Barbican curator Alona Pardo on the themes and ideas behind Masculinities: Liberation through Photography

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Bringing together 300 works by nearly 60 artists, the Barbican’s blockbuster exhibition explores how masculinity has been coded and performed since the 1960s

This article was originally published in issue #7892 of British Journal of Photography. As a free gift to our community during the coronavirus lockdown, we are offering it as a free digital edition here.

The first thing visitors will encounter when they enter the Barbican’s latest blockbuster exhibition is a large frieze by John Coplans. Showing the artist’s ageing body life-size and in forensic detail, it serves as a statement of intent. “There he is, with these deflated buttocks, sagging pecs and wiry pubic hair, kind of scrunched into the frame,” explains curator Alona Pardo. “The idea is that we never look at the ageing male body… so you’ll automatically understand that you’re going to see a show that defies your perceptions. We’re not going to show you what you think you’re going to see. And that includes looking at the vulnerable male body, which is something not often at the foreground.”

Pardo conceived the idea for Masculinities: Liberation through Photography four years ago, and the resulting exhibition (which opened at Barbican Art Gallery on 20 February, and was due to run to 17 May, but which closed during London’s coronavirus lockdown ) is huge, featuring work by nearly 60 artists, ranging from internationally celebrated names such as Andy WarholWolfgang Tillmans and Herb Ritts, to emerging talents such as Aneta BartosSam Contis and Kalen Na’il Roach. Spanning seven decades, from Karlheinz Weinberger’s Rebel Youth of the 1950s (below) to Elle Pérez’s most recent work, completed last year, the exhibition aims to disrupt easy assumptions about masculinity, taking as its starting point the idea that gender and sex are not synonymous, and that gender is learned and acted out.

AFGHANISTAN. Kandahar. 2002. Taliban portrait.
David Brintzenhofe Applying Makeup (II), 1982 © 1987 The Peter Hujar Archive LLC; Courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York and Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

It’s an idea expressed by Simone de Beauvoir’s famous formulation that “One is not born but rather becomes a woman”, and one that’s been developed by contemporary thinkers such as Judith Butler, whose 1990 book, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity espouses the notion of gender as performance. Putting the emphasis on gender as a cultural construct, the show suggests that what’s considered ‘masculine’ is relative: that it shifts over time and place, that it can be questioned and changed, and that it can and should be expanded to encompass a wider range of identities – including the ageing male body.

“The reason we’ve called the show Masculinities is to underscore this kind of plurality,” says Pardo. “In a nutshell, the show is looking at how masculinities have been coded and performed and socially constructed from the 1960s to the present day, as expressed particularly through photography and film. It’s also looking at patriarchy and hegemonic masculinity, at deconstructing and disrupting, and looking at how artists have harnessed different aesthetic strategies to destabilise and debunk those myths around masculinity.”

It’s a huge and timely topic, as Pardo cheerfully concedes, encompassing half the world’s population – and more, given that the exhibition includes work on masculinity in non-male bodies, such as Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs of bodybuilder Lisa Lyon. As such, it has to be a big show, which is divided into six chapters: ‘Disrupting the Archetype’; ‘Power, Patriarchy and Space’; ‘Too Close to Home: Family & Fatherhood’; ‘Queering Masculinity’; ‘Reclaiming the Black Body’; and ‘Women on Men: Reversing the Male Gaze’.

“Society is structured in a multilayered way, whereby hegemonic masculinity sits on top and everything else comes underneath.”

Untitled 22, from the series Christopher Street, 1976 © Sunil Gupta.

As these titles suggest, Masculinities covers a lot of ground from many varied perspectives. This is by no means a show about the male- on-male gaze. There’s work by women, there is work by non-gender conforming and queer artists, and there are series by non-white artists, and those who are from, and who work, outside the West, such as Sunil Gupta’s images shot in Delhi cruising joints, for example (Exiles, 1987), and photographs of Lebanese fighters taken by Fouad Elkoury (Circle of Deceit, 1980). While it’s impossible for any show to include every alternative perspective, the idea is that these works add different readings of the extensive mores of masculinity – which, as Pardo points out, isn’t just typified by being male, but also by being white, straight, middle class, able-bodied, and young. “There’s a kind of order, a social hierarchy,” she explains. “Society is structured in a multilayered, multi-structured way, whereby hegemonic masculinity sits on top and everything else comes underneath.”

This reading also helps explain the timeframe of the show, which kicks off in the early 1960s, when these power structures underwent new scrutiny and were contested. “In the postwar period, across the board we began to relook at how society was ordered,” says Pardo. “We had the civil rights movement, the women’s liberation movement, a raised class consciousness, and the re-entry of women into the workplace. All this began to destabilise what had been seen from the 19th century through to the Second World War. What you had in the 1960s was this moment when all of these groups, these different taxonomies of people, began to say, ‘Hey, we have rights, and we want to enter those spaces, and we have a right to enter those spaces’.”

From the series, Gentlemen, 1981-83 © Karen Knorr.

