Need for bodily diversity

I actually get why some black men have issues with the way white photographs portray blacks at all and it’s not just sexualised but also weirdly repetitive and stereotypical. It’s like if you observe the many black subjects in the works of Robert Mapplethorpe, David Gregham and Dianora Niccolini they’re almost always muscular, sometimes not making eye contact and either expressionless or flirtatious.

There’s nary any room for laughing, crying or screaming black men like those you see in Ajamu X’s and Rotimi Fani Kayode’s works and the like. No room for cross-dressers either. Fat and skinny black men are nearly nonexistent. Comes to think of it, being exposed to fat and skinny black men does help break the repetition. Not to mention a better argument for humanising black men by allowing them to be out of shape.

As is making them emotional, cross-dress or whatever.

Skinny black men, fat black men

There’s often the popular expectation of black men to be muscular and though muscular black men do exist, keep in mind that in America it’s actually not uncommon for black men to be overweight and some of them are actually obese. Conversely speaking, in some Nairobi slums (and possibly true for other African countries) it’s just as common for black men to be skinny/undernourished. I admit being guilty of giving into stereotypes.

But at the same time, I’m trying to undo it by drawing more fat black men (and there’s the odd skinny black man too). Comes to think of it, it does make me better understand why white gay depictions of black men are so troubling. In that they’re almost uniformly fit, seldom actually overweight or even really skinny. That makes sense why whenever some white people photograph blacks at all, it’s almost always stereotypical.

There’s also the annoying stereotype of black men getting muscular easily but if Earl Maynard’s early life’s any indication (especially when it comes to him being previously sickly and likely malnourished throughout his youth), black men do work out just as hard as their white counterparts do. If they don’t exercise, they’d eventually get fat and I actually watched clips of this black man who used to do sports but ended up fat and tried his hardest to lose weight.

In other words, he’s a human aware of his own faults and learning from them. Again there has to be a reason for more diversified takes on black men. I’ve seen photographs of nude black men crying, hooded young lads smiling and giggling and also those of fat black men. These serve to counteract stereotypical depictions of blacks (even nude ones). These also help to humanise them even more when you think about it.

Beyond Mapplethorpe

I admit I’m no stranger to depicting muscular black men (including those with albinism) but upon drawing fat black men (and skinnier ones), I realise the real reason why the likes of Robert Mapplethorpe are so troubling. Or at least one of the real reasons in that the black men as promoted by these white photographers are almost always othered. Almost always confirming to a singular stereotype.

That is muscular, nearly expressionless (or often seductive), barely making eye contact and tall. There’s nary any room for expressive (including expressively sad) black men, let alone their less fit (read fat or even really skinny) counterparts. Or for another matter, bothering to shoot black men with smaller penises. Keep in mind that it does in fact happen.

But the over-obsession over black penises is frankly disgusting and why some black gay men have issues with it. I did give into those stereotypes but once I ended up gradually countering them, I came to understand the problem more. Comes to think of it, if it’s not impossible to find Asian men attractive* then it shouldn’t be impossible to consider that not all black people fit the expected ‘black man’ template to whatever extent.

Black people can be really pale, short, fat, thin and even have small penises. None of these are impossible but that involves seeing them as people. Something I myself struggled with it and am coming to terms with this. These don’t make black people any less black but that necessitates seeing them as people.

*It does in fact happen, most especially when it comes to Chinese men marrying Ukrainian and Russian women as well as Chinese men siring illegitimate children in Uganda, Ghana and Kenya and white women having sex with Balinese male prostitutes and historical reports of white women being attracted to Filipino men, marrying Asian men and Sessue Hayashikawa being a sex symbol.

In their own portrayals

I don’t think Luke Austin’s entirely that badly intentioned but I do think from the photographs I’ve seen they still seem stereotyped. But in the sense that they’re almost always passive figures, sometimes not looking at the camera. Maybe I haven’t seen the rest of it. Though I think what would’ve helped is to add a much wider variety. He probably does by now but I do think a wider variety (or even a subversion of it) would’ve helped.

Along with being actually influenced by black photographers though that too wouldn’t always help things either. Whilst not always the case for even black photographers, there generally is a difference. It’s like the difference between the way Wilson Munene photographs himself (at times) and the way other black men are portrayed by white men. Whilst some of it’s practically indistinguishable, there are some portrayals where he and a colleague act out something for a campaign.

They even had fun with it and continued to appear as aliens when visiting the supermarket. Better yet, there’s a big difference between the way Ajamu X and Rotimi Fani-Kayode portray black men versus their white counterparts (Tony Butcher, David Gregham and Robert Mapplethorpe). In the former, some of them don’t just look at the camera but also exhibit a wider range of expressions.

