Masculinities: Liberation through Photography explores the diverse ways masculinity has been experienced, performed, coded and socially constructed in photography and film from the 1960s to the present day.
Simone de Beauvoir’s famous declaration that ‘one is not born a woman, but rather becomes one’ provides a helpful springboard for considering what it means to be a male in today’s world, as well as the place of photography and film in shaping masculinity. What we have thought of as ‘masculine’ has changed considerably throughout history and within different cultures. The traditional social dominance of the male has determined a gender hierarchy which continues to underpin societies around the world.
In Europe and North America, the characteristics and power dynamics of the dominant masculine figure – historically defined by physical size and strength, assertiveness and aggression – though still pervasive today, began to be challenged and transformed in the 1960s. Amid a climate of sexual revolution, struggle for civil rights and raised class consciousness, the growth of the gay rights movement, the period’s counterculture and opposition to the Vietnam War, large sections of society argued for a loosening of the straitjacket of narrow gender definitions.
Set against the backdrop of the #MeToo movement, when manhood is under increasing scrutiny and terms such as ‘toxic’ and ‘fragile’ masculinity fill endless column inches, an investigation of this expansive subject is particularly timely, especially given current global politics characterised by male world leaders shaping their image as ‘strong’ men.
Touching on queer identity, race, power and patriarchy, men as seen by women, stereotypes of dominant masculinity as well as the family, the exhibition presents masculinity in all its myriad forms, rife with contradictions and complexities. Embracing the idea of multiple ‘masculinities’ and rejecting the notion of a singular ‘ideal man’, the exhibition argues for an understanding of masculinity liberated from societal expectations and gender norms.
Disrupting the Archetype
Over the last six decades, artists have consistently sought to destabilise the narrow definitions of gender that determine our social structures in order to encourage new ways of thinking about identity, gender and sexuality. ‘Disrupting the Archetype’ explores the representation of conventional and at times clichéd masculine subjects such as soldiers, cowboys, athletes, bullfighters, body builders and wrestlers. By reconfiguring the representation of traditional masculinity – loosely defined as an idealised, dominant heterosexual masculinity – the artists presented here challenge our ideas of these hypermasculine stereotypes.
Across different cultures and spaces, the military has been central to the construction of masculine identities – which has been explored through the work of Wolfgang Tillmans and Adi Nes among others, while Collier Schorr and Sam Contis’s powerful works address the dominant and enduring representation of the lone cowboy. Athleticism, often perceived as a proxy for strength which is associated with masculinity, is called into question by Catherine Opie’s and Rineke Dijkstra’s tender portraits. The male body, a cornerstone for artists such as John Coplans, Robert Mapplethorpe and Cassils, is meanwhile exposed as a fleshy canvas, constantly in flux.
Historically, the non-western male body has undergone a complex process of subjectification through the Western gaze – invariably presented as either warlike or sexually charged. Viewed against this context, the work of Fouad Elkoury and Akram Zaatari, as well as the found photographs of Taliban fighters that Thomas Dworzak discovered in Afghanistan, can be read as deconstructing the Orientalist gaze.
Male Order: Power, Patriarchy and Space
‘Male Order’ invites the viewer to reflect on the construction of male power, gender and class. The artists gathered here have all variously attempted to expose and subvert how certain types of masculine behaviour have created inequalities both between and within gender identities. Two ambitious, multi-part works, Richard Avedon’s The Family, 1976, and Karen Knorr’s Gentlemen, 1981-83, focus on typically besuited white men who occupy the corridors of power, while foregrounding the historic exclusion not only of women but also of other marginalised masculinities.
Male-only organisations, such as the military, private members’ clubs and college fraternities, have often served as an arena for the performance of ‘toxic’ masculinity, as chronicled in Andrew Moisey’s The American Fraternity: An Illustrated Ritual Manual, 2018. This startling book charts the misdemeanours of fraternity members alongside an indexical image bank of US Presidents, alongside leaders of government and industry who have belonged at one time or another to these fraternities. Richard Mosse’s film, Fraternity, 2007, takes a different tack by painting a portrait of male rage that is both playful and alarming.
Too Close to Home: Family and Fatherhood
Since its invention photography has been a powerful vehicle for the construction and documentation of family narratives. In contrast to the conventions of the traditional family portrait, the artists gathered here deliberately set out to record the ‘messiness’ of life, reflecting on misogyny, violence, sexuality, mortality, intimacy and unfolding family dramas, presenting a more complex and not always comfortable vision of fatherhood and masculinity.
Loss and the ageing male figure are central to the work of both Masahisa Fukase and Larry Sultan. Their respective projects marked a new departure in the way men photographed each other, serving as a commentary on how old age engenders a loss of masculinity. An examination of everyday life, Richard Billingham’s tender yet bleak portraits of his father, as chronicled in Ray’s a Laugh, cast a brutally honest eye on his alcoholic father Ray against a backdrop of social decline.