The introductory sections of the exhibition focus on bastions of power, the first chapter addressing familiar macho archetypes – soldiers, cowboys, musclemen – and the second focusing on “male order”, typified by the white besuited men in Karen Knorr’s Gentlemen (1981-83). Both sections include work that prods and undercuts this power, reflecting the stereotypes but also shaking up assumptions that are often taken for granted.

‘Disrupting the Archetype’ includes a whole sub-section on bodybuilders and athletes, for example, whose pumped-up physiques seem to sum up an uncomplicated association between the powerful and the male. But where the young Arnold Schwarzenegger looks rather tentative in Robert Mapplethorpe’s 1976 photographs, women’s bodybuilding pioneer Lisa Lyon looks altogether more commanding. Meanwhile, Catherine Opie’s images of American teen athletes (High School Football, 2007-2009) portray them on the cusp of adulthood, their enormous body armour resembling the fake musculature of superhero fancy dress. And Rineke Dijkstra’s portraits of Portuguese matadors (1996) capture them post-climax, exhausted by their efforts, their faces and floral Forcado costumes splattered with blood.

AFGHANISTAN. Kandahar. 2002. Taliban portrait.

“This is really interesting, man against bull, and yet what she’s photographing isn’t the matadors who work solo in the ring,” says Pardo. “She photographed the Portuguese bullfighters, who work in a group of eight. It’s about their own precarity, their own vulnerability in this, the fact that they need to work together.”

Inevitably, there are cowboys, including Richard Prince’s appropriated images of lone heroes taming wild horses. They are placed alongside Collier Schorr’s photographs of young wannabes, dressed in wide-brimmed hats and chaps – but the clothes don’t yet make the man, their faces revealing a timidity behind the bravado. Schorr’s portraits, commissioned by a Californian museum to reflect on the legacy of the Farm Security Administration, are collaged with images of black men, suggesting at the forgotten pioneers of the American West whose faces didn’t make it into popular myth.

And there are works on the army, including Wolfgang Tillmans’ Soldiers – The Nineties (2000), a mix of found and shot images that “reinscribes the queer body back into the military imagination”. Says Pardo, “These debates are live, these are still spaces in which different identities struggle to fit in. But artists are saying, ‘No! Actually, we can reinscribe our queer body into this space, we have the right to do that, we’re affirming that right’.”

“I didn’t want men to come and find themselves alienated from the show. It is full of humour.”

The second section, ‘Power, Patriarchy and Space’, looks at social rather than physical power, at men who might not tame wild horses but boss around underlings instead. There’s Richard Avedon’s The Family, for example, made up of 69 portraits of 73 people in positions of power, from politics to banking to culture, very nearly all of whom are male and white. And there’s Piotr Uklański’s The Nazis (1998), also presented as a composite grid, collecting together depictions of Nazis from Hollywood and popular films. “There’s a kind of a leparello of male fantasies going on here, it’s full of pop-cultural references,” comments Pardo. “And it’s also about glamorising power and uniforms.”

This section also includes seemingly playful depictions of male power, such as Andrew Moisey’s messy insider view of American university fraternities (2018). The frat boys live in squalor and are shown partying hard, but Moisey makes clear the connection to sustaining male supremacy, showing a list of US presidents who’ve belonged to such fraternities, which is long and illustrious. Elsewhere images by Mikhail Subotzky and Danny Lyon show the more direct exercise of power in prisons, with Lyon’s 1971 series, Conversations With the Dead, including a frankly shocking image of naked inmates being publicly searched, outdoors, by guards in cowboy hats and spurs.

But if these sections include some hard-hitting images, they also include moments of humour, especially in the video art that represents each chapter. Richard Mosse’s film shot at Harvard, Fraternity (2007), shows 10 men screaming for as long as they can to win a keg of beer – screaming until they’re red in the face, and their eyes are bulging. Knut Åsdam’s video, Untitled: Pissing (1995), meanwhile, zooms in on a crotch which proves leaky instead of virile – suggesting that synonym for failed masculinity, the bed-wetter. “I didn’t want it to be a show that men came to and found themselves alienated from, or self-loathing,” says Pardo. “The show is full of humour, and it’s playful.

But it’s also pretty dark and sinister. It both exposes and reveals, but it also debunks. It’s this idea that there is no singular identity of masculinity – we wanted to underscore exactly the plurality, the diversity, the inclusivity of what it might mean, and how we really need to continuously chip away at these terms.”

AFGHANISTAN. Kandahar. 2002. Taliban portrait.

This plurality runs throughout the rest of the exhibition, which covers various aspects of masculinity. In the chapter titled ‘Too Close To Home: Family & Fatherhood’, we are presented with an early work by Hans Eijkelboom, With My Family (1973), in which he called on homes when the breadwinner was at work, and inserted himself into surrogate ‘family snaps’. In the same chapter, there is work from Masahisa Fukase, including moving images of physical decline in his lesser-known series, Memories of Father (published in 1991), and Larry Sultan’s Pictures From Home (1992).

