I discovered the Dandy Lion Project a few years ago while I was scrolling through my Facebook timeline. As a guy who appreciates a good suit, I was immediately impressed by the photography but was even more impressed by the project’s curator, Shantrelle P. Lewis. She was fine then and is fine now.
Over the past few years, I’ve witnessed The Dandy Lion Project meet critical praise from several notable artists as well as publications such as The New York Times, Huffington Post , The Guardian and others. Dandy Lion has toured throughout the US and is now about to be viewed in my birth country, the UK. I wanted to find out what Shantrelle’s thoughts were on where here curatorial baby is at this point. This is what she had to say:
SB: Sup babe? Are you ready for me to ask questions that I already know the answer to?
SPL: (Laughs) I stay ready so I don’t have to get ready.
SB: Awesome. So, how long have you been working on The Dandy Lion Project?
SPL: I first curated Dandy Lion in November 2010 at my homegirl, Ngozi’s pop up gallery in Harlem. Dandy Lion is the first and largest comprehensive exhibition of its kind. For the past six years, I’ve widely explored the contemporary phenomenon of global Black dandyism. My curatorial work, which is largely rooted in African-centered methodologies and an Africana Studies framework, allowed me to delve into the subject matter from an almost anthropological approach.
The current iteration of The Dandy Lion Project is the product of several years of writing, researching, traveling and exhibiting various aspects of Black dandyism, Black masculinity, contemporary photography, trans-Atlantic cultural aesthetics and style.
SB: They say imitation is the best form of flattery. Dandy Lion was recently imitated but can’t be duplicated. What are your thoughts on that situation?
SPL: Hey, if First Lady Michelle can be copied, I guess I can as well! (Laughs).
SB: True. So how has Dandy Lion influenced larger conversations in art, academia or popular culture?
SPL: While this is primarily a photography exhibition, this work has been presented in various mediums, as essays, and papers, short films and performances. There is a growing community of scholars, artists, cultural producers who have built upon the Dandy Lion as a conversation. I’ve also worked closely with the scholars and photographers who did this work long before me – namely Dr. Monica Miller, Daniele Tamagni and Rose Callahan. I think it’s rather pertinent to acknowledge and reference the intellectual predecessors of one’s work, which I have consistently done.
SB: Definitely. I would imagine that working on one project for several years can become a bore after a while. How have you kept yourself interested, excited and engaged?
SPL: You know I’m a Gemini and that I need mental stimulation which normally comes through new and various things so it would be easy for me to be bored. However, having worked with the same subject matter for such a long time, I’m always challenging myself to find new ways to make the work fresh. With each iteration of the show, I try to introduce some conversation that wasn’t previously present. I’ve added various angles to the discourse that has made the conversation much more nuanced.
SB: Speaking of new angles, word on the street is that you are now adding women to the show.
SPL: Yeah. Over the past several years, I’ve been approached on several occasions by various people, inquiring about why I chose not to put any women, particularly masculine of center women in the show. Initially, I wanted to create a safe space where cis-gender Black men – regardless of sexuality, could dialogue. I realized, however, that if I were serious about having a conversation about Black masculinity, it would be rather imprudent of me not to extend the conversation to include masculine of center women and transmen.
In 2016, with our more sophisticated understandings of gender, one simply can’t discuss masculinity, particularly in the African Diaspora and not include women. There are endless examples of dandyism by feminine and masculine of center women. The expressions are infinite and further illustrate the reality of a non-monolithic global Black community. With the significant stage that Brighton Photo Biennial affords The Dandy Lion Project, I felt that I’d be remiss not to interject a conversation about Black dandy women in the discourse. It simply felt like the smart and the right thing to do.
SB: That’s cool. I’m sure it’s opened the exhibition up to entirely new audience.
SPL: It has! People have been thanking me. It just provides a space of inclusion, while pushing cis-gender, heteronormative dominant narratives that tend to exclude others from participating in conversations.
SB: Is that the only new element in the exhibition?
SPL: No. Beyond adding the masculine of center women, I’ve also added several new photographers to the project. A few were artists that I’ve wanted to work with for a few years now – namely Baudouin Mounda, Omar Victor Diop and Osborne Macharia. I had been following Baudouin’s work on the sapeur, mainly because they’re so vibrant! Also because he’s the only Congolese photographer that I knew who was shooting such incredible photos of the sapeur.
I met Omar at Black Portraiture[s] in Florence last year but was already familiar with his meticulous and exquisite self portraits and studio portraits. With the support of his gallery, Magnin, it was great to finally be able to include his work as well. I came across Osborne Macharia’s Dandy Grannies more recently when several friends tagged me in social media posts about them. Even though they’re fictional, the images are brilliant! And, they add a light and playful tone to the exhibit. I’m also super stoked to finally have been able to work with Marc Baptiste and include his portrait of the quintessential Classic Man, Jidenna.
