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Shikeith Casey
“Nobody Knows My Name”photography Shikeith Casey

The artist unravelling black magic & masculinity in himself

Philadelphia-born Shikeith starts a dialogue about reclaiming bodies and personal truths in a system that seeks to oppress black men

Four years ago, Shikeith created #blackmendream, a 45-minute film and call to action, where he posed the question to black men: “when did you discover you were black?” What it did was ignite an interrogation into how we perceive self, and how we navigate both our blackness and masculinity within the western regions of the diaspora. The subjects found themselves realising that the discovery of self often came with violence, and what #blackmendream achieved was bringing the dialogue to a place where black men could imagine themselves in both physical and emotional states to challenge preconceived ideas of black masculinity.

Inspired by Rickey Laurentiis’ poem “Boy With Thorn”, Philadelphia-born multidisciplinary artist Shikeith has sought to meditate on violence and the reclamation of the black male body in the aftermath of trauma.

Shikeith is inspired to explore the ideas of black masculinity many have been denied or conditioned to live. “I’m really tapping into the idea of conjuring up images of black men who exist together, whether that be supporting one another, crying, joyful, praying, anything that could disrupt perceptions of self. To open up to a new beginning,” he tells me over Skype.

His latest project This was his body / His body finally his is the culmination of an exploration into the reclamation of black male bodies. The project began as far back as 2013, which started as a collection of photographs. Each of the pieces in the exhibition convey both a softness and vulnerability that recalls the complexity of characters in James Baldwin’s novels, where he often depicted black men wrestling with ideas of just being and existing.

“While I wouldn’t refer to this work as single series, rather a bridge to a series, in making these images I was longing to depict my story of reconciliation, transformation, and being,” Shikeith says. “A process I have likened to my metamorphosis of black manhood or the work I’m needing to do in order to ‘become.’”

“What this exhibition explores is whether black masculinity is something that should be destroyed, or is it this value system that will see us alive as black men” – Shikeith

Heteronormative black masculinity can be particularly destructive, and marginalised bodies can suffer violence inflicted by whiteness. His series of photography dismantles the oppressive and oppressed aspects of black masculinity. “Black men’s dreams are a sort of dark possibility for some, and when you say you’re redefining that existence, it has to be in opposition of what has already been established.” Though a dichotomy exists, reclaiming your own body can help you find a personal truth outside of the systems we live under.

“What this exhibition explores is whether black masculinity is something that should be destroyed, or is it this value system that will see us alive as black men. If it’s not then it destroys,” Shikeith explains.

Barry Jenkins’ Oscar-winning Moonlight challenged similar themes with the growth and portrayal of Chiron. As he matures through the film’s three acts, we see an evolution of Chiron’s own masculinity and a journey to be in a place he’s able to exist and be. Casey’s own critique shines a light on one’s vulnerabilities, subverting typically masculine performances as we saw with the adult Chiron.

In some ways, the history of this artist’s work has been a metamorphosis, like the process of becoming a butterfly. His earlier pieces, like #blackmendream, asked us to interrogate our own ideas of blackness and what it means to be a black man. With This was his body/ His body finally his Shikeith not only explores the outward narratives of the black male body, but he also seeks to find himself in his own work.

“Now that I am 28, I have to realise how important it is to showcase my own story in my work, so that it can resonate for other black men – imagining myself in a state of art,” he says. Those personal truths are often found through the spaces, both black and white, which we navigate.

“This kind of art is always a risk, because I’m encouraging the exploration of self and black magic,” he adds. With This was his body / His body finally his, Shikeith aims to not only explore the black male imagination but disrupt attempts to cripple it. He explores the threat against black male imagination, challenging it to roam limitlessly. He observes: “By telling my story there’s an opportunity for a black kid to see him or herself represented in ways they've been denied and what that can do for their imagination.”

Shikeith: this was his body/his body finally his opens July 27 at Mak, London