I keep returning to footage of Grace Jones telling an interviewer in 1985, “What is being masculine? It’s an attitude, I just act the way I feel, I do what I want,” when thinking about the gradually shifting attitudes and ways we consider gender presentation and sexuality 30 years later in 2016. Catching up with soon-to-be Central Saint Martins graduate Ibrahim Kamara just a few days before his final year Fashion Communications and Promotion project and Somerset House exhibition simply titled 2026, we unpack the layers of thought behind the confrontational imagery, his month-long residency spent in Johannesburg working with South African photographer and video artist Kristin-Lee Moolman to create a body of work that interrogates the delicate relationship between menswear and masculinity, sexuality and the black African body.
Selected by Somerset House curator Shonagh Marshall as part of a group show Utopian Voices Here & Now, she details her curatorial decision to spotlight African artists as part of her conception of utopia. Specialising in fashion exhibitions, she says “2026 is a perfect example of using clothing to consider how it can construct identity. There is a movement, which Ibrahim and Kristin are part of, which has been referred to as New Africa. Artists from Africa and its diaspora are creating a new aesthetic that explores multiple themes around belonging and identity. Kristin and Ibrahim’s cultural exchange is a fascinating view into the way in which conversations around utopias can be altered when sharing experiences.
When speaking with Ibrahim when he returned from Johannesburg he explained that the men who feature in 2026 are avid followers of London youth culture. Through the Internet, they access and are informed by London club nights, creative projects, collaborations and the music scene, which in turn feeds into their practice within the arts. I found this really interesting when thinking about how the access to information creates and inspires new creative movements. As voyeurs of London’s youth cultural movement they are creating something entirely new, which is informed by their own surroundings.”
2026 asks how will men encase their bodies in ten years time? How will menswear change in the future? Could menswear enable or incite a breakdown of heteronormative attitudes?
How do you think Central Saint Martins influenced where you are creatively now?
IB Kamara: CSM prepared me for (late Buffalo icon) Barry Kamen who prepared me for 2026. I worked with Simon Foxton before Barry, he was amazing, another foundation. Barry was like a dad to me, his last email was so beautiful; it said “being a creative outcast in the fashion world, it’s your responsibility to influence.” I learned from him there’s no one way to styling or creating an image. It’s about your story. There was no right or wrong, we saw “fashion” as a feeling, innocent, carefree.
What do you think has changed about African culture recently?
IB Kamara: The internet. Africa didn’t know what was happening here, we didn’t know what was happening in Africa. Africa has always been leading in its own culture; it has such a strong identity. We tend to think everything is from the West but unless you leave this comfort zone and see what other people are doing, you’re going to think that how you see and do things, that’s it, that’s all there is.
Kristin is it legitimate to say that a new creative movement is happening in South Africa?
Kristin-Lee Moolman: I think so, that’s why I’m so happy with the reception of my work. I don’t know what’s happened in the last three years or so there’s been some kind of cultural explosion. There’s so much going on, from youth culture, to mid-30s, everything, it’s really like the way New York was when Warhol and co were there. It’s so much fucking friction and work exploding out of it.
What drew you to each other's work?
IB Kamara: Kristin’s work represents what Africa is now, there’s no filter to it, no Photoshop. She’s an African woman telling an African story. It wasn’t my place to photograph the boys featured in 2026, it was her place to photograph her friends. She let me into that community, she was the gate that invited London over on her terms. Even though I was born and grew up in Sierra Leone, she is South African, Johannesburg is her city, she has more of a right to tell her story than I ever will.
“The one thing I will never do is disempower a person in my imagery, I always try to empower people. I will never try to make them look like any stereotype that people may have about us here” – Kristin-Lee Moolman
Where does an artist like Ibrahim lay on the spectrum of coming from a prestigious London art school via Sierra Leone, do you anticipate any criticism about 2026 and the identity politics of it?
Kristin-Lee Moolman: This is my life these are my friends. If Ibrahim had come here with a British photographer and a British team, cast and shot professional models it would have been a cause for concern.
