Many years ago, on a very hot afternoon, I was enjoying a stracciatella gelato at the ice cream parlour Fior di Latte in Pétion Ville (Haiti), when my brother looked at me and said, kindly but firmly: “Why do you dress like that? Why are you wearing ripped jeans? People could think you are poor.” I was wearing a pair of the latest Diesel jeans ripped at the knee—because they could no longer contain the extra size I had gained—but still they were Diesel jeans. A t-shirt and a pair of Nike sneakers completed my outfit.
My brother’s questions immediately slung me into those class dynamics that have strongly shaped the Haitian society, which is mostly of African descent. If one walks into a bank in Port-au-Prince or Jacmel to this day, it is still hard—not to say impossible—to see women at the counter wearing their natural hair. A few years ago a cousin of mine, after years of study and sacrifice, preferred to give up the opportunity to start a job at a bank because she did not want to accept the—unwritten?—rule of straightening her natural afro hair.
I recall a summer in the nineties in Haiti, when I experienced the “dressing and combing ritual,” which for me meant wearing a home-made knee-length red cotton dress with small white flowers; white peep toe flats, and my hair combed with afro comb with a green fist. It was the day of the family photos in the studio. Sunset skies, or soft colors, were the backdrop of our poses, with or without a smile.
Over the years, I found these details and memories in the shots of celebrated Malian photographers Malick Sidibé (Soloba, 1936 – Bamako, 14 Aprile 2016), Seydou Keïta (Bamako, 1921 – Paris, 21 November 2001), and partly I find them today—including an entire imaginary that I lost during an after my teenage years—in the shots of the fifteen photographers featured in The New Black Vanguard: Photography between Art and Fashion, published by Aperture.
Curated by the US author, critic and curator Antwaun Sargent, The New Black Vanguard: Photography between Art and Fashion addresses a radical transformation taking place in fashion and art today. More critically, the contemporary visual vocabulary around beauty and the body has been reinfused with new vitality and substance thanks to an increase in powerful images authored by an international community of black photographers. Their vibrant portraits and conceptual images fuse the genres of art and fashion photography in ways that break down long-established boundaries. Their work has been widely consumed in traditional lifestyle magazines, ad campaigns, and museums, as well as on their individual social-media channels.
I met Sargent last week in Milan, he had been invited by Gucci that celebrated his book by hosting the book signing at its flagship store in via Montenapoleone. An exclusive cocktail attended by more than 300 people.
Sargent is a polyhedral soul, a style, fashion and art enthusiast and lover. If one dives into his Instagram for a few minutes, the emotional and aesthetic involvement that he has with these worlds is immediately perceivable, even if his first publications focused on politics: “I grew up in Chicago, I’ve always been interested in art. I used to go to art museums all the time. I studied Politics at Georgetown University. When I moved to New York, after college, still going to museums, I started hanging out with a lot of artists I eventually became friends with. And I was like ‘Oh, I wanna write about their work’. And so, eight years ago I started writing.” At the beginning his focus was on young black artists who were just starting out like him, artists who dimly had a place to express to their concerns in print. And the art world was not necessarily paying attention to them. “I wanted to provide that space, so I’ve been writing primarily for the majority of that time and few years ago I started curating exhibitions, particularly about black creativity and ideas that form within the community, looking at the artistic production of black creatives around the world.” A reflection on the deep conversations and commitment to the community, but also to the black artistic production in relation to the impact that the Black Lives Matter movement has had on emerging black art, and vice-versa.
It is no surprise that in The New Black Vanguard, Sargent managed to create the perfect alchemy between art, fashion, culture and social justice. The work of the fifteen artists presented in this richly illustrated essay brings to the forefront the debate on the black body behind and in front of the camera, questioning and showing how the construction of black images was characterized by institutional barriers that have historically been an impediment to black photographers participating fullier in the fashion (and art) industries.
Campbell Addy (UK, Ghana), Arielle Bobb-Willis (USA), Micaiah Carter (USA), Awol Erizku (USA, Ethiopia), Nadine Ijewere (UK, Nigeria), Quil Lemons (USA), Namsa Leuba (Swiss, Republic of Guinea), Renell Medrano (USA, Sainte-Domingue), Tyler Mitchell (USA), Jamal Nxedlana (South Africa), Daniel Obasi (Nigeria), Ruth Ossai (UK, Nigeria), Adrienne Raquel (USA), Dana Scruggs (USA), Stephen Tayo (Nigeria) give indeed new perspectives, a new gaze through their work. They call into question and overturn the traditional euro-centric, white-centric image of beauty, as well as the concept of beauty itself, and “explore race, gender and desire in new and productive ways, resulting in a reimagining of what constitutes a fashion image, widening the scope of representation and broadening the definition of fantasy and power that are rooted in specific cultural context,” writes the curator on the book.
