New exhibit at the MoCP showcases Black Dandyism


Photo Courtesy of Rose Callahan Photography

Barima Owusu-Nyantekyi photographed by Rose Callahan in London on March 24, 2013

By Lauren Kostiuk

The Museum of Contemporary Photography will showcase its new exhibit, “Dandy Lion: (Re)Articulating Black Masculine Identity” April 6 through July 12.

The collection looks to distinguish the historical and contemporary expressions of the Black Dandy phenomenon in popular culture, said exhibit curator Shantrelle P. Lewis. The photos highlight young men living in the city who defy stereotypical views of black masculinity by wearing Victorian-era fashion with traditional African clothing.

“Black masculinity has been forced into this very small and limited box,” Lewis said. “I think it is very fluid. I think that it is very dynamic, and I think it expands beyond narrow and limited notions of what people think it means to be black or a man.”

The images bring together work from more then two dozen photographers and filmmakers from emerging and world-renowned regions of the African Diaspora, who include Laylah Amatullah Barrayn, Akintola Hanif and Russell K. Frederick.

Sara Shamsavari, one of the exhibit artists, lives in London and met Lewis at a Black Portraitures conference in Paris in 2013. She discovered they both shared great respect and admiration for each other’s work and achievements. 

“I was delighted to participate mainly because of the deep values that motivate such a project,” Shamsavari said in an emailed statement. “All of my own projects look at social and cultural concerns and reflect on the society that we live in, seeking to challenge stereotypes and encourage the values of unity and diversity, so producing work for this project, given my own values [came] very natural.”

Shamsavari had many longtime friends, colleagues and associates in London who were considered New Age Dandies. She began photographing them and then extended her work to participants in Paris and Denmark. 

“It was highly rewarding making portraits of the incredible gentlemen who participated in this project,” Shamsavari said in the email. “It felt as though we were on a mission together and the results are beautiful.” 

Lewis said she was frustrated by the negative representation of black men in the media and popular culture before curating the show. She wanted to create an alternative conversation of black male style, representation and masculinity. 

The collection confronts stereotypical notions of young black men being “thugs” through the way they dress, and expands beyond the narrow and limited views, Lewis said. As an artist, Shamsavari said she hopes visitors appreciate not only the color and vibrancy of the works but also challenge any preconceived notions they might have about Black Dandyism.

“This is the role of the artist, the curator, to reflect on what is happening and to offer an alternative, this is where change begins,” Shamsavari said in the email. “Our world is not one dimensional and therefore must not be represented as such.” 

As a curator, Lewis strives to make visitors feel refreshed and immersed in a phenomenon that is historical in nature and growing in many metropolitan areas around the globe. She said she wants them to understand that the global black community is very diverse. 

“Blackness in itself is this incredible and wonderful thing, and it cannot be limited to stereotypes,” Lewis said. “It cannot be limited to a location.”

Given the city’s deep roots in jazz and blues, Lewis said Chicago is the perfect city to host this kind of exhibit and that it is the “sexiest” city on the planet.

“I’m just really excited to have the show come to Chicago because the people of Chicago, I think, have an appreciation for art and style,” Lewis said. 

Natasha Egan, executive director of the MoCP, said the exhibit fits Columbia because it interacts with fashion, photography, politics and history. 

“There is quite a bit of buzz about the exhibition already,” Egan said. “So that’s exciting to say that this is the exhibition to see and it’s not even on the walls yet.”