Exhibit Uses Art to Challenge Idea of Black Masculinity

By Tylan Nash

In a year that brought strong Black male characters to the big screen in films like Black Panther and BlacKKKlansman, one collection of artwork seeks to broaden the notion of what is Black masculinity. The words black and men, when put together, often denotes physical strength, and lack of emotion, instead of vulnerability and empathy. Actress CCH Pounder hoped to celebrate the diversity that is true Black masculinity with a new exhibition from her collection of artworks that went on display at Xavier University’s art gallery this fall and will be open to the public for viewing through February 28, 2019.

The goal of the exhibit: “ICONS: Ideals of Black Masculinity” is to re-examine how Black men are perceived, based on how they have been depicted in mainstream media: through photography, books, and films, for instance. ​

“The artwork challenges the viewer to re-examine both traditional gender stereotypes and contemporary stereotypes that are portrayed in the media,” said Pounder, well-known for her roles in television series like ER, The Shield, Sons of Anarchy and now NCIS: New Orleans. Pounder included works of art that are part of her personal collection, from prominent artists such as Yinka Shonibare, Kehinde Wiley, Elizabeth Catlett, and Malick Sidibe. ​

“It’s important that young Black men see that they are not only valuable, but also objects of beauty,” said C. Reynold Verret, Xavier’s President. ​

One piece in the art exhibit is by New York-based Artist, Kehinde Wiley, who was commissioned to create President Barack Obama’s portrait that was unveiled in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in 2017. Wiley uses Black men in his art, and paints them as delicate beings, using items from nature, such as flowers, or having their faces painted with glitter. His artwork wants to show that Black men can keep their masculinity, but also can be soft and gentle at the same time. ​

“Seeing this art opens up a new side of me, because I don’t go out of my way to express myself, mainly because as a Black man, I was taught that expressing myself was very feminine, so seeing this type of representation has really opened my eyes,” said Donovan Carraby, a Xavier first-year student who attended the opening of the exhibit. ​

Some young Black men noted the exhibit is a conversation starter for breaking down stereotypes that often make Black masculinity, in the words of their peers: “toxic.”

“We’re the next generation of Black men, and it’s up to us to break that fragile masculinity concept,” said Jeremiah Brown, a student who attended the exhibit opening. ​

Growing up, sophomore student Jordan Wise said he recalls that as a young Black male, he felt ostracized, and scrutinized because he was told he lacked “swagger,” and that he needed to conform to a stereotypical version of Black masculinity. ​
“I remember being young, around five or six, and sitting with one of my close family members at a barbershop, and he hits me on my legs,” Tillman said. “I had my legs crossed, and he just smacked me, hard on my legs, and said to uncross them, or I’ll look like a sissy. I remember wondering what exactly that was at six years old.”

It’s a common experience for most Black men, taught to them, from members within the community, from under the age of five. ​

“Statistically, four out of every five Black men have experienced some type of bullying from their family members and or peers about how they act, dress, or choose to live their life,” according to Shariah Moore, a Psychologist who works at the Psychiatry Group in Memphis, Tenn. ​

During the November homecoming activities, Xavier students decided to break the stereotypes around gender with a “gender-swap” day. Overwhelmingly, female students wore men’s clothing-wear, however, fewer males decided they would wear women’s apparel. ​

“I don’t know, I just feel like men really shouldn’t wear dresses,” said Justin Henderson, who didn’t participate in the day’s exercise, because he did not want his sexuality to be questioned.​

The responses on social media to the “gender-swap” exercise also confirmed Henderson’s beliefs. ​
The backlash was predictable, according to Brian Turner, an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Xavier because this still remains an aspect of the Black community that is passed down for generations and is not discussed.​

“Black men are known for being very aggressive when something threatens their way of life,” said Turner, who teaches a course in Black Psychology. “It’s something that is one of those things where everybody knows it’s happening in the Black community, but no one says anything about it,” he said. ​

However, art, as it always does in the Black community, can start a conversation, said Sarah Clunis, an Assistant Professor of Art at Xavier, who is the Curator of the gallery and the exhibit. In one of the pieces in the exhibit by Detroit Social Justice Artist Mario Moore, he features a Black man, solely in his underwear, with his clothes standing in front of him. The clothes: a hoodie and jeans, are shown in vibrant colors, even his underwear. The subject embodies fragility by being completely stripped down to his underwear, or his bare soul, something that an average Black man in America is told not to do. This typically private moment in a person’s life, shown in Moore’s painting, is different than the portrayal in the media.​

“To be a Black man, it’s a lot of pressure to conform to society’s idea of masculinity, especially Black male masculinity, so to see that these artists depicting men who look like me break those barriers, is just amazing to look at,” said Barakah Hassell, a freshman Xavier student who visited the exhibit.​

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