“I think we are in a moment where we have to tell, define our own stories. We have to link art histories. And I think The New Black Vanguard is an opportunity to do that. This book is about a group of young image makers around the world. I am a young black writer and curator who grew up with these imagers. I’ve seen them on Instagram, in art shows, in South Africa and other places, went to their exhibitions, and seen how their practice, their concerns, and their art are transforming. Because I was so enmeshed in the community, I was able to say ‘Oh, they don’t know each other but they are working on similar concerns, they’re thinking about the black body, they’re thinking about fashion, they’re thinking about style, they’re thinking about these histories inside their own communities’, which are, by the way, very separate communities. You have very diverse perspectives within the community but they were all thinking about blackness in the space of photography. And what that means to this generation,” he remarks.
A generation of photographers in their twenties and thirties—the youngest is 22, the oldest is 37, and Sargent himself has just turned thirty-one. But if it is true that these image makers represent the new creative avant-garde changing the rules of the game in the fashion industry, it is equally true that before them a huge work was done on several fronts. Our instances, our goals, our creativity, taking and not taking into account race, identity, gender, sexuality, and other nuances of the so-called diversity, always are the result of something that began in a previous moment. And if we were not exposed to certain image references in the past, this collection is a further attestation of the pre-existence of a visual vocabulary, which today uses a contemporary language and glorifies beauty, gender, race, identity.
“The reason why I even entitled the book The New Black Vanguard is because it suggests a history. Because if I’m saying the new, then there must be an old. It’s a history that these photographers are drawing on. It’s a history of art, fashion, you can go to from one photographer to the next and you see a great kind of diversity within the community. And I wanted to make sure that we are dispelling notions of being a monolith. The images attested that but also reading through this conversation in the back between older photographers and this new vanguard around race, sexuality and identity and just photography itself, as a medium. You see how the concerns of the different generations are different and have changed. With progress we redefine the blackness in the space of that image. So, first it was important to make a communal document that came from the inside, from the space of that community. Very often when our narratives are told we are not necessary controlling, writing or curating those narratives. So I really want this book to be a statement to that, that we have our own academics, photographers, historians we can draw on, and we can create new things.This book could be easily of a thousand pages. I wanted to try to show something that is representative.”
Quoting Sargent, we are a “loose collective”, made up of different leading actors and entities around the world that every day empower the basis of this work of destructuring the status quo, creating our spaces, self-representing ourselves in our spaces, inhabiting others spaces, producing our contents, exposing our concerns. And in this book, the blurring of the boundaries between race and gender is increasingly bold, as had never happened in the past. “We are just in a moment of intersectionality, we are in a moment where we see all of our identities not separated. I am a black gay male and today I am able to hold both of my complex identities in one space, because that’s what makes up who I am.
It is no longer like ‘this is gayness’, ‘this is blackness’. This is intersectionality. And you see that in art. Actually, this conversation around social identity in art started around 1994 with the Whitney Biennial’s Black Male, and from there it exploded. It’s a great opportunity for us to show who we are, show the great diversity, the great complication of who we are, and I’d hope we’re doing more than integrate, even beyond racial categories. Because if you think about influences, about how artists are influenced, they are not just influenced by black artists, white artists, or women artists. If you think about these photographers, they all have moments in their minds that speak to them, moments like ‘Oh I saw that Gucci show that made me want to believe in this fantasy’, or ‘it made me want to create images like that’, or ‘I saw this ad’.”
In some ways, the aesthetic revolution that these photographers are carrying out may appear Afrofuturistic. Although it is an abused, complex, not-entirely-understood term—for some still unknown, Sargent answers: “Daniel Obasi, his work is very much inspired by Afrofuturism. One of the thing that he says is that ‘Afrofuturism is now’. Every day, as a person of color, you have to envision the future that you are trying to live. And though the term has deviated from its original context in a lot of ways, I think that this moment is one that one feels deeply futuristic. And not just in fashion and photography, but every day in music, cinema, literature. We are making our concerns known and writing the ways we want to write, and building communities that we need around our work, our ideas, our identity, to really create more spaces. So, to me ‘Afrofuturism is now’ it really means that. Thinking about Deb Willis Thomas, this book can be a part of that lineage because it’s very much about a part of that project that she started more than twenty years ago. I think it’s important to get these histories down so that people can use them.”
