Cheap and Clean- Interrogating Masculinities Project, was an exploration of ideas centered around masculinity as performance. How men, in this case, young men navigate popular ideas about masculinity within popular culture. Dancehall culture , has undergone several transitions aesthetically on what is considered masculine. With the rise of the metro sexuality trend in North America and Europe in the early 2000s, the Jamaican male has been reshaping these projections. Dancehall has always employed camp aesthetic, and this has always been evident on both sides of the gender fence. But since the interruption of metro sexuality in dancehall space; the ‘rude boy', baggy sag pants of the mid to late 1990's has been replaced, by tight or fitted brightly coloured outfits (baring some resemblance to 1980's fashion). These aesthetics now being employed--were once seen as feminine--are now seen as masculine revised, or revisited .How are young men now crafting their masculinities in the midst of what was once contradictory? How is Dancehall culture and its fashion, facilitating this all visually? How does what is learned or understood about the masculine in domestic space affect, change or affirm what we see in popular culture?
How we see ourselves and construct ourselves is
often in response to the ideas of others. As an
undergrad at the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts, my
final body of work explored these idealogies within an autobiographical
context. I made work based on a comparative poll of people's perspectives of
myself in relation to animals and themselves in relation to animals. The
questions asked were simple if I were an animal what would I be and why and if
you were an animal what would you be and why. The experience opened up a
channel for autobiografric dialogue about self and self-construction. This on-going
interest found its way into my recent body of work.
The Cheap and Clean Interrogating Masculinities Project, involved 14 young men aged 8-22, from various communities in and around downtown Kingston. For this project I collaborated with the Multi-Care Foundation, a not for profit organisation that sets up sports and art programs, in vulnerable communities. The participants in this project came through the Foundation's programming. Over the course of several weeks, we had on-going conversations, drawing and socializing with each other. Most of the youngsters had known each other because of their involvement with other Multi-Care programmes or because they were neighbours in their communities.
On the first day we had a group discussion. I asked the question who is a man? Or what is your definition of a
man? 'Miss a man is somebody who can take care of his family', 'a man knows how to love’,’ a man has a job' were
some of the answers I received. Interestingly these answers were coming from the youngest participants. The older
participants, who were teens, seemed too self-conscious that day to lead the dialogue. I started reshaping the
questions after a suggestion from one of my young participants Akeem ( aged 8 ) on how to get them involved. So I
then asked,’ what’s the difference between a man or male ?' For the most part many of them responded quite
intelligently, responding that maleness was related to sex--describing genitalia--while being a man for them had
much to with social involvement or community and family commitments. We discussed men they looked up to in
their own lives; they mentioned Uncles, but most mentioned entertainers. When asked about fathers, most
pointed out that stronger relationships existed with their mothers.
We played a game called man vs male. This allowed them to expand on their ideas about how they saw the two. We
talked largely about public figures during this dialogue. ' Miss is a man you know but....', he pauses to pull his
thoughts together,' is not a 'proper man'.' So here we had another category emerging. Man, male and 'Not a proper
man '.What did he mean by this I asked. They explained that while persons who fell into this 'category ' exuded
machismo in many cases because of his music or because of how he behaved or carried himself in public space,
and the reasons went on, he was not considered 'man' enough. 'Miss yuh see him now' responding to another
figure.' He is male. Is a mistake God mek!' The others chuckled. 'Miss, God started working on him an somebody
distracted him and he forgot he was working on a boy and started working on him as a girl '. I thought this was an i
ncredibly beautiful way for this 9 year old to construct his own understanding of gender and its complexities.
Group Discussion with a few of the Participants at The Dacosta Building ,Kingston Jamaica , 2012 (Photo Courtesy of Monique Gilpin)
As the day continued we paused to draw, I asked them all to imagine themselves
as their ideal masculine figure. They were to make decisions about what this
person would wear including accessories and shoes. These outfits were then made
for them and in later weeks they had their photos taken in a pseudo photo
studio. It was further explained to them that they would get to keep the outfits
and would get pictures of themselves on a designated ' 'photo day'. We worked
on the designs over the course of several weeks meeting with a tailor and listening
and trying as best as possible to make sense of their designs while learning more about them and how
they wanted to be understood and seen as men.