In another chapter, ‘Queering Masculinity’, we begin with Peter Hujar’s self-explanatory Orgasmic Man triptych, alongside Hal Fischer’s 1977 series, Gay Semiotics, a tongue-in-cheek look (below) at the styles and symbols adopted by gay men in San Francisco’s Castro and Haight-Ashbury districts – a “lexicon of attraction”, as he put it, in which ‘hanky codes’ conveyed sexual preferences. It’s witty, but also suggests a love that dared not openly speak its name. Likewise, in the chapter titled ‘Women on Men: Reversing the Male Gaze’, Laurie Anderson’s 1973 work, Fully Automated Nikon (Object/Objection/ Objectivity), is a humorous turn of the tables on sexual harassment, but it also suggests a predatory atmosphere that’s no fun at all when confronted on the street.

Street Fashion: Jock, from the series Gay Semiotics, 1977-2016 © Hal Fischer, courtesy of Project Native Informant, London.

‘Reclaiming the Black Body’, meanwhile, shows Samuel Fosso modelling a glorious range of identities in his ongoing self-portraiture, from youthful disco dandy to Malcolm X, sometimes happily requisitioning existing iconic shots. Hank Willis Thomas’ Unbranded: Reflections in Black by Corporate America (1968-2008) also uses existing imagery, stripping advertising images of their brands and slogans to reveal the stereotypes and tropes used to push products. Once again, these projects are playful – but they also have very serious intentions and implications.

The Barbican enlisted the help of advisers during the research, including Ekow Eshun, Tim Clark and Jonathan D Katz. Each contributed an essay to the catalogue, alongside Pardo’s lengthy introduction, and texts by academics, Chris Haywood and Edwin Coomasaru. Each has a different specialism (Eshun is a well-known curator and commentator on black masculinity, for example, while Katz was a pioneer of queer art history), and Pardo says that working with them was rewarding.

“By deconstructing or destabilising, and disrupting, and to a degree resisting these tropes of masculinities, it also allows for a certain emancipation of masculinity,”

But she adds that being a woman curator meant she also had another take on masculinity – emphasising that no single person can speak definitively on behalf of a community, or on the notion of masculinity, and that that wouldn’t be desirable. After all, the point of the show is to embrace different readings and experiences of masculinity, in an effort to break down and destabilise a monolithic worldview. “Any group show like this is a puzzle, [and the works all] have to feed off and connect one to the other,” she says. “We’re trying to cover so much ground, so each one had to earn their place. We wanted to show multiple voices, viewpoints and perspectives.”

AFGHANISTAN. Kandahar. 2002. Taliban portrait.

And ultimately, that multiplicity is also at the heart of the show’s subtitle, Liberation through Photography, because the supremacy of a buttoned-up, white, straight, privileged, able-bodied masculinity isn’t doing anyone any favours, she suggests – not those who are disempowered by it, but also not those who have to fit in with its rigours. Suicide rates are higher for men than women in almost every country in the world, and though the reasons for this are complex, the fact that the difference is higher in the West than elsewhere suggests it may be cultural, not physiological.

“Men are having to live up to these ridiculous stereotypes, and that’s not healthy for them. It’s not healthy for anyone.”

“By deconstructing or destabilising, and disrupting, and to a degree resisting these tropes of masculinities, it also allows for a certain emancipation of masculinity,” says Pardo. “Men are being asked to live up to ideals that are hindering their own personal emancipation, so if we can break those down, it gives men a much wider landscape to inhabit… They’re having to live up to these ridiculous stereotypes, and that’s not healthy for them. It’s not healthy for anyone.”

Bo from “Being and Having”, 1991 Collection of Gregory R. Miller and Michael Wiener © Catherine Opie, Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles; Thomas Dane Gallery, London; and Soloman R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

And that’s a key point because, while Pardo conceived of this show nearly four years ago, it was galvanised by developments in the intervening time, such as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, but also by the resurgence of far-right ideologies equated with a certain type of masculinity, and the rise of a masculinist nationalism. The latter can be seen in leaders such as Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Jair Bolsonaro, all of whom are “shaping their image according to retro ideas of strong, hard masculinity”, says Pardo. “We seem to be living in this moment of polarisation – which shouldn’t come as any surprise, because we are living in divisive times. On the one hand we’ve never been more inclusive on a local level, but if we look at the wider sociopolitical, language has become much more gendered. But between these two poles, there’s the whole spectrum of identities.”

On Thursday 7 May, Alona Pardo will answer questions about Masculinities: Liberation through Photography via Barbican’s Watch, Read & Listen portal. Everyone is invited to submit questions on the Barbican Twitter @BarbicanCentre, with the Q&A starting at 2pm .

Diane Smyth

Diane Smyth is a freelance journalist who contributes to publications such as The Guardian, The Observer, The FT Weekend Magazine, Creative Review, The Calvert Journal, Aperture, FOAM, IMA, Aesthetica and Apollo Magazine. Prior to going freelance, she wrote and edited at BJP for 15 years. She has also curated exhibitions for institutions such as The Photographers Gallery and Lianzhou Foto Festival. You can follow her on instagram @dismy