The one thing I will never do is disempower a person in my imagery, I always try to empower people. I will never try to make them look like any stereotype that people may have about us here. The way people approach gender fluidity now is they try to make men look like women and women look like men, the whole thing about gender neutrality is the fact that there is no line! If you apply Ibrahim’s styling and what he constructs to that, we work really well together because his styling is gender neutral but even though the guys wearing the clothes are hyper-masculine it doesn’t make them any less masculine at all. There were actually very few queer guys shot, it didn’t bring out anything other than the fact that they were themselves.
You mentioned empowering your subjects, how do you achieve blurring the line between the aspirational glamour of fashion imagery and documentary photography? Do you see your aesthetic as directly political or directional in that sense?
Kristin-Lee Moolman: I feel like my work is not intentionally political. To be honest I’ve had a political confusion in the way I grew up. I was born in a really backwards Afrikaans town before apartheid ended. I’m 29 now so I still have that experience of growing up in that and the complete wrenching shift of this new set of ideals.
I thought it was interesting when I found out this exhibition was called Utopian Voices because that’s what I decided on the direction my work is going in, I’m basing my work on a fictional mythology that I’ve created, like a utopian Africa I guess that is colourful, it’s about creating fictional characters that you would take portraits of or document based on a separate dimension where you can really explore these weird things like sexuality, segregation and little bit of black magic in there too without directly referencing our political system. I’m not making work that’s gonna change our political system or contest anything, it’s more a celebration of people and a utopian approach to the future.
“I’m not making work that’s gonna change our political system or contest anything, it’s more a celebration of people and a utopian approach to the future” – Kristin-Lee Moolman
Who are the young men?
Kristin-Lee Moolman: A lot of them are friends of mine. Friends of friends, guys who were commenting and following me on Instagram, it’s always within my circle of friends, we’ve never gone out and put looks on people – if they were ever uncomfortable we wouldn’t shoot them.
IB Kamara: They’re young African men with dreams. They love clothing; fashion is too big a context. They appreciate clothing, they’re very secure with who they are and open to new ideas. They’re not intimidated by the west. For 2026 to work, they had to have a strong identity, a sense of who they were first. Clothing doesn’t have to define who are all the time. We explored Black-Jewish gangsters, geisha thugs, clashing ideas, creating this thing that doesn’t exist culturally. It’s imagination.
How do you think moving to London as a teenager helped with you developing your own radical, punk aesthetic?
IB Kamara: Sierra Leone was a war zone country, so I was immersed in that environment growing up in Freetown. I grew up only watching the news channels, CNN, BBC etc so I never had access to “cool” culture. There’s a sense of this “I don’t give a fuck” attitude in my work, always this sense that what I’m referencing has nothing to do with fashion at all. Because I often clash with fashion’s conventions it evokes an awareness of my consciousness. There always has to be a meaning to the images I create. There has to be a story I’m trying to tell, coming from Sierra Leone I saw people dying on the streets, people without limbs, so the images I make have a lot more meaning than just clothing – it can be empowering for me and others, going through something traumatic like that and then eventually having the opportunity to create.
The images I make represent a movement we are calling New Africa - it’s such an innovative place, the youth doesn’t know how ahead of time they are, the way they wear clothing, they’ve always been setting the trends.
“The images I make represent a movement we are calling New Africa - it’s such an innovative place, the youth doesn’t know how ahead of time they are, the way they wear clothing, they’ve always been setting the trends” – IB Kamara
Do you think the images project sex and sexuality?
IB Kamara: I think they’re sexy. I really love sexy things, I want a man to look sexy even though these are mostly heterosexual men and trying to make a hetero man sexy in a dress isn’t the easiest thing to do! I love the fact its majority straight boys, there’s no labelling to identity and sexuality, they just wanted to look sexy. Doesn’t matter what they’re wearing, it’s about the attitude, the intention, the style, the presence. They command your attention and that is sexy. It’s that feeling when someone walks into the room and I gasp and think “who is she, where does she come from?” That’s how I feel about 2026.
2026 opens at Somerset House on July 6 until August 29