something that Eshun has undoubtedly been conscious of as someone who influences visual culture in the U.K. as a journalist and broadcaster. “The camera is an important democratic tool, especially for black men, who historically have been portrayed as object, from the outside,” he explains. The camera has long been used against black men—as a tool of colonial oppression, turning the black man into an object of anthropological study, the “other,” which is persistent in images of violence and brutality against black males in the media today. At times, those images have been used to galvanize activism—the image of Emmett Till’s battered body, photographed by David Jackson, was pivotal to the Civil Rights Movement, as much as today’s footage of the recent murders of Walter L. Scott, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner
, among others, is to the Black Lives Matter movement. At the same time, the recent viral storm around “three black teenagers” Google search
proves that photographs are still defining black men first and foremost as criminal, dangerous, and malevolent. “Made You Look”—especially in the context of the U.K., where there is a distinct lack of education on black British history and culture—is as much about the way we look at and consume images as about reclaiming the definitions of black masculinity in a positive light.