It’s the final weeks of Ajamu’s exhibition The Patron Saint of Darkrooms at Autograph’s gallery. We’re sharing this essay by art historian Edwin Coomasaru, commissioned for and published in the newspaper that accompanies the exhibition. Commasaru responds to Ecce Homo [Behold the Man] – Portraits of Black Trans Men (2023), a new series of portraits produced by Ajamu, who has been at the forefront of genderqueer photography, challenging dominant ideas about masculinity, gender, sexuality and representation of Black LGBTQ+ people in the United Kingdom for more than 30 years.
The newspaper features high-quality images of works from the exhibition published alongside texts from Coomasaru, curator Bindi Vora, writer Jason Okundaye and Ajumu himself. It is now available to purchase on our shop.
Ten figures, each at eye level, gaze directly at the camera. Some sitters display a quiet solitude; others brim with laughter. Each image is tightly cropped, with a shallow depth of field, creating a close and intimate space. Brightly lit in dark clothing and against a similarly coloured background, captured in black and white, the portraits hold a monumental dignity. Together they form a body of work called Ecce Homo [Behold the Man] – Portraits of Black Trans Men (2023) by queer British photographer Ajamu. Each photograph portrays a Black trans man, most of whom work in careers connected to intellectual or cultural production, including curators, artists, academics and actors. The series title refers to a Latin translation of the biblical words spoken by the Roman governor of Judaea when Christ, wearing a crown of thorns, was presented to a hostile crowd before his crucifixion: ‘behold the man’. The religious scene has inspired art for centuries. Baroque Italian painter Caravaggio’s c. 1605 version, for example, uses similar aesthetic techniques to those of Ajamu: a strong light source against a dark background or clothing, with close cropping and a shallow depth of field. Caravaggio’s Ecce Homo presents Christ as corporally vulnerable in the moments before his martyrdom: eyes downcast, wrists tied, bare torso exposed. Ajamu’s reinterpretation of the motif stages visuality itself as a complex concept in trans thinking, particularly for those who have resisted or navigated the politics of legibility.
"cisgender identity is fundamentally anti-Black: long shaped by white supremacy, which excluded Black people from normative gender categories"
The editors of the recent book Trap Door (2019) describe a ‘trap of the visual’ underpinning trans politics during a time of increasing cultural prominence but also immense violence.1 An interview with one of Ajamu’s sitters, actor Chaune King, also captured this tension: ‘people in high places [are] working their hardest to eradicate and erase our very existence [but] … there has been some progress. We are seeing more representation of trans people in the media’.2 Writing about trans cinema, gender studies scholar Eliza Steinbock cautions against the wider societal assumption that ‘all real identities are visibly marked’, which ‘expunges the power of the unmarked, unspoken, and unseen’ in a culture of surveillance and voyeurism.3 Aware that trans people are sometimes ‘caught up in the trap of visibility’, Steinbock argues for an aesthetic practice shaped by ‘shimmers [that] are difficult to grasp as knowable entities’.4 Ecce Homo is self-reflexive about visibility being linked to particular modes of representational politics as well as punitive systems of violence: ‘behold the man’ simultaneously introduces the sitters while also using the biblical allusion to acknowledge that certain forms of recognition can be fraught with potential harm. But there are other reasons to critique easy legibility, too: literature scholar C. Riley Snorton warns ‘one should not readily imagine that gender … can be adjudicated by making recourse to the visual’.5
Theorist Marquis Bey insists that ‘we must refuse to assume that we can detect, before its revelation, another’s gender by simply looking at them’.6 Snorton and Bey arrive at this conclusion because they, like writer Che Gossett, argue cisgender identity is fundamentally anti-Black: long shaped by white supremacy, which excluded Black people from normative gender categories, particularly during the transatlantic slave trade that strove to strip away enslaved peoples’ personhood to the status of property, or later structures of racial segregation in the USA (when public toilets were labelled ‘men’, ‘women’ and ‘coloured’).7 In the context of the UK, Ajamu’s long-standing photographic practice exploring queer Black British masculinities has experimented with gender in a self-conscious and playful way. Writing in the 1980s about Black gay cultural politics, art historian Kobena Mercer and artist Isaac Julien cautioned against essentialism and asked if ‘identity can be constructed beyond a binary and hierarchical ordering of difference’.8 Ajamu’s practice has explored such a possibility: other artworks on display alongside Ecce Homo in Autograph’s The Patron Saint of Darkrooms (2023) exhibition depict a muscular back wearing underwear in Bodybuilder in Bra (1990), the artist donning a head covering in Self-Portrait in a Blond Wig (1993), and bare legs slipped into smart footwear in Heels (1993). These imaginative conceptualisations of Black masculinities are attentive to the histories of oppression while also being generous and open. A sitter for Ecce Homo, sociologist Melz Owusu has also considered possibilities for crafting expansive understandings of Black masculinities while blogging about transition.