Also, there are a few other designers – British Ghanaian menswear designer Delores, whose recent collection is being featured and American based Sierra Odessa, who has taken some timeless black and whites of R&B singer, Leon Bridges. Lastly, for the first time, I’ve added photos of New Orleans social aid and pleasure clubs and second lines to the line up featuring photos by my homeboys L. Kasimu Harris and Shawn Escoffery.
SB: As you already know, I was born and raised for a short time in the UK. I feel that each city is distinct with its own flavor. How has your experience been in Brighton as a Black American woman. How do you think the Brighton community, which very LGBTQ friendly, will receive the show?
SPL: While I’m hyper conscious of my identity as a Black woman, I’m also very conscious of my privilege as a straight, cis-gender woman. So during a recent prep trip for the biennial, I noticed some colorful street art around Brighton that said “Party Against Prejudice #Don’t Hate Gyrate.” I was told by Mariama Attah, Photoworks Programme Curator that the group was promoting queer pride, good times and anti-hate.
Thanks to my friends, I’m constantly exploring ways that I can create more nuances in my work so that it’s not superficial. While the exhibition has already been inclusive of queer subjects and photographers, I’m hoping that with the expansion of Dandy Lion’s checklist to include images of queer and masculine of center women, Brighton’s diverse community will find even more points of entry for the exhibition. To borrow a phrase from Paris is Burning, I think the children both “up and coming” and “legendary,” will be pleased with the show.
SB: What are your thoughts about Brighton as a town in general?
SPL: Brighton is a very welcoming community. The past few times I’ve visited, I’ve had to wear all white from head to toe because of my initiation into Yoruba priesthood. I’ve successfully completed my year long initiation but still remember how warmly I was received a few months ago. So many complimented me on my outfits, as if it were a fashion statement. I can’t say that I’ve been to another community during this process where while feeling hyper visible, I seemed to be welcomed and fit right in.
SB: Lastly, what do you want my fellow Brits to walk away with after coming to see the show?
SPL: For starters, it’s Black History Month in the UK. In the same year as the majority of the population voted for BREXIT, I think Dandy Lion is the perfect exhibition, to highlight the diversity of the Black community and dismantle and debunk problematic narrative of Black men and women.
I’d love for the show to not only be visited by photography lovers and contemporary art enthusiasts but it’s important for me that the exhibition be attended by young people, and senior citizens, and Black cultural organizations and rude boys and families as well. Per my usual hope for every iteration of the exhibition, I hope that people walk away with a deeper appreciation for the diversity that exists within the African Diaspora and knowing that Blackness, and masculinity are not monoliths.
SPL: Since we’re chatting, can I give a few shout outs?
SB: Thanks for making it seem like I have a choice in this matter.
SPL: (Laughs) I’d definitely like to acknowledge The Museum of Contemporary Photography who has taken this on as a traveling exhibition and who helped to take this show to entirely different level. Also I’d like to acknowledge the staff of the Photoworks in advance for all of the hard work they’ve done in making Dandy Lion’s UK premier big stuff!
Lastly, I’d like to acknowledge Sara Shamsavari and Arteh Odjidja for pushing the project as artists for so many years and all of the gentlemen they have photographed. And Chantal Miller, Michelle Escoffery, Gabrielle Smith and Paul Ryan for their support in making sure that the next couple of weeks will be a funky good time.
SB: Anyone else?
SPL: Nah, I think that’s it. Oh and my fiancé for all of his support.
SB: I was about to say….
For more information about The Dandy Lion Project’s UK premier visit: www.bpb.org.uk. On view September 30th through October 31, 2016 at the University of Brighton Photo Galleries – 154-155 Edward Street, Brighton, UK BN2 0JG.
Friday, October 7th | 5 – 9pm
Black Dandy Film Screening, Panel Discussions and more! Featuring: Rich Black, Delores Oblitey, Samsom Soboye, Sara Shamsavari, Shantrelle P. Lewis, Michael McMillan, L. Kasimu Harris, and Dr. Ylva Habel
Location: University of Brighton, 154-155 Edward Street, Brighton, BN2 0JG
Saturday, October 8th | 10am – 5pm
Dapper Day | Photo Studio sessions, Artists Talks, Film Screenings, DJ and more!
Location: University of Brighton, 154-155 Edward Street, Brighton, UK
For all The Dandy Lion Project inquiries, contact thedandylionproject(at)gmail.com for more information.