ANTWAUN SARGENT DISCUSSES THE NEW BLACK VANGUARD
October 29, 2019
When I moved to New York City in 1989, it was a magical time in culture. The city was alive with electricity and excitement — it was dirty, crime was high, but people were having a good time. The AIDS epidemic had ravaged the gay community, crack was devastating the Black community, and the US economy was recovering from the worst recession since The Great Depression. But, this was also an era of immense creativity. It was the best of times and the worst of times.
I arrived in New York City to attend Columbia Journalism School and it was hard not to be distracted by the city’s downtown scene. Counterculture was ruling: graffiti, clubs like Nell’s, The Red Parrot and 1018 (aka The Roxy) — where you actually danced to house, club and electronic music — the emergence of hip-hop, and the evolution of a then-new Black Renaissance in film, TV, music, and fashion, all were in full swing.
I was in the process of coming out as a Black gay man, and was enamored by a Paper Magazine cover featuring Fab Five Freddy and Veronica Webb with the title “Black To The Future.” My soundtrack was Nice N’ Smooth, Soul II Soul, Bobby Brown, Neneh Cherry and Janet Jackson (who were all topping the charts). Black models such as Webb, Naomi Campbell and Tyra Banks were rocking the runways. It was the era of Jean-Michele Basquiat (who had recently died in ’88), David Hammonds, and Lorna Simpson. There was a vibrancy to being Black — with a capital B.
I began writing about the burgeoning music of hip-hop, which was set to become the latest form of Black expression to change the cultural landscape in a way that the blues, jazz and rock and roll had beforehand. It was a moment when I felt extremely optimistic about a Black Future, one that I would help create.
FFWD to October 24, 2019.
I am standing outside the Aperture Foundation on Manhattan’s West 27th Street, in the Chelsea gallery district (not far from where I used to go clubbing back in the day). Alongside me are activist DeRay Mckesson, Tyler Mitchell (the first Black photographer to shoot a Vogue cover), and art curator Nicola Vassell, all observing a crowd of young, gifted, and Black people lined up to witness the opening of “The New Black Vanguard: Photography Between Art and Fashion,” a coffee table book and photography exhibition put together by Antwaun Sargent. According to Aperture, the show “represents a movement of young photographers of color working with reference to and in connection with one another, dealing with issues of race, beauty, and sexuality. These artists challenge the fashion establishment and craft a new language for speaking visually about politics and representation through distinct ways of conveying pose, movement, and expression in highly powerful, untraditional ways.”
Standing on the street and looking at the long line of young Black and brown Millennials and Gen Z creatives reminded me of that New York City of yore. It was a breath of fresh air to see personalities whom I follow on IG in real life, bearing their unapologetic, gender non-conforming, intersectional selves with confidence, intentionality and ownership of their identities as Black people — versions and visions of our Black Future IRT.
It is also refreshing to see Sargent, a young, Black gay man, leading the conversation and shifting the visibility of the Black body, the visual narrative of Black existence, and using the visual arts as a form of resistance. Antwaun told me that, “[‘The New Black Vanguard’] had to be about what I was seeing in the space of photography, which was young, Black photographers working internationally, rethinking photography itself by putting in the center of those pictures Black concerns and Black people and Black desires.”
So it would seem that history is repeating itself, remixing itself and birthing a new creative vision for ourselves and our Blackness. Sir Sargent and I talked about the Black perspective in fashion and how we bring our full selves to the conversation through photography. This is our visual resistance.
We’re seeing more Black models, more Black magazine covers, more Black photographers shooting this content. What do you think about the state of contemporary Black fashion? What does that mean to you?
Well, I think we’re in a moment of renaissance all around, right? If you think about fashion in terms of what makes up Black fashion — everything from the photographers to hair and makeup to the stylist to the fashion designers themselves — we have more and more Black voices being vocal or being recognized. More and more Black voices creating opportunities for other Black voices to enter that space. And so I think that, while this is a renaissance, I think there was a deep history that dates back. A Black woman designed Jackie Kennedy’s wedding dress. A course at Harvard links fashion and slavery, right? There’s a history and that’s not even to mention the ’90s, when we had this incredible Black fashion output and magazines to support that. And so I think that the Black creatives who are working in the fashion industry today are really kind of building on a really rich legacy.
I think that designers like Telfar and Pyer Moss and Wales Bonner are representing totally different concerns, which I think speaks to a real kind of entering and owning of space. We’re not being tokenized because we’re controlling our own narratives. And so when I look at the landscape, when everyone’s creating what we call Black fashion, it gives me a lot of hope because I feel as though we are creating our own representations on an individual level that speak to community.
And so you have Kerby [Jean Raymond of Pyer Moss] doing his thing, and then you have someone like Wales Bonner thinking about what men should wear. And then we have someone like Telfar, who’s really a conceptual designer, who’s thinking about notions of America, thinking about what does it mean to be an American brand, and kind of challenging some of those notions. It can’t just be Ralph Lauren. Right?
What’s kind of interesting about the photographers and the designers, hair, makeup and stylists, is that they’re almost using fashion as a device to kind of talk about larger concerns — to renegotiate our ideas of beauty, our ideas of masculinity and femininity, our ideas around sexuality. I think that’s all being done in the space of fashion right now. And I think as we get more and more space — not necessarily visibility but more and more space to kind of build Black worlds — that’s going to deepen.