Anna Fox’s disturbing autobiographical work undermines expectations of the traditional family album while revealing the mechanics of paternalistic power. Meanwhile, the father-daughter relationship is brought into sharp focus in Aneta Bartos’s sexually charged series Family Portrait which unsettles traditional family boundaries.
In defiance of the prejudice and legal constraints against homosexuality in Europe, the United States and beyond over the last century, the works presented in ‘Queering Masculinity’ highlight how artists from the 1960s onwards have forged a new politically charged queer aesthetic.
In the 1970s, artists such as Peter Hujar, David Wojnarowicz, Sunil Gupta and Hal Fischer photographed gay lifestyles in New York and San Francisco in a bid to claim public visibility and therefore legitimacy at a time when homosexuality was still a criminal offence. Reflecting on their own queer experience and creating sensual bodies of work, artists such as Rotimi Fani-Kayode and Isaac Julien portrayed black gay desire while Catherine Opie’s seminal work Being and Having, 1991, documented members of the dyke, butch and BDSM communities in San Francisco playing with the physical attributes associated with hypermasculinity in order to overturn traditional binary understandings of gender.
Reclaiming the Black Body
Giving visual form to the complexity of the black male experience, this section foregrounds artists who over the last five decades have consciously subverted expectations of race, gender and the white gaze by reclaiming the power to fashion their own identities.
From Samuel Fosso’s playfully staged self-portraits, taken in his studio, in which he performs to the camera sporting flares and platforms boots or flirtatiously revealing his youthful male physique to Kiluanji Kia Henda’s fictional scenarios in which he adopts the troubled personas of African men of power, the works presented here reflect on how black masculinity challenges the status quo.
The representation of black masculinity in the US is born out of a violent history of slavery and prejudice. Unbranded: Reflections in Black by Corporate America 1968-2008 by Hank Willis Thomas draws attention to the ways in which corporate America has commodified the African American male experience while simultaneously perpetuating and reinforcing cultural stereotypes. Similarly, Deana Lawson’s powerful work Sons of Cush, 2016, highlights how the black male figure is often ‘idealised (in their physical beauty) and pathologized by the culture (as symbols of violence or fear)’.
Women on Men: Reversing the Male Gaze
As the second-wave feminist movement gained momentum through the 1960s and ’70s, female activists sought to expose and critique entrenched ideas about masculinity and to articulate alternative perspectives on gender and representation. Against this background, or motivated by its legacy, the artists gathered here have made men their subject with the radical intention of subverting their power, calling into question the notion that men are active and women passive.
In the early 1970s pioneers of feminist art such as Laurie Anderson and Annette Messager consciously objectified the male body in a bid to expose the uncomfortable nature of the dominant male gaze. In contrast, filmmakers such as Tracey Moffatt and Hilary Lloyd turn the tables on male representations of desire to foreground the power of the female gaze.
In his humorous series The Ideal Man, 1978, Hans Eijkelboom invited ten women to fashion him into their image of the ‘ideal’ man. Through this act Eijkelboom reverses the male to female power dynamic and inverts the traditional gender hierarchy.
Sunil Gupta, Untitled #22 from the series Christopher Street, 1976. Courtesy the artist and Hales Gallery. © Sunil Gupta. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2019.
Sunil Gupta, Untitled #22 from the series Christopher Street, 1976. Courtesy the artist and Hales Gallery. © Sunil Gupta. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2019.
Glossary of Terms by CN Lester
Homosociality Typically non-romantic and/or non-sexual same-sex relationships and social groupings – may sometimes include elements of homoeroticism, as they are frequently interdependent phenomena.
Normativity The process by which some groups of people, forms of expression and types of behaviour are classified according to a perceived standard of what is ‘normal’, ‘natural’, desirable and permissible in society. Inevitably, this process designates people, expressions and behaviours that do not fit these norms as abnormal, unnatural, undesirable and impermissible.
Hegemonic Masculinity ‘Hegemonic’ means ‘ruling’ or ‘commanding’ – hegemonic masculinity, therefore, indicates male dominance and the forms of masculinity occupying and perpetuating this dominant position. The term was coined in the 1980s by the scholar R. W. Connell, drawing on the Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci’s notion of cultural hegemony.
Hierarchy Across many cultures throughout history, and continuing into the present moment throughout large parts of the world, gender functions as a hierarchy: some gender categories and gender expressions are granted higher value and more power than others. Men are often higher up the gender hierarchy than women, but the gender hierarchy is affected by racism, disablism, ageism, transphobia and other factors; in the West, men in their thirties are likely to be considered higher up the gender hierarchy than men in their eighties, for example.
