For black and queer boys, the policing of masculinity is ever-present. It comes in short fits of outrage: Take it like a man! Don't act like a faggot! Don't act like no punk ass bitch! Nigga, that's gay! To protect your spirit, desire, and body, you feel you have to mimic the masculinity of black men on TV and in the streets; less Michael Jackson, more DMX. But whenever you slip up, the critiques come back. Look at the way he runs across the court! I told you he was a fucking faggot! To fit in, you might try to be even harder, teasing the kid who is more effeminate than you. Feeling guilty, you ask yourself questions, in the privacy of your bedroom. When will I ever be comfortable in my own skin?
That question is central to the work of queer black photographer Shikeith Cathey, who recently opened This Was His Body/His Body Finally His at the Mak Gallery in London. The exhibition's title is a direct reference to lines of Rickey Laurentiis's meditative poem "Boy with Thorn," which speaks of reclaiming the black male body from a history of toxic masculinity born out of the fight to survive racism. The 12 photos in the solo show are of black men and boys existing, according to Cathey, "outside of the binary." "In making these images," he said, "I was longing to depict my story of reconciliation, transformation, and being."
One standout is Brush Your Blues (below), a picture of the bare backs and freshly faded heads of two young black men. We see the men in a mystical, dream-like pose. Their heads rest on each other's shoulders, creating a heart. The pose conjures the Afro surreal, familiar in its tenderness yet alien to mainstream assumptions of how black men and boys are suppose to be. Their bodies, according to the 28-year-old artist, are washed in "a gradient of grays." "Often when we think about the spectrum of possibilities, black men are subjected to occupy the binary spaces of black or white," he says. "Very often the gray area of our lives never gets acknowledged."
I had the opportunity to catch up with Shikeith and talk about the power of expanding existing notions of masculinity through photography, his foray into sculpture, and how his childhood informs the work in his solo show.
VICE: These photographs take the intersection of black masculinity and queer identity as their subjects. In what ways does growing up black and queer inform who you are?
Shikeith Cathey: I grew up in North Philadelphia. I was surrounded by a very specific black masculine performance. A lot of the boys I went to school with rejected anything they considered feminine or homosexual or outside of what it means to be a black man in their imagination. Having to deal with that early on positions you to have to decide as a child if you want to "pass" into these spaces by wearing a false machismo or do you want to deal with the social consequences of being yourself. I personally did both. I performed around these boys to try to fit in, but never really met the standard of what it meant to be black and masculine and ended up in isolation.
Did you find in that isolation examples of black boys, men, or women who allowed you to feel accepted?
I wanted to be a musician when I was kid and a lot of the ways I'd perform black masculine expression was through music or the hip-hop videos of rappers like DMX or Master P. Usher was someone I tried to emulate. I wanted his smoothness, that coolness a lot of black boys have that's seen in painters like Barkley L. Hendricks's work. But at the same time, behind close doors I was subverting a lot of that because I looked up to Brandy the most. It was difficult because I was trying to figure out how to survive in my community, but also trying to learn how to be.
What music did you listen to while making the art in This Was His Body, His Body Finally His?
Solange's A Seat at the Table—morning, noon, and night. It makes sense thinking about Brandy being my role model growing up. I have always been encouraged to journey to selfhood by black femmes and their contributions to art, music, and cinema.
That childhood tension, between who you are and who you are asked to be because of your body, seems to be a central question at the heart of your pictures.
There was a moment when I realized that I wanted to use art to express my personal truth. I think this show, This Was His Body/His Body Finally His, shows what I describe as a metaphoric process of reclaiming my sense of self, as a way to emerge from the messiness of childhood and the imagines that I have encountered that have disrupted my imagination. I'm using photography as a metaphor to describe black manhood.
What is a recent image in pop culture that perpetuates toxic ideas of manhood?
The comedian Lil Duval's comments where he said he would kill a trans woman if she did not disclose she was trans before intercourse. That's an example of the way a lot of men have been conditioned to perform ignorance and use accepted notions of masculinity to inflict violence on femme people. His comments endanger the lives of black women and queer people in order to uphold a construction of black masculinity that says we are hypersexual and hyper-violent beings.
How do your images counter his comments?
Fantasy, mysticism, and magic—those are areas where I see the most potential for disrupting the ways bodies have been represented thus far. Conjuring up new worlds have been something that has been a part of queer and black culture; we have always had to create remedies out of thin air. I think about my grandmother and how she thinks of ginger ale and prayer as a remedy for a stomach ache, which is not unlike me conjuring up worlds that restore our potential as black men.
We talk a lot about toxic aspects of black masculinity. Are there men that represent the beauty, power, and magic your images seek to display?
Without a doubt Michael Jackson. He had this mystique around him that was so alluring but almost freakish in nature that made him almost surreal. He transcended anything that I had seen to be representative of a black man. That Michael Jackson–like transcendence is what I really want to aim to achieve with my film work.
#Blackmendream was your first stab at trying to show the black queer experience on film. Did Moonlight successfully show that experience for you?
You know, the powerfulness of Moonlight is something I can't ignore. It was the first time that I had seen those type of interactions on-screen. But I do think it was geared toward a very specific black queer coming of age film, which I overall couldn't connect to. It felt very dated. It didn't feel like a story of the black gay men that I know. It was in some ways simple. I think that's why visualizing our stories through the Afro surreal is important because we can move beyond simple portrayals and fully tap into the range of ways black queer men should be seen on-screen.
Is there a photographer that also informs your work?
Renee Cox. In undergrad, one of my professors pulled up Renee Cox's Yo Mama (The Sequel), and it was one of the first times I've seen an artist use the black body in such transformative way. It was so controversial for my little eyes! I will never forget that moment of encountering her work. She's nude, holding her children. I was like, "Wow, that's like my mom."
In a lot of your photography, the figure is a nude black male. Given the history of the hypersexualization of the black male body, is capturing the unclothed body about subverting that stereotyping?
Yeah, the nude black male body has a particularly loaded connotation in the public imagination and is a violent symbol in the history of America. You can find this, very early on. Thomas Jefferson in Notes on the State of Virginia says that black people don't have imaginations and that black men are hyper-sexual, predatory beings. Even in art, when you look at Mapplethorpe's nude pictures of black men, there's something off about the way their bodies are gazed upon [by Mapplethorpe]. There is a refusal embedded in my pictures, but also my use of shadow and light, and decisions about display, points to me as a black male taking ownership of signifying the beauty and possibility of these bodies.
So the difference between a Shikeith nude and a Mapplethorpe nude is a difference of gaze?
Yes. The white male gaze in art has been one of subjugation, especially upon black bodies. I am trying to reclaim our bodies, reclaim the ways our bodies get depicted, reclaim the ways we see one another.
In the show, there's a picture of a sculpture titled after the exhibition, of a cast of a fragment of a life-size black male torso and penis. It indicates a new direction for you.
Yeah, I'm going into my second year of the MFA Sculpture program at Yale, and I'm trying to move my images into the 3-D. In the midst of that, I've been doing a lot of life casting, which is this process of replicating the body. When I think about the sculpture on view in London, it's a representation of the ways black manhood changes and this idea of reclaiming the black body for ourselves.
Mak presents This Was His Body/His Body Finally His through September, 16, 2017. For more information visit the gallery's website here.