Same with Shikeith (who even bothers depicting naked black men crying), Christian Padron (similar) and Myles Loftin (who depicts happy young black men in colourful hoodies). Through their lived experiences (though not always the case), these seem much more authentic and perhaps far more human than the way they would be portrayed by white and most non-black photographers.

Rotimi Fani-Kayode and black men

I admit being guilty of certain biases that the likes of Robert Mapplethorpe at times. But upon discovering Rotimi Fani-Kayode and his ilk (Ajamu), I get the impression that their take on idealised black men differs significantly from Mapplethorpe. In the sense that though there are some similarities, there are also profound differences. Most notably from what I’ve seen there isn’t much of a pronounced emphasis on black skin (and to be fair, colourism is an issue within the black community though in their case, having dark skin’s not really that exotic or a big deal).

It’s not that they’re really light-skinned either but there is a difference in their approaches and sensibilities. Whilst black men as photographed by white people seem to heavily emphasise their dark skin and virility, sometimes overly emphasising their penises it seems from what I’ve seen Kayode even made the penis differently coloured from the entire body and sometimes it’s just not that emphasised much. (As for Ajamu, he even makes his subjects cross-dress, something you don’t see often whenever white people photograph black subjects.)

To be fair, there are black people who do take issues with cross-dressing but in the context of Mapplethorpe and his ilk’s almost othering aesthetic, Ajamu and Kayode seem refreshing in which they show that black men can be other than those stereotypes. I’m aware that black people do objectify their own kind but there is a difference in the sense that at least in African countries, characters like Wilson Munene are just hot local guys. They’re not others in that context, even if it can be problematic.

Whereas black men as photographed by white gays (and sometimes white women) seems to emphasise their exoticness to the point where they can’t even be people. Kayode and Ajamu introduce different ways of depicting black people that range from the typical portrayals to something otherworldly, vulnerable and even androgynous. In other words, the black body to them’s not an other. But when dealing with being othered by whites and especially gay whites, that Ajamu and Kayode actually offer alternative ways of depicting black nudes.

They needn’t to confirm to stereotyped expectations when they’re allowed to be flamboyant, clothed, androgynous, relatively pale and even bothering to refuse to show this (at least in one photograph).

Heroic Nudity or Not

This is debatable whether if men are objectified in art or not, though this is something I’m sometimes guilty of (or close to it) sometimes. But I think in the context of how nuanced objectification is beyond simply wearing skimpy outfits (in some cases like certain sports, this may even be justified).

It’s also got to do with the posing as well as the focus on certain body parts (I sometimes have a feeling that certain characters could get away with certain things if/when they’re depicted as having very uncanny valley anatomy to lessen the objectification at least in some cases).

I think the difference, though sometimes grey, is clear between Boris Vallejo’s artwork and those of David Gregham, Aleksander Vishnakov and Tony Butcher. Though not always the case, I get the impression of nude men in Vallejo’s artwork as being involved in actual physical activity or at least having body language that goes beyond passive sex object.

The latter three sometimes have very passively posed men. Vallejo may sexualise his men but not to the same extent the latter three do, especially as they either make the men be as passively and seductively posed as female characters do (Vallejo’s men are often almost always engaged in physical activity).

Gregham and Butcher all seem like watered down versions of Robert Mapplethorpe (if you know what I mean even though Dianora Niccolini’s not any better either) whilst Vishnakov shares Mapplethorpe’s BDSM fascination. Vallejo, by contrast, is actually closer to the artists who do heroic nudity a lot. I mean his male characters are often warriors.

Or at least involved in physical activity (though it can be argued that he’s not any better however by depicting them as macho seducers of women sometimes so). This may not always be the case but I still get the impression of Vallejo, whenever he does feature men at all, even when they’re naked they’re almost always supposed to be heroic or warlike.

(Or at the very least engaged in physical activity, much like his late rival Frank Frazetta.) The men in the latter three’s works are (much) likelier to be passively and seductively posed characters.

The difference

From looking at the ESPN body issuses, these aren’t always any better when depicting black people (little mention of Asian men from what I’ve seen but I could be wrong) but when compared to Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography, that’s a huge difference. Most notably that the ESPN models are portrayed exactly like their white counterparts, naked but with no emphasis on the genitalia. (In fact with both, it’s often unseen.)

The ESPN pictures could be wank fodder for others but it does seem kilometres away from Robert Mapplethorpe’s works. Admittedly, it could be hard to quantify the number of nude black men and nude white men in those issues (though it could be about equal should anybody count it). But in a weird way, it’s like the antithesis of his works in some regards. But most notably, not much emphasis on genitalia in the ESPN pictures to begin with.