Also interesting were the group dynamics that played out between these young men. There were weekly scuffles over trivial things. Who said what to whom, who took whose pencil...but as you watched the way these young men related to each other you realised that many of the scuffles were about proving themselves to each other. In our on-going discussions with the participants, they said a man is always able to defend himself. Aggression is imperative as a man. If you were passive or non-violent, you were considered a punk! This understanding was clearly demonstrated in these scuffles and in their unwillingness to get an adult involved when they were being provoked; even when blood was drawn.
Their designs also indicated something clear about these group dynamics. The younger ones aged 8-11, were adventurous in their design decisions and were not afraid to push boundaries. They saw this as an opportunity to play 'dress- up’ and took creative 'risks’. The teenagers ranging from 13-16,were more concerned with group dynamics. They wanted to look like the rest of their peers, wearing what was popular dress. They all wanted the same styled out fits and accessories. Being different for them was too risky. The young adults, aged 19-21, did not have the same preoccupations as their younger counter parts. They had already been developing their own ideas about who they are, they concerned about fitting in, but rather about projecting where they were heading, while being cautious about these projections. Pink? Yes miss, but isn’t that a female colour? No Miss no one owns any colour. Would you wear this? I asked. No miss !!! Why? Because its pink? I asked.' Yes miss but that is too much.' It was pink floral in fact. The young man I was speaking with was a teenager. Sporting bright colours matching from head to toe, tattoos, a nice blackberry and just enough bling in his ear to say, 'yup mi tun up!' But his rejection also signalled that within a culture that is aesthetically camp, there is a boundary. The pink can become... too pink.
Outfit Designed by Akeem , age 8, 2012 (Photo Courtesy of Monique Gilpin)
Witnessing the dynamics made me think about the difficulty in self-fashioning and how so much of this is affected by one’s environment and peers. As children we are open and receptive, the world is a large space to play. And somehow this becomes discarded and we are forced to measure ourselves in relation to others.
Real Talk, a series of ten street videos, was done in an effort to widen the conversations of the larger project by looking at the perspectives of young men who came from similar social backgrounds, listening to their rationales about masculinity, male social relationships, gender and fashion. The interviews were conducted by Dushane Lorraine, a young man who was also in the larger Cheap and Clean Project. Lorraine who grew up in Downtown Kingston, videoed dialogues with friends, peers and community members.
The subjects were quite frank and unapologetic in their positions but at the same time incredibly critical, rational and often quite convincing in their arguments about masculinity. What is clear about the trend of fashion, particularly in popular culture, is that there is a constant ebb and flow between the genders. Things that would have been socially unacceptable for one group later become acceptable. In an interview with a group of young men (Lorraine refers to them as the 'youths from federal') about their decisions to 'bleach'(lighten) their skin they confidently proclaimed that they do this because it is their fashion! They do it for no one. They also later on state that if a man is watching what they are wearing or doing to themselves, then their sexuality is questionable not their own! In these videos men were able to carve out and discuss the spaces they have made for themselves. And like the participants in the Cheap and Clean Project for some, their code of dress and ethics, were crafted on larger popular trends.
Lorraine was often coy with his questioning and often attempts to point out contradictions in much of what his participants was saying subtly asking the ‘effeminate' sounding man questions about how a man is supposed to sound. And in other instances, challenging persons who were arguably macho about their effeminate dress or challenging other participants to quantify masculinity in their need to hit women.
Cheap and Clean, Interrogating Masculinites Project was an opportunity to explore boundaries and identity construction in an attempt to give young men a voice and platform to speak openly about their own perspectives on masculinity and its construction without judgement. However by posing questions in these dialogues the project also attempts to challenge its participants to ask questions about their own involvement or participation in what they consider to be masculine. The project was not typical of art projects, centred around or creating an experience for the audience but rather around the participants and their moments with each other, themselves and their own realizations some of which may come much later maybe in far more solitary experiences. It also attempts to ask about the necessity of some of these boundaries and its materialisation in the everyday- - even fashion.
-Ebony G Patterson