Man looking at two photos in an exhibition

How to view masculinity (ies)

The exhibition at London’s Barbican Centre, Masculinities: Liberation through Photography, which opened this spring (2020), is a subject that touches all of us, whatever our gender identity.

UPDATE: The exhibition closed because of the pandemic, and reopens 13 July until 23 August.

We come into being when we are classified as male or female. The very act of classification is an “operation of power”, writes academic Jonathan D Katz, one of the three exhibition advisers.

Going up: works by Karlheinz Weinberger, left, and Masahisa Fukase, right.

The ideal of the dominant masculine figure, personified by the likes of the lone cowboy, the combat soldier and the financial wheeler and dealer, has for too long meant that society encourages men to be strong, assertive and aggressive. Hallelujah! Art is lifting the shroud.

I am not an academic. I am not a curator. (Alona Pardo is the curator of Masculinities: Liberation through Photography.) But here are 10 new ways to view masculinity in all its different nuances; ways that offer a more inclusive and a more compassionate vision – written by me, inspired by the exhibition: We are all one, whatever our gender – we all have

1. We are all one, whatever our gender – we all have the ability to feel and to have emotions… the vulnerability of the young American football players captured by Catherine Opie and the softness of the cowboys in Sam Conti’s works taken at Deep Springs College in California.

Catherine Opie Rusty, 2008 © Catherine Opie, Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles and Thomas Dane Gallery, London

2. The relationship between masculinity and femininity does not have to be a one of tension, or an undoable “conceptual knot”, as Katz calls it. It can be one of balance.  As my life coach in Seattle says, as humans, we all live in the same state of “fear, pain and confusion”.

3. Over the centuries, people have used the ideology of masculinity to concentrate power and to manipulate… Marianne Wex, in Let’s Take Back Our Space, catalogues how gender codes have written themselves into our bodies… men with legs akimbo and women with legs crossed. We were not born to do that.

Installation view of Masculinities: Liberation through Photography at Barbican Art Gallery. Photo by Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for Barbican Art Gallery.

4. “Make one wrong move and the whole illusion of masculinity falls apart,” said Katz, in conversation with artist Catherine Opie. Hypermasculinity is a veneer.  Underneath, we are all fragile, and we all need loving empathy. The video of performing artist Bas Jan Ader crying uncontrollably in I’m Too Sad to Tell You is deeply touching. Four years after taking the video in 1971, the artist disappeared after setting off in a small sailing boat across the Atlantic.  Just one of many human stories in this exhibition.

5. Women have a role to play in shaping the ideal of masculinity – through our expectations and our responses.  A section of the exhibition is Women on Men, where several of the artists look to reverse the power dynamic of the active male and passive female.  Laurie Anderson, for example, in her project Fully Automated Nikon took photos of men after they had catcalled her in the street, documenting in words beneath the photograph their responses when she asked to take their picture… “What the hell do you think you’re doing,” said one.

6. There is no one masculinitywe are a weave of identities, including our sexual orientation and our gender identity, and that weave is forever evolving and transmuting.  The exhibition captures a broad span of these weaves.

7. Being a man is a “performance always in the making”, as Ekow Eshun, one of the exhibition advisers, writes, observing the work of Samuel Fosso, who used left-over film in his studio in the Central African Republic – which he set up aged 13 – to take self-portraits adopting a series of personas.

8. As humans, we like to perform – it makes us feel seen, we can be who we want to be. The young men photographed in the 1960s by Karlheinz Weinberger in his makeshift studio in Zurich appear as amateur actors casting for a role, with their puppy-like eyes and oversized Elvis belt buckles.

Young man in KHW studio, 1961 © Karlheinz Weinberger/Galerie Esther Woerdeohff

9. The ideal of the strong man is just that – an ideal.  This is reflected in the portraits of Taliban soldiers ­– their eyes made up with kohl and their looks softened by retouching – collected by Thomas Dworzak in Kandahar and in the vulnerability of the sleeping soldiers depicted by Israeli artist Adi Nes.

Taliban portrait. Kandahar, Afghanistan. 2002. © Collection T. Dworzak/Magnum Photos
Untitled, from the series Soldiers, 1999 Courtesy Adi Nes & Praz-Delavallade Paris, Los Angeles

10. As humans, we can reshape our vision… that is what South African photographer Mikhael Subotzky did in I was Looking Back. He went through every image that he had ever taken, selecting those where “the process of looking, or being looked back at, was resonant” to forming a new narrative about white masculine power in his home country. 

not me, us* – the masculinity (ies) topic

At the entrance to the exhibition, you pass by the bigger-than-life frieze of four panels of self-portraits by John Coplans, the British-born artist.

Coplans took the photos in 1994, nine years before he died. His muscles are no longer taut nor his skin smooth, but a beauty and a soft emotion are found in every cell.

In the end, we are all one – we are all people, living in our fear, pain and confusion, whatever our gender identity.  We are born. We live. We die.

*With reference to the Bernie Sanders US Presidential campaign motto: ‘Not me. Us.’

Untitled, 1985 © Rotimi Fani-Kayode Courtesy of Autograph, London

Exhibition continues to arles & Berlin

Masculinities: Liberation through Photography’ is on at the Barbican until 17 May 2020. The exhibition will then tour to Les Rencontres de la Photographie, Arles from 29 June – 20 September 2020 and Gropius-Bau, Berlin from 16 October 2020 until 10 January 2021.

Featured image ©Tristan Fewings / Getty Images 

I work as the UK advisor for Paris-based Galerie Esther Woerdehoff. All works by Karlheinz Weinberger at ‘Masculinities: Liberation through Photography’ come courtesy of Galerie Esther Woerdehoff.

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