In the 21st century, many black males are global trendsetters in fashion and music, despite a continued vulnerability and high arrest rates in the US and UK. Presented at The Photographers’ Gallery, ‘Made You Look’ explores the historical dandyism and spirit of black community which has long prevailed in the face of stereotyping and oppression.

Through the collected works of photographers who have turned their lenses toward black subcultures across the globe, curator Ekow Eshun highlights dandyism “as radical personal politics, a willed flamboyance that flies in the face of conventional constructions of the black masculine.”

Kristin Lee-Mountain’s work in South Africa captures a young man dressing flamboyantly, in clothes that cross typical ‘gender’ boundaries. Malick Sidibe’s commissioned project in post-colonial Mali shows a people determined to embrace their freedom and express their cultural identity.

Social documentary works from Colin Jones and Liz Johnson Arthur explore the visual identity of black communities on Western society’s fringes. Dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson contemplatively blows smoke in an empty London pub; young residents of the Harambee Housing Project live in squalor but dress fashionably and hold their heads high; anonymous black men encountered on gritty London streets, could-be stylists, stand proud and triumphant before the camera.

Sapeurs of the Congo - who dress with style and integrity in spite of poverty - are striking examples of how dandyism has embodied the true identity of black masculinity. Western stereotypes wear shamefully thin in comparison.

Whilst 21st-century figures in hip-hop and r’n’b and men’s fashion are world-leading, iconic and widely embraced, ‘Made You Look’ explores how and why this has been a necessary movement. Revealing sensitivity, integrity and a crucial expression of personal and communal identity, the exhibition is a long-overdue testament to the important personal and social politics behind dandyism.

— Ben Dickenson Bampton

Ben Dickenson Bampton is a writer and photographer based in Bournemouth, UK. More of his writing can be found on his personal website.

Here is what the exhibition curator, Ekow Eshun, has to say about the works he selected to explore the issue:

See the exhibition at The Photographers’ Gallery in London now through September 25, 2016.