Tucked away on the second floor of the Photographers’ Gallery, a quiet, white space near the hot bustle of Oxford Circus, a collection of black men stare out from picture frames in near-uniform stoicism. Most of their mouths are closed, unsmiling; some have high cheekbones and shining eyes.

But what’s really interesting about the men is the way that they are dressed. Their styles are striking but complimentary in their deliberate conception – from flamboyant, colourfully patterned suits to well-pressed, flared jeans.

These images summon a collective strength within the Made You Look exhibition, which examines dandyism “as a provocative response to the stereotypical portrayals and physical objectification of black men”. Ekow Eshun, the 48 year-old Ghanian-British curator of the exhibition, is well known as a successful journalist, artistic director, and broadcaster for institutions like the BBC.

He’s a busy man. When we first attempt our interview, Eshun is caught up in a meeting, but his voice is light and bright on the phone. “The meeting wasn’t about anything interesting,” he laughs, before launching into his explanation as to why he decided to curate the exhibition. “It seems to me that black men are at a very peculiar position at the moment, of heightened visibility and vulnerability at the same time,” he says. “I was interested in thinking about how, as a consequence, black men negotiate their position in public space, their position in society. One of the ways they do that is through trying to take mastery over their own self-image.”

The dictionary definition of a dandy is “a man unduly concerned with looking stylish and fashionable”; a way of being practised by the likes of Oscar Wilde, Lord Byron and Charles Baudelaire. But as Eshun explains, black dandyism is far from unduly. Rather, the style is constructed in response to a society, which “at large still spends time demonising black men, viewing them as a threat, as sexual predators.” The exhibition, therefore, features work from colonial times, when this myth started to become pervasive. Photographs from the Larry Dunstan Archive, thought to be taken in 1904 by an unknown photographer in Senegal (then a French colony), show black men looking as unthreatening as they could be. Pristine white suits contrast with dust-covered feet and sun-kissed skin. A cane is held at a jaunty angle, brushing the ground near laced-up boots. As the caption beside it reads, this particular look represents “response or possibly resistance to archetypal colonial imagery”.

Some of Eshun’s favourite work in the exhibition is by Malian photographer Malick Sidibé, who passed away in April. Eshun likes Sidibé’s work because he says his subjects “insist” on being seen. Sidibé’s portraiture contrasts with brusque shots by British photographer Colin Jones of the marginalised, stylish boys on Holloway Road’s Harambe housing project in the 1970s – a hostel which aimed to rehabilitate young, troubled black people who had suffered from prejudice and problems in education. Eshun’s past as a style journalist is reflected in a box room which has shots of defiantly flamboyant rapper Young Thug, known for his penchant for “women’s clothing”. The brightest and most eye-catching images – taken by Moroccan photographer Hassan Hajjaj – are reminiscent of The Society of Elegant Persons of the Congo, or ‘sapeurs’; probably the most ubiquitous imagery in the modern arena that people would relate to black dandyism.

I was first introduced to the concept of dandyism through Solange Knowles, I tell Eshun, who featured the sapeurs in the music video for her hit Losing You. But, as a result, Solange has been accused by some groups of appropriating Congolese culture. What does he think about the appropriation of dandyism?

“I don’t worry too much about appropriation because I feel that if something has a life and style and an identity to it, it can actually survive being taken by someone else,” he says. “Solange is a particular example in as much that some people wouldn’t have been aware of the sapeurs before her video. I’m less interested in feeling that somehow one thing belongs to one set of people and should only stay there and only be defined in those terms because I feel creativity doesn’t really work that way.”

Eshun’s confident answer on the question of cultural appropriation and creativity is indicative of his intimidatingly impressive CV. Born in the late 60s, he began his career as a magazine journalist, working as deputy editor of The Face, before taking over as editor at Arena. In 2005 he published a well-reviewed memoir, Black Gold of the Sun, and became the artistic director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA). “At Arena I was the first black editor of a mainstream magazine, at the ICA I was the first black director of a major arts organisation,” he says. While, as he noted in an interview with the Guardian in 2010, his final year with the ICA was “tough” as he dealt with a mounting deficit, his broadcasting career has kept him almost continually in the public eye – he was a regular contributor on BBC’s The Review Show between 2000-2013 and has written and presented various documentaries. Made You Look, he explains, is another “another iteration, another chapter in the same trajectory”, for someone whom race isn’t the “only” thing he’s interested in, but it’s a “pretty big thing”.

"The investment people put into their dress and deportment is a very personal politics"

In his memoir, Eshun recanted the horrific racism he faced growing up, and it is clear that he is keenly aware of the current political issues facing black men, even if he – throughout his eminent career – seems to have overcome some of the more obvious racial barriers. Although he says that he hasn’t been directly involved in the “deeply inspiring” Black Lives Matter movement, which has recently sprung up in the UK following the cruel and untimely deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile at the hands of the American police, he does believe it’s a critically important campaign. “Arguably, things have been getting worse rather than better and I think that all you can do is not let that go by without protest, not let that go by with mute acceptance,” he says. “That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to do the show. I’m quite aware that dealing with dandyism on display may feel like quite a trivial response, but I think of the investment people put into their dress and deportment as a very personal politics. As a way to assert your identity in a society where otherwise there is a constant rush to judgement of black men in particular. So for me, those issues of dress and style actually aren’t trivial at all.”

Hearing this, I’m reminded of the hoodies movement, which took place after Trayvon Martin’s death. Martin was a black 17-year-old whose shooting by George Zimmerman was the catalyst for the Black Lives Matter movement in the US. Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly, in a fit of stereotyping, claimed “the hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin’s death as George Zimmerman is” because he looked like a “gangsta” wearing it. Instead of heeding the anchor’s words, young black men across America rushed to dress in solidarity with Martin at protests, showing their power in carefully constructed outfits with hoodies, which, while not being quite as glamorous as traditional black dandyism, still conveyed strength. As Eshun says himself: “across continents you see similarities, not so much of pose, but of expressions, possibly of posture, possibly of will and desire that come to the surface. So if dandyism is about anything, it’s about how you carry yourself.

Made You Look: Dandyism and Black Masculinity runs at The Photographers’ Gallery, London, until 25 September

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