The Merriam Webster dictionary defines masculine as having qualities appropriate to or usually associated with a man. This definition leaves the idea of masculinity open to various interpretations and one of the African American Museum of Philadelphia’s latest exhibits wants to explore those definitions.
“In Conversation: Visual Meditations on Black Masculinity” is a two-gallery exhibition of photography that explores the construct of Black masculinity, through the lenses of 55 women and non-binary photographers of African descent. Photographer Cheriss May is one of the women involved in the project.
“I have three photos on display. One of them focuses on Blackness and masculinity in terms of in the political sphere, it’s a photo of President Obama and Michelle Obama. It’s like a lighthearted moment during one of the official state visits. Oftentimes, we don’t see Black men not only with that sense of power but also with that type of sensitivity shown,” May says.
The Washington, D.C.-based photographer says it’s important that she uses her camera to highlight alternative voices.
“Where I’m based, most of my assignments are political in nature. Whether you’re covering the White House or covering things on the hill or other news events that happened here in the area, a lot of times in those spaces, the faces you see are predominantly all white males. It’s interesting to go in those spaces with a different lens, so to speak. I’m looking at things differently as a Black woman,” May says.
May says that being a Black female in Washington, D.C. colors her idea of masculinity and what it means to be a Black man.
“Because of the work that I do, I’m looking at these things from the lens of power and political capital. I look to those who are responsible for legislation and things like that, as well those that are doing work in the community. I think Black men aren’t viewed as powerful, because you don’t see a lot of Black men in that space,” says the photographer.
May hopes that her works showcase the power of Black men and what she says is her definition of masculinity.
“The works that I selected for and that were selected for the exhibit show masculinity in terms of men taking care of their community, representing in those places where there is little to no representation and going in with a purpose and standing in the power of that purpose to get legislation done, to get those things done that affect the lives of so many in the community,” she says.
May says she hopes that people walk away from the exhibit realizing that there are so many interpretations of Black masculinity.
“There’s not one way to view it. There is no one thing or a single definition. There’s beauty in the diversity of Black masculinity and the beauty in the diversity of those within the African diaspora. Hopefully, they can walk through and can see like, the beauty in the layers of that,” she says.