For many people, the word “dandy” conjures images of the flamboyant 19th-century poets Oscar Wilde and Lord Byron, literary leaders of a subculture known as the dandy movement.
The movement, which originated in England, focused on stylish clothes, a love of art and an appreciation of literature. The movement became synonymous with Romanticism; both were a reaction against the growing Industrial Revolution and part of a cultural revolt against classicism.
In the 20th century, African communities across Europe, the Americas and Africa during the Diaspora reinvented the dandy movement to combat stereotypes of black men as primitive brutes or witless entertainers.
Dandy Lion: (Re)Articulating Black Masculine Identity, curated by Shantrelle P. Lewis, is a traveling exhibition of photography and video about black beaus, who have devoted their lives to styling themselves dapperly, dressing in suits and ties, and also typically celebrating intellectualism and pacifism.
Originating at the Museum of Contemporary Photography at the University of Chicago, the exhibit includes work by artists from around the world, each of whom takes photos of dandies, and all of whom have different cultural backgrounds and distinct voices.
The exhibit is a beautiful yet sobering reminder of individuality and identity that encourages unity in a time now marred by racially charged violence around the country.
As visitors enter the gallery, they are faced with Rog Walker’s larger-than-life wall mural, setting the tone. In the work, a black dandy shows off his stylish suit, a series of rings and expensive, sparkling watches.
Allison Janae Hamilton creates one of the most fantastic and colorful images, of a slender man in a leopard-print suit, walking out from amidst an array of — what else? — dandelions. This sardonic image draws from the Southern Gothic tradition, infusing it with a feeling of mysticism while satirizing the animalistic treatment of African Americans during slavery.
One of the exhibit’s most beautifully composed series is “Stranger in Moscow,” in which British artist Arteh Odjidja captures the dandy Habdulay Vilhette. In these three prints, Habdulay, a young man from the African nation of São Tome, strolls through the streets of Moscow, lost and alone. Even so, his dandy appearance blends in seamlessly with the elegant urban architecture. It is a poignant illustration of the importance of performance in coping with cultural change.
Particularly stunning, however, is a series of ambrotype portraits by Jody Ake. Using the old method of photography to create the modern-day images adds an air of gravity to her work that emphasizes the dignity of the seated men depicted in the neo-old-fashioned work.
Also intriguing is the recent addition to the exhibit of photographs of the Khumbula movement in South Africa, in which artist Harness Hamese explores the role of women in the dandy movement. “When a Black woman prays — Andile Biyana and the Outkasts” is a black-and-white photo in which Andile leads a prayer circle. In “For every strong woman, there are strong men,” the female dandy, or dandizette, takes center stage. Both images put a refreshing feminist spin on a historic narrative dominated by masculine imagery.
The best was indeed saved for last, however. In the gallery’s rear, a black curtain is swept aside to reveal a small room where guests can watch two videos. The first, “Sir,” by Numa Derrier, depicts a man adjusting his cream-colored coat and bowtie. With no music or sound besides the brushing of garments, nor a face to attach the hands to, it not only leaves the viewer curious about the mystery man, but allows the viewer to envision himself in the piece.
And Terrance Nance’s four-minute video, “Black Beau,” is the perfect ending to the exhibit. As shapes and scenes move across the screen, from a young man and woman in a theater to the silhouette of a black dandy and a colorful triangle, a narrator explains the characteristics of a dandy. A dandy lives “[i]nside the image of [his] making”; his speech is “brief” and he is a “pacifist, and won’t take no shit,” with ambiguous sexual orientation and a calm, bemused personality. According to Nance, a black beau is a cultured, intellectual, calculating and kind man, who “holds and is available to be held.” “Black Beau” is a concise and compelling conclusion to the exhibit.
As the new race war rages on, Dandy Lion is a positive and powerful artistic discussion that gives voice to the black beau, demanding empathy, understanding and, ultimately, peace.