By Deirdre Visser July 16, 2013

Ajuan Mance’s 1001 Black Men will be on view on the third floor of the main building through the end of the summer. As curator it’s been galvanizing to discover how deeply resonant this work is for our audience, across ethnicity, gender, age, and sexual orientation. Whether a gay male, a butch-identified queer woman, a straight man who has inherited ideas of masculinity they don’t want to replicate, or someone who holds yet another identity, people want to talk about the construction and performance of masculinity. This is undoubtedly reflective of—and reflected in—the currency of several other contemporary projects: The Brown Boi Project, Question Bridge, and The Men’s Story Project, to name a few. This past week I had the chance to sit down with Ajuan and discuss her methods, intentions and the things that continue to surprise and challenge her.

Deirdre Visser: You’ve written that this is your first effort at inserting your voice into the larger cultural dialogue about the representation of Black men. Can you talk about the influences and observations that catalyzed this project?

Ajuan Mance: Certainly mainstream media represents African Americans in a marginalized and often problematic way…but then I started looking through Black magazines with a different perspective and started thinking about how ideas of representation were manifest in Black media. Each Black magazine has a specific way that they depict men, and the categories are limiting. It was looking at Essence magazine’s "Men We Love" issue that made me think, what would happen if I tried to draw Black men without asking them to be anything in particular?

The conversation that seems to resonate today is very different than what was happening in the 60s. There’s a chapter in my dissertation on the Black Arts Movement, about the ways Black men’s self-perception limited how Black women could see themselves. Black men wrote against white representations, but in a way that didn’t entirely decouple them from some aspects of those representational norms. They were trying to find power in the kind of hyper-masculinity that has been projected onto them. There are a lot of reasons for that; lynching is one of the main reasons…this is the thing you’re trying to kill, well, I’m going to be that thing.

We’re 40-50 years down the road from that, and I’m very happy to see the rise of LGBT visibility within the Black community, which has empowered a lot of queer Black men to bring up the representation of masculinity. So whether they’re actively participating in the conversation with the queer Black community or not, across sexualities more Black people are thinking about the ways that men are objectified. This is very powerful for me. Our discussions of the ways that bodies are objectified historically revolved around the experience of white America, that objectification meant using white female bodies to sell stuff. When you open up race as a category as well, you have to say that Black men are deeply objectified, and without a lot of self-generated media to counterbalance that. They use Black male bodies to sell everything, including fear, including national and regional security as well as sports and entertainment and music. But Black men don’t have the access to media or the audience power that white women do. It’s a pernicious kind of objectification, because it flies under the radar; it feels so normalized that Black people themselves participate in it.

I would love to hear more about how Black men encounter their own images, because another thing that gets lost in the conversation is, “When you see Black men, what do you feel?”

As a woman who enjoys performing many aspects of masculinity, and as someone who comes from a relatively privileged place in terms of class and certainly in terms of family structure (I come from a loving, middle-class, nuclear family, and I grew up with four wonderful uncles on my Dad's side) I have only positive associations with Black men, based on the first Black men I knew. I always have the privilege of seeing anything that doesn’t feel nurturing and loving and affirming as an outlier. But that is not even how all Black people experience representations of Black men.

So I think about that, and I also deal with how my own experience limits who I see. This is something that it took me three hundred drawings to come to terms with. I was just dutifully drawing Black men—and I’ve always drawn Black men as my main subject, even as a child—thinking that I was doing a whole range…this one I’m making blue and this one I’m making green…and then somewhere around 300 or 350 I realized there were a lot of Black men I wasn’t even seeing, let alone representing. It’s been really challenging to come to terms with the fact that just because I have really positive associations with Black men, doesn’t mean that I am not reinforcing the marginalization of certain populations within African American manhood. And that comes out of my experience. I realize I draw a disproportionate number of men in suits, and men with glasses and men who are kind of nerdy, and men in button-down shirts. I draw people who look really familiar, who look like people I knew in college or people from my family.

DV: Can you share with us how you learned to draw? What were your early influences?

AM: When I was a kid and through high school I did a lot of cartooning in pen. And then I had great art training in high school; we did life drawing and sensitive shading…we really learned the fundamentals, but I always loved the graphic style. Around the same time that I got more serious about doing art for myself, there was also a rise in street art—not just graffiti, but you began to see folks like Shepard Fairey and Doze Green and other artists who depend on the heavy black line and I loved that.

Another reference in my work, and probably a more surprising one, is stained glass. When I first started drawing I thought, I’m gonna do this like stained glass. I’m going to have a heavy black line, very few planes, with a very limited color palette and different shades of the same color, but still evocative. So people say, “Oh, this is like Picasso, or an African mask…” and all of that is true, but what I was really thinking about? I was thinking a lot about stained glass.

