‘Masculinities: Liberation through Photography’ at the Barbican Centre is a masterful, comprehensive exhibition that outlines a sweeping artistic history that is probing, insightful and moving. Exploring how masculinity has been coded, performed, and socially constructed from the 1960s to the present day, this is a show of 50 international artists working through the medium of film and photography. Working across themes from queer identity, female perceptions of men, hypermasculine stereotypes, many of the participants don’t sit easily within a gender binary, and rarely is the story told without an overlap to class, racism and the Western gaze; this is masculinity at its fullest.
The ground floor largely addresses an idea of traditional masculinity, which is defined as idealised, dominant and heterosexual. Cycling through different character types — the solider, the body builder and even the cowboy — different archetypes of power are explored. Media depictions of war are subverted, such as when infused with homoerotic undertones by Adi Nes. The real and imagined are collapsed against bombed out streets with Fouad Elkony. Other characters of strength, such as the athlete, are given a tenderness by Catherine Opie, and the body builder is reimagined as a figure of fantasy for Robert Maplethorpe. The lone cowboy is a subject of much critique, especially for its colonial and racist undertones for Collier Schorr and Sam Contis. The male body itself is cast with a new eye, as something vane or beautifully imperfect, fleshy and in a constant state of flux by John Coplan and Cassils.
This continues with a close look at male power, namely political and financial power held by white men. From the late 1970s and 1980s, we see the suits repeated ad nauseam by Richard Avedon and male spaces, from the pub to the gentleman’s club under close interrogation by Peter Marlow and Karen Knorr. Richard Mosse offers a contemporary look at power, arranging a shouting competition between college age frat boys, delivering a haunting performance of pink faced male rage.
Presenting a direct connection to photography’s history and the medium’s conventional role, the idea of fatherhood is explored through the family portrait. This includes Richard Billingham’s seminal ‘Ray’s A Laugh’ series, presenting a complex and uncomfortable vision of a failed father figure, with the context of austerity lingering closely behind.
On the top floor, the queer and black experience is told through subculture, alternative canons, the history of slavery and the AIDS epidemic. When homosexuality was illegal, artists such as Peter Hujar, David Wojnarowicz, Sunil Gupta and Hal Fisher photographed gay subculture in the 1970s, portraying endearing bonds of community in defiance of wider biogtry. Isaac Julien’s ‘Looking for Langston’ (1989) creates a fictional space somewhere between a 1920s speakeasy and a 1980s night club, weaving in archival poetry and music in an homage to the Harlem Renaissance — it’s a startlingly poetic piece, made at the height of the AIDS epidemic, which boldly forges a politically charged black and queer aesthetic.
Against a history of slavery and current day racism, a number of artists fight to reclaim the black body, whether this is giving form to the black male experience, or satirising dictators, the so-called Big Men of African power. Notable in this is Han Willis Thomas’s series ‘Unbranded: Reflections in Black by Corporate America’ (1968-2008) which presents advertising portraying black people, with text and logos removed, from 1968, a crucial moment in the civil rights struggle, to the election of Barack Obama in 2008.
You can’t truly discuss masculinity without reference to the second-wave feminist movement which pushed back against patriarchy and the male gaze. A number of female artists articulate their perspectives on men, at times humorously playing voyeur. Both Tracey Moffatt and Hilary Lloyd, for example, turn the tables of desire to foreground the power of the female gaze.
When not assumed to be the default, masquerading as ‘genius’, masculinity typically enters galleries as a subject of critique. While this show doesn’t hold any punches, the artists present aren’t necessarily calling for its end but it’s rebuilding towards something more expansive. Little of the work is contemporary, and the exhibition arguably captures very different conversations about identity than concern younger artists today. The real artistic weight of the exhibition sits in the works from the 1970s and 1980s — a time of crisis, and countercultural reaction against the narrowness of the mainstream. This is not an exhibition rooted in the #MeToo moment, but rather, the history which made it possible.