The Philadelphia-born visual artist uses photography to debunk engraved perceptions of black manhood
Like Gordon Parks before him, African-American artist Shikeith has chosen the camera as his weapon of choice, taking aim at the historic depictions that have altered minds and souls for generations through a campaign that has simultaneously denied, exploited, criminalised, fetishised, and appropriated black manhood and desire.
Hailing from North Philadelphia, Shikeith understands the remedy lies in the power of imagination to queer the image of black masculinity, reclaiming ownership of the narrative and its representation while making it illegible so that it cannot be easily read and consumed by the insatiable appetite of western hegemony. Using photography, video, and sculpture, Shikeith is creating a new visual lexicon that at once reveals as much as it hides, provoking a profound emotional response that is almost ineffable while it sits right on the tip of the tongue.
In the new exhibition Rude / Emergencies, opening 14 September at ltdlosangeles, Shikeith takes us to the very edge by transgressing boundaries in search of a deeper truth that lies beyond the false images imposed on black boys from the very day they are born. His is a desire that transcends the body in which it lives, yet fully embodies the vessel as a portal between realms. Here, Shikeith shares his journey, embracing his own tongue to reconcile being a black man in America to move forward in the world.
Below we speak to the artist to find out more about his experiences and use of black masculinity in his art.
How has being from North Philadelphia shaped your worldview?
Shikeith: When I was growing up there, North Philly was one of the roughest areas in the city. Coming from an impoverished background, we didn’t have a lot but what we did have was an imagination. We had to harness our imagination to navigate and exist. We were all very resourceful in finding ways to entertain ourselves through creativity – that could be anything: making up games and art projects in the neighbourhood. It shaped me as an artist and pushed me forward, trusting my imagination and applying it to things I do today.
Beyond that, there are the social aspects of growing up in North Philly that challenged me as I got older. My interactions with other black men inside of school or the neighbourhood weren’t the best. I struggled to adapt to the ways in which my peers were maturing into young men, which occupied more hyper-masculine behaviour. I didn’t abide into that; I was a glitch in that system of constructing how to be a black man in North Philly.
Those interactions were volatile, not physically but emotionally. I began an early body of work based around those experiences back in 2013 that explored the emotionality of black men: how we view ourselves in one another, how we feel about ourselves in one another, and what we can do to reconcile or bridge the gap between men like me and men who occupied more hyper-masculine roles.
What is it about photography that makes it an ideal medium to delve into the deep reaches of the psyche in order to explore, investigate, and potentially dismantle the way we see and think about race, gender, and sexuality?
Shikeith: Invention and creativity. I think a lot about ancestral remedy and how my mama always says, ‘Where there’s a will, there’s a way.’ That has been embedded in black culture; we will find a way to reconcile our psychic spaces through remedy, like Negro spirituals. Remedies like photography go back to Frederick Douglass, who picked up the camera and took pictures of himself in order to counter the images that were distributed of enslaved Africans here in America. The camera as a tool of reinvention, for reimagining black men – that’s something I truly believe in.
In terms of images, for black men how we see ourselves and how we are seen within the American psyche – a lot of that comes from the way we have been constructed in photographs. There is a long history in relation to the black male body and the photograph that I have to go up against as a photographer making images that reconcile those images that created these psychic wounds for us.
It’s something I do my best to understand. When I am shooting Kodak film, you have to recognise Kodak was a part of the process of this dehumanising of black people as it pertains to images of lynching. There’s a long history of the camera and the materials attached being complicit and the construction of what we know a black man to be. A lot of my photography is about destroying those tropes.
“I am trying to queer black masculinity in a way to make it more illegible from what has been constructed of it” – Shikeith
How does photography give you a vehicle to explore, expand, and challenge representation black male desire within both the black community and white America?
Shikeith: The photograph is a marker or aid of memory. Photographs have the ability to time travel. Images from lynched black men can time travel today and continue to poison the psyches and minds of people of the contemporary. For me, to step in and use photography as a means to deconstruct and destroy what it is to be a black man within the American psyche is powerful. There is a huge conversation going on right now about representation of marginalised people telling their own histories and I feel like I fall in line with that. I am using photography to tell the history of a people and a community I belong to in order to help establish a new vernacular around what it means to be a black man.
Can you speak about how the policing of male sexuality in the black community has become a catalyst to create a new visual language for queer identity?
Shikeith: I look to queerness not in terms of sexuality but in terms of aesthetic approaches and possibility, the same way I look at blackness. Queerness is not here yet – but it is something we are seeking. I am trying to queer black masculinity in a way to make it more illegible from what has been constructed of it.
This is something I have learned from writers like Mark Anthony Neal. In his book, Looking for Leroy, he talks about the importance of black men taking hold of their image to destroy the ways in which we have been told how to exist in this world through social conditioning that are legible and understood. A lot of that comes from media, and that includes cinema, photography, literature, etc.
To overcome that, we have to queer it: to take it somewhere other. That means creating an illegible image around our bodies, which I think is a huge tradition within blackness – illegibility. For me, creating a new visual vernacular is queering: creating an illegible black man that doesn’t fulfil the expectations that have already been placed on our bodies.
Your works are like a Rorschach test: they give us a space to react and explore our response. How do you relate to the viewer?
Shikeith: I’m always trying to challenge the viewer into revealing for themselves the things they think about what they are seeing. I am always trying to subvert the way I can get people to do certain things or certain actions like listening or moving around in a space, by looking down or up. I am always trying to get a reaction out of the body in the way I create spaces or compose photographs, which some art professionals would call affect – generating an emotional response.
As an artist, there is research involved that can go really deep but for me, it is all about feeling. I want people to feel something, whatever it might be. It might not be similar to what I am feeling because you can’t really recreate that but I hope that you feel something and leave my work with a new perspective. But even if you don’t, I hope that I create some sort of feeling within you because I think a lot of what’s missing right now in the world is feeling. A lot of people are avoiding feeling anything. I don’t want to make art that doesn’t elicit that sort of reaction.
Can you speak about your idea of a ‘gradient of greys’ and the importance of acknowledging the undefined areas of existence?
Shikeith: I always think about darkness as one of the primary materials I am working with as an artist, be it through literal darkness in a space or a psychic darkness. That’s a place I think a lot of people stray away from but for me, it has been fertile ground. There’s a history of black people cultivating the space of darkness to find a way. The people who fled slavery into the unknown – someone tried to find a way to navigate the darkness to find liberation.
There is this long history of the dark being a place where possibility can emerge. That’s my stomping ground and I have to trust that, to wander with the wonder in order to create the art I am making today. I feel good about that. It is hard to be in that space because as an artist, I fall back and think I have to understand every single thing I am doing in order for it to make sense but sometimes not making sense is the way to go. You can’t make sense of everything and that’s okay.
Shikeith: Rude / Emergencies is on view at ltdlosangeles from 14 September – 26 October