A lot of my early drawings of men came from representations of clothing that I loved. I used to read GQ magazine religiously in the 80s, when it was such a preppy magazine. They had these great models who wore button-downs and seersucker like nobody’s business, and that was very influential in learning how to draw. Just looking at those photos, drawing shirts or pants, I learned how they fall on bodies. That influence certainly makes its way into my drawing today.

I stopped doing art for the most part in college and graduate school, but I took it up again in 1996, after one year of being an English professor, when I thought, I need art in my life! But by then it was something really very different. I had actually looked at a lot of art in the intervening 10 or so years even though I hadn’t been making a lot, and I was ready to pursue this line of artistic inquiry into how Black people are in the world—with Black people as my landscape. So I drew big groups and I did portraits, and I was interested in how few lines you could use to represent someone as clearly of African American descent. And how do you do that without using brown as an identifier, or how do you do that in monochrome, or a limited palette of only oranges and blues? Like my scholarship, I really love the heritage and power of African American community and culture and the way it’s written on our bodies.

I think African American women have done a really great job of writing about themselves, of drawing themselves, and articulating what’s powerful. Among African American women artists there’s not as much interest in representing Black men, and so I was engaged by the possibility of a Black woman, who’s not interested in finding a husband, or making sure my Black boys grow up to be empowered (I want Black boys to be empowered, but I don’t have any children), what happens if I look at Black men? What does my gaze bring to the table? At first I thought I would be completely objective, but I learned after 300 drawings that actually I’m not. So it’s been good; I’ve been trying to push myself in other directions.

DV: You’ve said that you sketch in thick, permanent pen so that no mark can be taken away. That interests me because it’s such a gesture of certainty and power to draw in Sharpie. Do you ever have lines that you wish you could take away? Do you see the way you draw, so that when you put the mark on paper it has that same spare certainty?

AM: When I go home I draw the people I’ve seen during the day, and when I look at the page I always start with the nose, and I think ok, that’s a particular nose style, and this is how it looks on paper. It’s very seamless. I don’t really think about it, but I see in types…I can draw my own face like that; I think, “Oh, that’s the kind of mouth I’ve got.”

I always do the nose, the mouth and then the eyes, although some eyes are so connected to the nose that I do it in one gesture. I do that central part, starting with the nose first, and then the rest of the face and hair. The facial features and the hair are really, really important; they make the drawing.

I always feel a little naughty when I’m doing the mouths and the noses. I remember in grammar school how kids talked about certain features, and I know that certain features push buttons, but I have to do it because I just love the distinctiveness of Black faces. But I definitely always have this feeling in the back of my mind that somebody would like me to draw people who look like Lena Horne or Bryant Gumbel. I have to say I think this is less true in the Bay Area; this was ground zero for the Black is Beautiful movement. And it’s somewhat less true for my generation than for those in their 60s.

DV: We’ve discussed the fact that some audiences feel an initial discomfort with your work, feeling that they are caricatures, perhaps reinforcing rather than undermining the historic misrepresentation of African Americans. Can you talk a little more about how people have responded to your work, running the gamut? And when you talk with people who have concern or feel offended, how do you begin the conversation to talk about what you’re doing?

AM: Well, because I’m Southern by birth, and had Southern parents by upbringing, when elders critique something, my first instinct is to say, “Yes, ma’am. I’m sorry.” But I have a lot of respect for the differences in responses, particularly to representations of Black people that aren’t Old Masters style, or life-drawing style. More illustraterly representations of Black people are suspect. So much of that representation for much of the history of the United States was never done in a flattering way; they took things about which we should be proud, because they are markers of our Africanness, and they turned them against us. I don’t think we would have internalized that if it wasn’t also accompanied by real world, very painful inequalities and violence, so it’s not just self-hate; it’s that these images are accompanied by economically and socially violent acts against us. I always keep that in mind.

So I usually say, “I love those parts of Black people. I love noses and I love lips and I love hair. I do these because I love those parts of Black faces.” And you know, people take it under consideration. When you do art you’re coming at it from your own experience—in some ways the first people we do it for are ourselves, out of our own sense of aesthetics. It’s always something of a shock to me to hear that people feel differently about images than I do. Usually people who see this work feel quite happy—they feel how I want them to feel, which is appreciated and visible and loved by these images. But for the folks who have not felt that way, I always want to make sure that they understand that I’m not trying to push anyone’s buttons; I’m just trying to draw something that I love. The drawings celebrate something that really is wonderful to me.

Arts at CIIS News, San Francisco

Related News

Stay Connected to CIIS