In order to survive in America, Black culture has made itself illegible from the prying eyes of the white gaze, using art as a tool of subversion and self-expression. Since emancipation, Black Art has been a force of resistance, independence, and innovation, catapulting Black American culture to global heights in music, style, speech, and dance.
Often imitated but never duplicated, Black Art is the foundation of popular culture, as well as a vital force in fine art now as the art world races to align itself with the right side of history after active exclusion from museums, galleries, books, and mainstream media. Black Art is currently having a moment, not only for this reason but because it offers a panoply of perspectives and paradigms operating outside the boundaries of Western cultural hegemony.
Consider the subject of Black male desire and the ways in which it has been laden with the stain of racism and homophobia for centuries, forcing the expression of fundamental human drives into secrecy. Photography, by virtue of its ability to render visible that which we may not have seen, can become a tool of liberation and freedom when placed in the proper hands.
Object Lessons in Desire
Hailing from North Philadelphia, interdisciplinary artist and filmmaker Shikeith uses the image to create new paradigms of Black queer male experience in a world that simultaneously fetishizes and dehumanizes Black masculinity. Occupying a space that is overt and covert at the same time, Shikeith renders the energy of desire as the sacred made flesh, creating images that pulsate with an undeniable tenderness.
Shikeith’s new exhibition, Ceremonies, brings together features of new photographs, sculptures, and video works that offer a moment of shared intimacy between his subjects and ourselves. Titled after Essex Hemphill’s renowned collection of poetry, Ceremonies presents photographs from the series Notes Towards Becoming A Spill, which explores how the portraiture can be transformed into a space of performance and learning to become one’s true self.
“There’s a long history of the camera and the materials attached being complicit in the constructions of what we know a Black man to be. A lot of my photography is about destroying those tropes,” Shikeith says in the exhibition statement. “What’s pulsating within these mage-based works is the desire for freedom, the urge to defy and resist cultural systems such as western religion or the white racist imagination that has subjugated the Black male body and spirit. I pictured these men with their eyes closed to gesture towards a ceremonious process of seeking autonomy within one’s inner being.”
Each portrait captures a moment of ecstasy as it rises to a fevered crest, a subtle yet intense expression of the moment the physical and spiritual realms merge. Shikeith’s photographs vibrate with life as his subjects are seen in a moment of becoming, embodying a full range of psychological states that accompany desire including ecstasy, euphoria, and fear. Here we see being as an active state, one driven by longing, drenched in sweat, surrounded by scream, and stilled by satiation, however momentarily.
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, and websites including Time, Vogue, Artsy, Aperture, Dazed, and Vice, among others.
Now online at Yossi Milo Gallery in advance of the artist’s premiere exhibition planned for 2021