Owusu notes that stereotypes of Black men as hyper-aggressive and hyper-dangerous have contributed to the profound violence done to them, including by the police.9 For Owusu, ‘being a trans masculine person is undergoing the task of simultaneously trying to heal from the personal and structural male violence I have been subjected to whilst trying to (re)imagine a masculinity that serves those around me’.10 Owusu explains that his ‘own liberation is intimately and inextricably linked with the liberation of all women and feminine folk, as such this requires the re-imagination of masculinity’: one that is soft, caring and open, ‘not the binarist [sic] opposite of femininity, but a form of masculinity that learns and embodies beautiful lessons from femininity’.11 Another sitter in Ecce Homo, blogger Travis Willie, felt inspired reading these words.12 Writing again two years later, Owusu reflected on reading the works of Snorton and theorist bell hooks, commenting: ‘I must allow myself to live in a constant space of liminality … and transmute any existing perceptions of gender’.13 This process also involved historical study of ‘my people across Africa living prior to colonial rule in which gender functioned in ways that most of us would struggle to even conceptualise today’, creating ways of connecting with Yoruba Orishas and ‘deities for whom gender was either non-existent, or … embodied all dimensions of the gender spectrum’.14
Across the British Empire, indigenous belief systems and concepts of gender/sexuality were criminalised by colonial rule.15 People now understood as trans or intersex have existed since ancient times, the gender/sex binary in Europe itself being a social phenomenon crafted through collective power struggles across a thousand years. Those who deviated from it were sometimes celebrated for their spiritual potential but were all-too-often profoundly persecuted. In cartographic diagrams like Hereford’s Mappa Mundi (c. 1300), made at a time of Christian Crusades in the Middle East, mythic African figures were portrayed as having both sets of genitals in one body.16 Such depictions were based on a first-century CE Roman historian’s description of ‘androgyni’ and ‘hermaphrodites’ living beyond Europe.17 Occasionally associated with sodomy in the Middle Ages, people who did not neatly fit gender/sex norms were often pictured as part of a process of drawing social and geographical borders.18 The gender binary underpinned patriarchal rule and heterosexual marriage: those seen to trouble it were alternatively imagined as representing an ideal or threatening to tear down the whole system. Europeans debated for centuries whether or not God created Adam with two or no genders/sexes, and if Christians resurrected at the end of times would either be stripped of their gender/sex or be forced to conform to the gender/sex binary in heaven.19
"People now understood as trans or intersex have existed since ancient times, the gender/sex binary in Europe itself being a social phenomenon crafted through collective power struggles across a thousand years."
Some exhibited deep prejudice in their claims that an eventual apocalypse would remove all supposed bodily ‘defects’ for Christians, from ‘Ethiopian’ skin to intersex genitals.20 But not all agreed Armageddon would impose current societal norms: ninth-century Irish philosopher John Scotus Eriugena believed humans lived without male and female categories before sin, which they would return to.21 Writing of Christ’s spiritual change following crucifixion, Eriugena reasoned: ‘He appeared to them in the masculine form … But none of the faithful may believe or think in any sense that He was held fast by sex after the resurrection’.22 Such words reveal how contested masculinity’s multiple meanings are, a profoundly unstable social form across time. Ecce Homo’s title alludes to the biblical moment of divine mutation, an event that confirmed or liberated the Messiah’s manhood. Ajamu draws on the particular phrase, ‘behold the man’, to both assert and consider ways in which Black trans men expand the possibilities for Black masculinity. The title of Autograph’s exhibition, The Patron Saint of Darkrooms, also plays with Christian concepts to consider a place central to Ajamu’s practice. A darkroom uses chemical baths and low-light conditions to process light-sensitive photographic film: it is a space of transformation. Emphasising aesthetic alchemy challenges photography’s use as a surveillance tool to produce forms of identification or classification.
Ajamu’s practice dramatises sites of photographic production to address gaps between making and representing by placing ‘process, marks, gestures and “mistakes” at the centre of the work’.23 Such an emphasis on process and transformation is particularly important for Ecce Homo as a body of work: one that does not seek to stabilise its sitters’ portraits and bring them into a fixed notion of what Black trans masculinity is meant to look like. As part of a larger artistic practice that has long pushed and played with possibilities for Black masculinities, Ecce Homo thinks with its sitters as both open up and expand gender beyond a binary. Owusu has written of the need to imagine new terrains of masculinity, ‘to allow my vision of this world too to change and transform beyond all bounds of possibility’.24 He calls for the ‘right to imagine, the right to reject and revolutionise the worlds that we live in and ourselves from the inside out. To engage in wayward beautiful experiments’.25 To return to Steinbock’s analysis, perhaps Owusu describes an aesthetic practice that shimmers with possibility. In this sense, Ecce Homo represents an artistic collaboration between Ajamu and the sitters: one deeply committed to dismantling and rebuilding worlds structured by oppression and inequality, in order to imagine alternative ways of being collectively. Ecce Homo may proclaim ‘behold the man’, but it is a masculinity utterly unfixed and unbound.