I think we’ll get even more diverse stories, more complicated and complex stories. We are going to get things that I don’t agree with or you don’t agree with but that should have a space to be shown and debated. You know what I mean? So I think that’s what’s so interesting about this moment — we’re getting a lot of different perspectives that are really deepening the notion of what it means to be Black.
So why do you think that this kind of revolution is happening at this point in time? When we’re in a very kind of conservative political era, the rise of The Right, and a lot of kinds of hate in the world. Yet conversely, we’re having this kind of Black renaissance.
I think that with the politics being what they are, in any moment of unrest, social unrest, Black people have created things out of those moments. You can even say that is the story of Black people globally, operating in situations that are unequal, unjust or unfair, but still creating out of those moments. That’s how we get something like jazz. Which is America’s first modern art. And that’s how we get something like hip-hop or the fashion that hip-hop gave us. At every point, we are a people who were constantly being put upon, but we’re coming back with our creativity.
American creativity, by and large, is a byproduct of the Black story. And so I think about that here, but I also think The New Black Vanguard is talking about a kind of international thing, which I do find really fascinating. We have photographers and designers creating in different geographical contexts.
So you have a similar story happening in Lagos with photographers Stephen Tayo and Daniel Bossy — some of them are of Lagos descent and live in London, and some of them live in Lagos. You have someone like Daniel Bossy who is completely concerned with the status of gay rights in that country, where they have outlawed homosexuality. And so through his images, he’s taking on the state, he’s thinking about Afrofuturism as it retains to gender performance, and what it might be possible if that law didn’t exist. So he was really thinking about Afrofuturism in relationship to now in relationship to our sexuality.
Although they work in different contacts or whatever, you cannot think of his images and not think about someone like Samuel Delany, who for years was thinking about sexuality in a similar kind of Afrofuturistic/sci-fi space.
And they are connected inter-generationally. And so I think with this project, it was important for me to kind of highlight and celebrate what’s happening now, but also to use that as a possibility to look back. And hopefully it inspires people to think about new Black futures.
Talk to me about how Millennials globally now see themselves and express their identity through their work — they’re very unapologetic about it.
Exactly. Yeah. I think there is a kind of unapologetic…taking of space, and of letting our concerns be known. Which is kind of interesting because in the book there are these inter-generational dialogues. Mickalene Thomas talks to Quil Lemons, for example. In that kind of exchange, I conducted the interview, but largely it was them talking; I literally asked one question and they just kind of [did] what artists are going to do.
And it was amazing to watch — both gay artists or queer Black artists, rather — who are thinking about notions of family, who are thinking about notions of queerness, notions of belonging, masculine and feminine energies. All of those things. But they’re thinking about them in different ways because they grew up in different generations.
So what was possible in each of their generations is different. And to see them kind of bounce off each other, and have this really interesting discussion about the type of photographs and art they make was very valuable in showing me that even within the Black community, notions of sexuality, of gender and beauty, those things have shifted.
I wanted to figure out: how do you take stock of the shifts within our community, around what is traditionally beautiful? What is traditionally acceptable? What is a “positive representation in the Black community,” because we have moved as a community in some ways.
As much as I wanted to give my generation a space to let their concerns be known and show their images and say they are desirable; I also wanted to think about our own community, and what is happening in the space of beauty, and in the space of sexuality that mainstream media is not even thinking about. So for me, it was just important to make sure that it is a book about this generation of photographers, but also if you are reading through and you’re looking through, you can see references.
I think those connections are there as well. For me, it’s a book about us first and foremost. But also about how notions within our community have changed. That’s important because sometimes I think that is lost…and when we enter the mainstream, there are certain conversations that the mainstream demands, right?
I think those conversations are certainly important — they certainly push us forward. But I also think that we’ve been having conversations as a community for a very long time, and I wanted to make sure that those conversations are highlighted. Because, often, those are the conversations that are not seen [but] inform what happens when we do get “too mainstream” or when we pull the mainstream towards us, as Toni Morrison always famously said.
Yes. So, as we are looking at ourselves as Black people, it’s so interesting to see what the Black gaze on the Black body is, versus the mainstream gaze. What was the most illuminating thing you learned putting this book together about the gaze of the Black body?
A few things were really interesting about this particular point. Black women’s photographs don’t make it into the mainstream as often — we have almost no photographers shooting consistently who are Black women, right? So in this book, half of the photographers are women.
Now you have people like Mickalene Thomas making more commercial images that appear on the covers of magazines. Or you’ll have Carrie Mae Weems who shot that beautiful Mary J. Blige W Magazine cover. Like occasionally, we’ve had those photographers, but in the community. So that was important to highlight. So was looking at the Black female gaze, seeing that Black women were interested in all types of issues, not just in “women’s issues.” Someone like Dana Scruggs, for example, is looking at Black men and thinking about Black masculinity from a Black female’s perspective. That’s something that we don’t allow a lot of space for. I think that is so important. The way that she was shooting those images, largely really dark Black men and focusing on the physique.
Another thing that happens when you’re thinking about a Black gaze on a Black subject, is that no matter what image you see, and I’m not being sentimental, there is a sensitivity to those images often not seen when you have a white gaze on Black bodies. I think one of the things that I personally love about these images is the way lighting kind of hits Black skin, each in their own kind of particular way, and they’re all playing with lighting in their own way. There’s this knowingness, right? It kind of emanates and illuminates in those images that make them all in some way indebted to the family photograph. And so I think that in a society where most of our images are being taken by straight white men, we have to be conscious of the fact that other stories, from other eyes, should be told.