As movements such as #MeToo challenge commonly held beliefs, the Barbican Arts Centre in London is examining male identities through photography.
If you're looking for a daring display of masculinity manifested in the male-dominated world of architecture, look no further than the Barbican in London. The brutalist construction seems just like a film set straight out of "Mad Men:" sleek lines, a meticulously planned footprint and an overabundance of men in suits out to save the day.
The concrete plaza of the Barbican complex is set against a backdrop of overpriced apartment towers piercing the sky like Freudian phalluses. Dotted around it is a host of educational facilities, libraries and museums. Chief among them is the Barbican Art Gallery, which is now exploring the very concept of masculinity in an exhibition bringing together works from over 50 artists.
"Masculinities: Liberation through Photography" looks at various concepts both challenging and confirming male identities: from contemporary concepts like toxic masculinity to age-old ideas pertaining to fatherhood and the family man.
There's also plenty of room for queer identities and masculinities among people of color and other ethnic backgrounds, reflecting various movements and shifting perceptions of masculinity down through the decades. Besides the photographic lens, the exhibition, which takes up two floors, also employs the eyes of filmmakers to fully capture male images and iconography.
"In the wake of the #MeToo movement and the resurgence of feminist and men's rights activism, traditional notions of masculinity have become a subject of fierce debate. This exhibition could not be more relevant and will certainly spark conversations surrounding our understanding of masculinity," says Jane Alison, Head of Visual Arts at the Barbican.
Read more: #MeToo and more — five hashtags for equality
It is a man's world
The works in the show aim to "present masculinity as an unfixed performative identity shaped by cultural and social forces," reads the press release. But what does that performance exactly entail? With over 300 photographs, the exhibition seeks to examine that concept from every angle, just as societal trends around the globe reexamine their relationship with male identities.
Turner prize-winning German artist Wolfgang Tillmans is among the photographers shown at the Barbican
Whether it's the issue of patriarchy or variants of the "black is beautiful" movement among male populations of color, the exhibition at the Barbican Art Gallery starts off by boldly objectifying men — and their bodies, in particular — in a way that is more commonly observed in depictions of women, especially in the context of popular culture.
Looking at men as something worth studying in terms of imagery and meaning seems almost unorthodox even in the #MeToo era, where women around the globe vociferously protest being reduced to objects designed to give pleasure at men's disposal.
Viewing the exhibition's images, the thought emerges: Has some global patriarchy council perhaps granted permission to objectify men? Or is mounting a show like this an act of rebellion in and of itself? That's how much and how far the dysfunction of toxic masculinity appears to it have permeated and infected people's minds, perceptions and views.
At the same time, this is the very space where commonly-held beliefs about masculinity and femininity are challenged, where expectations and perceptions are shattered — a place where a dialogue among about gender roles that goes beyond discussing genitalia and pronouns can even begin.
The exhibition at the Barbican explores the performative identity behind masculinities, blurring boundaries deliberately
Taliban camp and old boys' clubs
Take, for example, color portraits of Taliban tenderly holding hands against flowery backdrops, their eyelids lined with a thick layer of khol. Men holding hands in that society is nothing unusual — and the use of khol can serve purposes other than make-up. Nonetheless, the images provoke reflection about what makes a man a man. Photographer Thomas Dworzak compiled the images in 2001, as the insurgents depicted were preparing to fight the US-led offensive into Afghanistan.
This tender depiction of Taliban fighters may challenge Western views of masculinity as much as their faith
Their fate is unknown, but thoughts linger about them and the invasion of their country: was this truly a liberation or rather an act of aggression against people who had customs so strange to the Western eye that they are hard to conceptualize?
Did they die in battle still holding hands or did a tear smudge that eyeliner as they watched their homes being bombed? The Taliban photo series raises questions that continue to reverberate in politics today.
The photo exhibition in London also highlights politically charged moments much closer to Western society, equally exploring the role of masculinities — and femininities.
The series "Gentlemen" examines men-only private members' clubs in the British capital in the early 1980s. Reflecting on notions of class and race, the photographs underscore the exclusion of women from such spaces of power — during Margaret Thatcher's tenure as prime minister, of all times. These images, too, raise numerous questions:
Were such old boys' clubs like these a statement against the participation of women at the highest levels of politics? Did they reflect the fear that a woman might do a better job at the top than her male contemporaries? And did she?
It is also notable that the images were taken by the German-born American photographer Karen Knorr. Perhaps it takes a woman observer to address such issues about masculinities that men might be too complacent to raise. The show highlights the works of various women like Knorr in its question to fully examine male identities — including from the female perspective.
Queer identities and other subversive elements
The exhibition pays particularly close attention to queer imagery, as the gay liberation movement laid the foundation for many of the questions artists and society have been asking in the ongoing gender debate of recent decades. The intrinsic subversion of the early LGBTQ protest movement in particular has given material to scores of artists exploring what it means to challenge expectations of masculinity — and what it means to comply with them.
Artists like Sunil Gupta captured gay public life as played out in the late 1960s and early 70s on New York's Christopher Street — the location of the Stonewall uprising, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year. Lacking the rainbow quality associated with gayborhoods around the world today, Gupta's images (main article picture) prompt fresh reactions.
Some of the men in the pictures look so quotidian that it makes gay look like the new straight. These images show that challenging perceptions about gender can also mean normalizing what is perceived as exotic while deliberately singling out the mundane as "the other."
At the same time, Gupta's images from India during the 1980s show another side to male homosexual identities; examining a society in which gay behavior is often reduced and pushed to the margins of society, Gupta sets out to prove homophobes wrong; his photographs document that gay identities, too, are male identities. They're here. They're queer.
Supermodel Marcus Schenkenberg was among the first men to be completely objectified for the sake of selling fashion; this picture was taken by photographer Herb Ritts
Set a decade later, Catherine Opie's series "Being and Having" explores the LGBTQ community on the US West Coast in 1991. The models shown — her personal friends — sport tattoos and mustaches. The images question the role stereotypical masculine fashion accessories play in identity issues. Are these men poking fun at male standards, or do these little accessories provide a guise that would allow them to "pass?" Is it macho — or it queer?
Beauty in the eye of the beholder?
Male images and the associations that commonly accompany them dominate the exhibition for obvious reasons. However, a somewhat disproportionate amount of idealized bodies, flawless physiques and heroic depictions also raise further identity-related questions at the exhibition. Perhaps this is the next frontier for male identities: to embrace is more diverse and inclusive body-positive image — a trend that feminists around the world have long embraced.
However, the focus on perfection and aesthetics is also rather understandable: The Calvin Klein fashion brand is the show's main sponsor after all.
With private clubs, as captured by Karen Knorr, men in the UK have a certain tradition of seeking their own echo chambers
Read more: #MeToo and more — five hashtags for equality
Highlighting the works of well-known photographers and filmmakers such as Herb Ritts, Isaac Julien and Robert Mapplethorpe, the exhibition also includes lesser-known artists like Sam Contis, Paul Mpagi and Karlheinz Weinberger, some of whom have never exhibited in the UK before.
But above all, with its broad range of approaches covered and emotions conveyed, the exhibition showcases one particular dimension to masculinity that often goes overlooked and overheard in everyday life, as the debate on gender and identity continues: vulnerability.
Masculinities: Liberation through Photography runs at the Barbican Art Gallery, Silk Street, London, EC2Y 8DS UK from 20 February to 17 May 2020.