1 Reina Gossett, Eric A. Stanley and Johanna Burton, ‘Known Unknowns: An Introduction to Trap Door’, in Reina Gossett, Eric A. Stanley and Johanna Burton (eds), Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2019), pp. xv–xxvi, xv–xvi.
2 ‘Chaune King On …’, FYNE Times, n.d., https://www.fyne.co.uk/chaune-king-on, accessed 11 April 2023.
3 Eliza Steinbock, Shimmering Images: Trans Cinema, Embodiment, and the Aesthetics of Change (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019), p. 18.
4 Steinbock 2019, p. 18.
5 C. Riley Snorton, Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity (Minneapolis, MN: Minnesota University Press, 2017), p. 2
6 Marquis Bey, Cistem Failure: Essays on Blackness and Cisgender (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2022), p. 65
7 Snorton 2017, pp. 6, 19–20, 31–33, 53, 55–97, 139–75; Bey 2022, pp. 22–24, 28, 54, 66–69, 72–73; Che Gossett, ‘Blackness and the Trouble of Trans Visibility’, in Reina Gossett, Eric A. Stanley and Johanna Burton (eds), Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2019), pp. 183–90, 184–85.
8 Kobena Mercer and Isaac Julien, ‘Race, Sexual Politics and Black Masculinity: A Dossier’, in Rowena Chapman and Jonathan Rutherford (eds), Male Order: Unwrapping Masculinity (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1988), pp. 97–164, p. 101, p. 127, p. 130.
9 Melz Owusu, ‘Black Trans Bois and Reimagining Masculinity’, Medium, 19 November 2018, https://medium.com/@melzowusu/black-trans-bois-and-reimagining-masculinity-34b803d3739, accessed 11 April 2023.
12 Travis Willie, ‘Black Trans Bois and Reimagining Masculinity’, Queer Black Trans Blog, 5 December 2022, https://queerblacktrans.wordpress.com/2022/12/05/black-trans-bois-and-reimagining-masculinity, accessed 11 April 2023.
13 Melz Owusu, ‘One Year on Testosterone: Time, Spirituality, and the (Un)Gendering of Blackness’, Medium, 29 April 2020, https://medium.com/@melzowusu/one-year-on-testosterone-time-spirituality-and-the-un-gendering-of-blackness-d2af8b231ad2, accessed 11 April 2023; see bell hooks, The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love (New York, NY: Atria Books, 2004).
14 Owusu 2020.
15 Mercer and Julien, p. 106.
16 Leah DeVun, The Shape of Sex: Nonbinary Gender from Genesis to the Renaissance (New York, NY: Colombia University Press, 2021), p. 40.
18 Ibid., pp. 43–69.
19 Ibid., pp. 16–39.
20 Ibid., p. 34.
21 Ibid., pp. 32–33.
22 Ibid., p. 33.
23 Artist statement, April 2023.
24 Owusu 2020.
Dr Edwin Coomasaru is a historian of modern and contemporary UK and Sri Lankan art: researching gender, sexuality, and race. He has been awarded Postdoctoral and Research Fellowships at Edinburgh University, The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, and The Courtauld Institute of Art (where he earned his PhD and co-convened the Gender & Sexuality Research Group); as well as having worked as a Research Assistant on the Association of Art History’s anti-racist and decolonial resource portal. Formerly a Contributing Editor at British Art Studies, Coomasaru also co-edited a book on Imagining the Apocalypse: Art and the End Times for Courtauld Books Online (2022)
He has published journal articles with Third Text and The Irish Review, alongside a forthcoming essay in Art History on ‘Queer Ecologies and Anti-Colonial Abundance in Lionel Wendt’s Ceylon’. Coomasaru has also written for British Art Studies, Oxford Art Journal, The Irish Times, Irish Studies Review, Routledge, The Barbican Centre, Jhaveri Contemporary, Saskia Fernando Gallery, Belfast Exposed, The Photographers’ Gallery, Townhall Cavan, Sophie Tappeiner Gallery, Freelands Foundation, Photoworks Annual, Burlington Contemporary, Architectural Review, Cambridge Humanities Review, Source Magazine.
Ajamu's Ecce Homo series was made during the Autograph x Light Work residency in March 2023 and is now a part of Autograph’s collection.
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