Returning from the Be A Man! exhibition, my partner told me he'd just had a good meeting with a supplier, who on leaving asked if he could take an Easter egg from a centrepiece for his little girl. My partner joked 'no gender stereotypes there then' as it was covered in pink foil. The seller replied 'yeah, everything has to be pink for her. I'm a bit fed up with it but its fine as long as my little lad doesn't start liking pink'. He immediately realized that it might not be provident to insult a client, embarrassed he took his leave, as the colour is also associated with gayness.
Who defines how men should perform themselves to be seen as male in 2013 is the core of this very fine, tight little show. Judith Butler noted that gender was a social construct we all perform on a daily basis. We are taught that girls like pink and boys blue, but this is only a relatively recent construct. Identity politics in 1980's art went out of fashion, and notions of "women's/black/gay" art are now on the periphery. Artists who use notions of identity as a start or core (Tracey Emin, Kara Walker, Donald Moffett) have moved beyond that, making their work universal. Why can't a Latina lesbian stand in for any one of us? Being human is the start, but what differentiates what is a man?
Claude Cahun (1894-1954) is represented by three black and white gender fluid images of herself loaned from the Jersey Museum. Near the gallery entrance, her shaven head turns to look at the viewer. The image is so denuded of traditional gender tropes that Cahun could be a man, a woman or a melange of both. These works are at odds with Mahtab Hussain's contemporary images of young Muslim men working out at one of three Asian only gyms in Birmingham. These buff tattooed lads, seem to have taken on the imagery of LA black gang culture yet remain part of the Pakistani community there. They glare at the camera as young men of many cultures tend to do - presenting their masculinity at forefront. But red and white Palestinian head shawls seem to position them as potentially violent due to current media depictions of Muslims. They might like this, but their clothes look as performed as their muscles, shaggy beards and their 'Britishness'.
They are in contrast to Ali Kazim's quiet watercolour self-portraits, some behind tracing paper which further soften his image. Kazim lives in Lahore and perhaps in an Islamic country, this aspect of his identity is taken as read, so he is free to explore other notions of what being a man might look like. Opposite are paintings by the black American Hank Willis Thomas from his I Am A Man series. They are based on civil rights placards in a 1968 Martin Luther King march. Thomas' white paintings with black words vary this statement and include I Am, Am I, an existential statement perhaps, but one that cuts to the quick. What is it that makes him exist and be a man today?
Miguel Rael (a gay man) presents a study on Catholicism and Modernism, questioning their patriarchal status. A close up of a man in white briefs holds a cross that turns out to be a minimalist sculpture. The image is mounted behind a red neon oval turning the gallery into a mini red light district. Rael's work is timely with Cardinal Keith O'Brien's recent resignation due to an over fondness for young male priests. I say male 'priests' because this word is also a cultural construct. There are female rabbis, women Church of England vicars (but no Bishops), though women mullahs will likely take longer to emerge. Historically women held positions of religious power (priestesses) and I make no distinction between these creation myths, but for many people they form part of the gender construct of who gets to be a man and one with power.
Alexis Hunter's work Approach to Fear XVII: Masculinisation of Society (Shadow, Smear, Rip Burn) from 1977 addresses her position as a woman vis-à-vis male dominance. She bought a porn picture of a man with an erect penis (depictions of erections were then illegal) in a Soho sex shop and then shadowed it with her hand, smeared it with paint, tore it up and set fire to it. When she originally exhibited four images of the action (remade for the show) the male guards went on strike until it was removed from the Belfast City Museum. It is unlikely that Hunter's favourite colour is pink.
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