Gender roles Specific cultural roles defined by the weight of gendered ideas, restrictions and traditions. Men and women are often expected, sometimes forced, to occupy oppositional gender roles: aggressor versus victim, protector versus nurturer and so on. Many gender roles are specific to intersections of race, class, sexuality, religion and disabled status – examples of these types of gender roles can be seen in the stereotypes of the Jezebel or the Dragon Lady.
Patriarchy Literally ‘the rule of the father’, a patriarchy is a society or structure centred around male dominance and in which women (and those of other genders) are not treated as or considered equal.
Queer A slur, a term of reclamation and a specific and radical site of community and activism in solidarity with many kinds of difference, and specifically opposed to heteronormativity and cisnormativity. Queer studies and queer theory are important emerging fields of study.
Gender identity Identity refers to what, who, and how someone or something is, both in the way this is understood as selfhood by an individual, and also the self as it is shaped and positioned by the world. Gender identity can be a surprisingly difficult term to pin down and is perhaps best understood as the stated truth of a person’s gender (or lack of gender), which is in itself the sum of many different factors.
Fetishisation To turn the subject into a fetish, sexually or otherwise. Fetishisation in terms of gender and desire frequently occurs in conjunction with objectification and power. Men and women of colour are frequently fetishised by white people, in society and in artistic practice, through different stereotypes and limitations. Trans and disabled people are also subject to fetishisation, particularly in bodily terms. Kobena Mercer’s critical essay on Robert Mapplethorpe, ‘Reading Radical Fetishism’,1 and David Henry Hwang’s play and afterword to M. Butterfly (1988) both explore the notion of fetishisation.
1 Kobena Mercer, ‘Reading Racial Fetishism: The Photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe’, in Emily Apter and William Pietz, eds, Fetishism as Cultural Discourse (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993), pp. 307–29.
Critical race theory A branch of scholarship emerging from the application of critical theory to the study of law in the 1980s, critical race theory (CRT) is now taken as an approach and theoretical foundation across both academic and popular discourse. CRT names, examines and challenges the social constructions and functions of race and racism. Rejecting the idea of race as a ‘natural’ category, CRT looks instead to the cultural, structural and legal creation and maintenance of difference and oppression. Scholars working in this field include Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and Patricia Williams.
Me Too movement ‘#MeToo is a movement that was founded in 2006 to support survivors of sexual violence, in particular black and brown girls, who were in the program that we were running. It has grown since then to include supporting grown people, women, and men, and other survivors, as well as helping people to understand what community action looks like in the fight to end sexual violence’ – Tarana Burke, founder of the Me Too movement.
Male gaze A term coined by film critic Laura Mulvey, the notion of the male gaze develops Jean-Paul Sartre’s concept of le regard (the gaze) to take into account the power differentials and gender stereotyping inherent in ways of looking within patriarchal, sexist culture. The male gaze refers to how the world – and women in particular – are looked at and presented from a cisgender, straight, frequently white male perspective. In visual art the male gaze can be understood in multiple ways, from the male creator of the work, to men within the work viewing women or the world around them, to the (assumed) male viewer of the work itself. Many women artists have countered the male gaze through deconstruction and through the creation and promotion of works that centre the ‘female gaze’.
Bas Jan Ader, Laurie Anderson, Kenneth Anger, Knut Åsdam, Richard Avedon, Aneta Bartos, Richard Billingham, Cassils, Sam Contis, John Coplans, Jeremy Deller, Rienke Dijkstra, George Dureau, Thomas Dworzak, Hans Eijkelboom, Fouad Elkoury, Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Hal Fischer, Samuel Fosso, Anna Fox, Masahisa Fukase, Sunil Gupta, Peter Hujar, Liz Johnson Artur, Isaac Julien, Kiluanji Kia Henda, Karen Knorr, Deana Lawson, Hilary Lloyd, Robert Mapplethrope, Peter Marlow, Ana Mendieta, Anenette Messager, Duane Michals, Tracey Moffat, Andrew Moisey, Richard Mosse, Adi Nes, Catherine Opie, Elle Pérez, Herb Ritts, Kalen Na'il Roach, Collier Schorr, Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Clarie Strand, Michael Subotzky, Larry Sultan, Hank Willis Thomas, Wolfgang Tillmans, Piotr Uklański, Andy Warhol, Karlheinz Weinberger, Marianne Wex, David Wojnarowicz, Akram Zaatari
Listen to the Masculinities playlist
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The official Masculinities exhibition catalogue is published by Prestel, and organised by six themed chapters with essays by writers and academics including Chris Haywood, Edwin Coomasaru, Tim Clark, Jonathan D. Katz, Alona Pardo and Ekow Eshun in the fields of art, history, culture, and queer studies. Designed by The Bon Ton.
Prints from the exhibition are also available to purchase in the Art Gallery Shop or online.
We put manhood under the microscope in a series of videos, articles, playlists and podcasts.