The importance of creating, archiving these stories is crucial for everyone. And, above all, it is essential to spread them and make them reach those spaces populated by people who have difficulties in accessing this aesthetic, social and cultural language. “The book has become a reference point. It is available at the Metropolitan museum, other research libraries, and other places where people can go and look at it. One of the most amazing things that happened to me is that a beauty salon has the book on the table. Someone posted it on Instagram and sent it to me and I thought ‘This is so amazing’. My point is that the community is responding to it in an organic way and to have this book in a beauty salon did not even occur to me in my wildest dreams, and it is exactly the place where it should be. When you go into a space that is about black beauty this book should be among the references that you have.”
Beauty is power, affirms model and author Barbara Summer. And fashion images are aspirational, states the curator: people feel affirmed or alienated by the likeness that stares back at them. For those who have not met the narrowly defined notions of gender, class, and beauty seen in the images, it can feel like a personal failure: a feeling of dislocation and invisibility have often met these viewers, subtly communicating that their bodies, hair, and skin were not desirous.
And within this revolution the art and fashion world are giving their answers with not many filters, albeit still timidly, depending on the geographical area—for instance, it is no mystery that here in Italy we are light years away from this radical shift, but we are on it. Answers that have the flavor of corporate social responsibility which, even though follows the rules of the market, is present, also as a response to the sensitivity in society on certain issues.
After the slip up with Dapper Dan and the backlash it faced last year for the balaclava-style sweater that evoked a blackface, Gucci launched a partnership with Dapper Dan that recognises, respects, celebrates and carries on his legacy in the fashion world; in May 2019 it launched a $ 6.5 million fund in North America and created Changemakers, a project devoted to inclusion and diversity. And in July 2019, it appointed Renée Tirado as the Global Head of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion. There’s also the Chime zine, a publication that promotes gender equality and self-expression.
Having Alessandro Michele as the creative guide of the brand likely makes the difference. During a press conference after the Gucci 2020 men’s show, which was also a celebration of his fifth year as the Creative Director of Gucci, Michele said: “This collection is an invitation to re-learn a different way of being male. The theme is that of a masculinity that does not exclude, telling the complexity of being a man not necessarily as we have been told while growing up. I imagined going back to my childhood, when I was a little boy, when we were all allowed to be free and less labeled, because when you grow up you are told ‘you can no longer do this’, ‘this is not for a boy or girl’… and it is interesting to find out how to re-learn again. Going back is a way of going back to learn, using time in an arbitrary way and saying ‘let’s try to do something different because the toxicity of being male in a stereotyped way is dangerous, both for men and for women, men are slaves to it and women are subjected to it.”
Vogue is also no exception. In 2017, Elaine Welterot became the editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue at the age of twenty-nine (a position she no longer holds); a few months later— even if it was in the air— Edward Enninful’s appointment as chief editor of British Vogue followed. In Italy, all four editions of the Photo Vogue Festival have highlighted extremely current issues, and the last two focused on diversity and the deconstruction of stereotypes, through a visual exhibition and a series of talks open to the public.
These precedents, these fractures with the past and openness to the present are improvements we must continue to work on. They must not be seen as trends to eventually throw in the trash at any given time.
For Sargent it is clear what the next steps are: “I think that we are still very much at the beginning, the visual artists are under the age of 37, at the very beginning of their career, so they need opportunities to grow, they need exhibitions. They need more opportunities in fashion. So my point is this book should not be an option for us to say, ‘We did it”, but how we can continue to help them to grow, to make sure that we have in some way inscribed changes that are happening, that are so amazing in our culture, so the future generations will have an opportunity to say ‘Oh yes, of course, Tyler Mitchell is out there, or Campbell Addy’ or ‘I can do this because this guy wrote this book’. With all my activities from publishing, to curating, just all the things that I am doing, my relationships with brands like Gucci continue to have this conversation about how do we not just allow black artists to the door, but how we do allow artists of different arrays who have something to say that is a value, that they get the platform they need to tell those stories. And to hopefully give culture back to ourselves as an inspiration.”
Cover Image | Ruth Ossai, London, 2017. “The beauty of photography is it starts a dialogue about who we are, where we come from, and where we are going,” remarks Ruth Ossai. From The New Black Vanguard (Aperture, 2019) © Ruth Ossai
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