Ever since the awakening of the youth subcultures in the early 1960s that criticized the inherited patterns of socially acceptable behavior, there was a strong emphasis on what masculinity is. This particular concept was, and sadly still is, a constitutive element of patriarchy upon which disputable political and ideological discourses were/are being built. Masculinity has to be articulated in regards to its contemporary notion; the term itself transcended the physical power, rather signifying the symbolic power one has, relating almost exclusively to the straight white male.
To unravel the ways masculinity has been represented in the visual arts, The Barbican in London will host a fascinating exhibition titled Masculinities: Liberation through Photography to underline the historical articulation of this concept through photography and film from the 1960s to the present day.
With over three hundred artworks by over fifty pioneering international artists, photographers and filmmakers such as Peter Hujar, Annette Messager, Richard Avedon, Catherine Opie, Isaac Julien, and Robert Mapplethorpe, this specific survey tends to show how masculinity is perceived, performed, canonized and socially constructed.
To make the whole experience concerning the present day, the installment will include the works of younger and less known artists such as Cassils, George Dureau, Hank Willis Thomas, Sam Contis, Elle Pérez, Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Karlheinz Weinberger and Marianne Wex.
The Head of Visual Arts at Barbican, Jane Alison, stated:
Masculinities: Liberation through Photography continues our commitment to presenting leading twentieth-century figures in the field of photography while also supporting younger contemporary artists working in the medium today. In the wake of the #MeToo movement and the resurgence of feminism 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.
Since the masculinity went under a crisis with the opposites such as toxic and fragile masculinity, the upcoming survey will take in consideration all sorts representations of masculinity expressed from the perspectives of the black body, queer identity, female perceptions of men, power and patriarchy, heteronormative hypermasculine stereotypes, fatherhood, and family.
Among the exhibition highlights there will be critical works aimed to deconstruct the myths surrounding modern masculinity by Adi Nes, Collier Schorr, Akram Zaatari, and Sam Contis, whose series Deep Springs from 2018 explores the cowboy mythology of the American West. The series Taliban by Thomas Dworzak operates in a similar key, since it features romantic portraits of Taliban fighters excavated in photographic studios in Kandahar during the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
On the other hand, the 2011 piece Time Laps by trans masculine artist Cassils documents the radical transformation of their body through the use of steroids and a rigorous training program underlining masculinity is possible to reach without men. On a similar trail, the photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe, Jeremy Deller, and Rineke Dijkstra articulate hyper-masculinized stereotypes through the images of the wrestlers and athletes.
The works that explore the patriarchal mechanisms and the unequal power relations between gender, class, and race will also be presented. For instance, the series Gentlemen, 1981-83 by Karen Knorr, that consists of twenty-six black and white photographs made inside men-only private members’ clubs in London and texts appropriated from conversations, parliamentary records, and contemporary news reports, reveal a man-only world where class, race, and misogyny hold an important place during Margaret Thatcher’s rule.
The exhibition will showcase the works of queer artists such as Peter Hujar and David Wojnarowiz who explored what it means to be masculine in post-Stonewall times contaminated by the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s. There will also be a critically acclaimed photo series by Sunil Gupta of gay life expressed in public space of New York’s Christopher Street, where the Stonewall Uprising took place in 1969.
When it comes to performing masculinity, the 1993 Being and Having series by Catherine Opie make a great contribution since they portray her close friends in the West Coast’s LGBTQ+ community dragged in masculine accessories such as tattoos and mustaches. Furthermore, gender non-conformity and vulnerability will be explored through sensuous photographs by Elle Perez, and portraits by Paul Mpagi Sepuya that explore the studio as a site of homoerotic desire.
The installment at The Barbican could not be possible without a selection of works produced during the 1970s second wave of feminism such as Laurie Anderson’s iconic work Fully Automated Nikon (Object/Objection/Objectivity) from 1973, that documents the men who whistled her as she walked through New York’s Lower East Side or 1972 series The Approaches by Annette Messager depict captures men’s trousered crotches.
When it comes to the perspective of race, the film of Australian indigenous artist Tracey Moffatt titled Heaven from 1997, features male surfers changing their wet suits. In this context, it is also important to mention the works of Hank Willis Thomas, whose photographic practice articulates the complexities of the black male experience, as well as the work by a celebrated Japanese photographer Masahisa Fukase’s The Family (1971-1989), that documents the life and death of his family with a special take on his father.
Along with the mentioned artists and artworks, there will be more on display so that the visitors could fully understand how masculinity is asocial constructed identity shaped by culture and politics.
A fully illustrated catalog consisting of six themed chapters with essays by key thinkers in the fields of art, history, culture, and queer studies will accompany the upcoming exhibition.
Masculinities: Liberation through Photography will be on display at The Barbican in London from 20 February until 23 August 2020.
Featured images: Adi Nes - Untitled, from the series Soldiers, 1999. Courtesy Adi Nes & Praz-Delavallade Paris, Los Angeles; Sunil Gupta - Untitled 22 from the series Christopher Street, 1976. Courtesy the artist and Hales Gallery © Sunil Gupta. All Rights Reserved DACS 2019. All images courtesy The Barbican.