“I contend that Blackness is not monolithic,” Shantrelle Lewis explained in an email exchange with The Huffington Post.
The New Orleans-born curator has traveled extensively throughout the African Diaspora, experiencing both the similarities and the differences in ways black people live life across the globe. And as much as black culture varies from one place to the next, so does the idea of black masculinity. Neither, Lewis says, are static.
“It’s very fluid and has always been so in traditional African communities,” she said. “It’s time that we as a society begin to delve into the nuances and various stories of Black identity that make for much more interesting, enlightening and possibility-creating storytelling.”
With The Dandy Lion Project, Lewis hopes to do just that. The collection of photos by various emerging artists highlights the many ways young black men use fashion and personal appearance to explore identity in the 21st century. Featuring mostly men from the U.S., South Africa and Congo, the images project a different kind of black masculinity than the one perpetuated in mainstream culture, in profiles of hip-hop stars and news coverage of gang-related violence, Lewis pointed out.
“Like many others in my community and throughout the Diaspora, I was exasperated by the repetitive, oversaturated, manufactured image of Black masculinity,” Lewis continued. “An image created to maintain a grotesque and glorified culture of manhood and hyper-masculinity.”
So she sought out the photographers documenting young black men who use style to rebel against stereotypes, ushering in a new image of black masculinity far more varied and complex than mainstream audiences are used to. Donning wide-brimmed hats and peach suits, pocket squares and teal bow ties, the men featured in these photographs show that masculinity ― like femininity ― is more about individuality than conformity.
The subjects in The Dandy Lion Project are predominantly young black men living in cities around the world (though Lewis has begun to include photographs of female dandies embracing masculinity, as well). They dress in exceptional styles reminiscent of European gentlemen, yet they infuse their looks with what Lewis deems an “African aesthetic and swagger.”
The term “dandy” dates back to the 18th century, used to describe a man who prioritizes personal appearance and style. Lewis defines the black dandy in particular as a manifestation of “the African trickster,” referencing a staple character of folklore capable of outsmarting his or her more powerful adversary, often with the use of a disguise.
Throughout history, Lewis says, the African Diasporan dandy has exerted his or her individuality by manipulating an attire traditionally associated with white or upper-class culture. Dressing in three-piece suits and wing-tip shoes, these dandies are rebelling against the black stereotypes proliferated in mainstream media. “They perform identity,” Lewis said. “Most importantly, an integral part of this performed rebellion entails posing before a camera.”
The Dandy Lion Project exists at a time when hashtags like #every28hours endeavor to raise awareness of police brutality and targeted violence in America. “When young Black people are profiled and harassed by police in urban centers throughout the Americas and Western Europe,” Lewis noted. “In the U.K., Black Brits are being told to come back to where they came from [...] African immigrants throughout Europe are met with disdain and problematic conditions as they seek asylum.”
Lewis hopes her project directly confronts the myth that young black men are “thugs,” combating the misrepresentation she’s witnessed in and outside of the U.S.
Like the subjects, Lewis points out, the photographers who contributed to The Dandy Lion Project ― including Sara Shamsavari, Harness Hamese, Hanif Abdur-Rahim, Daniele Tamagni, Laylah Amatullah Barrayn ― span ethnicity and gender. Together, their work will be on view at the Brighton Photo Biennial this fall.
“It will be a huge opportunity to acknowledge the beauty and splendor of the UK’s own diverse Black community,” Lewis concluded.
Organized by the Museum of the Contemporary Photography in Chicago, The Dandy Lion Project will travel to the Lowe Museum of Art in Miami next January, and will be published as a book by Aperture next Spring.