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Dirty identities UK photographer Ajamu shows and tells
“With my work, I mess up the notion that identity and sexuality are fixed and rigid. My work deals with ideas of porous, dirty identities,” said Ajamu, a British-born, London-based photographer who recently spent a month in T&T as an artist in residence at Alice Yard, Woodbrook. His visit is the first artist residency hosted by the Coalition Advocating for Inclusion of Sexual Orientation (Caiso), with support from the Alice Yard non-profit art organisation.
Ajamu is a black, gay artist of Jamaican parentage whose images defy attempts at a neat and tidy sense of self. The term “dirty identities,” therefore, does not simply refer to lewdness but rather to an overturning of the boxes with which people classify themselves. His photographs complicate what it means to be in the world by challenging and transgressing the lines between man and woman; between heterosexual and homosexual—categories of being that, in day-to-day existence, slip and slide across the boundaries set by societal norms.
His creative practice spans over 20 years. During that time he has directed his lens at the black body and members of the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer (LGBTQ) community. His portfolio offers nuanced pictures of the intersections of blackness, masculinity and queerness. His photographs also attend to matters of fantasy and desire. The focus of his image making developed in the 1980s, when he found himself unable to identify with the visuals of men with which he came into contact. “I found the images of black men in the mainstream media and popular culture to be problematic: images of hypermasculinity, the pimp, and the drug dealer. The black man was seen as a threat. White, gay men were seen as effeminate. I could not relate to either of those versions of masculinity,” he said.
He found some affinity with images in African-American pornographic magazines but the presentations in such publications, with what he saw as an emphasis on big black genitalia, were still too limiting for him. “The magazines affirmed my desires but they were affirming and problematic at the same time because they lacked intimacy and sensuality.” The camera became a means for him to question those images and to capture and work through his own ideas about identity. “My first shots were of topless guys I was attracted to,” he added. He also wanted to interrogate taboos and address concerns about beauty. “There is this idea that we have to portray positive images of the black body. In my work I ask: what is positive? Positive to whom? My work is also about not shying away from kink, sadomasochism and so on. I am creating a space for images about the things we don’t talk about openly,” he said.
Ajamu studied photography at Leeds Kitson College, where he drew inspiration from the work of Nigerian photographer Rotimi Fani-Kayode and North American photographer George Platt Lynes. He also lived in a Brixton housing complex where CLR James lived and where other cultural theorists and artists such as Stuart Hall, Isaac Julien, and Sonia Boyce were regular visitors. These people have informed his thinking and artistic outputs. He produces primarily black and white portraits, sometimes inserting himself into the frame. For him, the human body serves as a means of fleshing out facile understandings of who people are. His use of black and white photography is a strategic choice for dismantling a false sense of homogeneity, revealing the many hues in lived experiences and exposing a rich diversity in what it means to be black and queer.
“A black and white photograph is not devoid of colour. When I see black and white photography, I see different kinds of blacks; different kinds of whites. That is how identity works,” he explained. His work is also characterised by tightly cropped visuals—he zooms in on body parts—that draw on the practice of voyeurism and the aesthetic of pornographic images but he remixes these reference points to produce moments that are sensitive, intimate and personal rather than clinical and dispassionate. Low camera angles are another feature of his practice. “I am interested in conveying an idea of sculptures or monuments. It creates a power position between the subject of the image and the viewer so I am playing around with that perspective,” he said.
Play is key to this photographer’s art. “I would argue that while most people have sex, a lot of people do not explore their sexuality so they don’t really know where their boundaries are. My work plays with that,” he said. Ajamu experiments and constructs all of his images in his studio space, which acts as a kind of laboratory for fantasising, reimagining and inventing self—a space that heightens the idea that identities can be made and remade. While in Trinidad, he used the idea of play along with those of experimentation, curiosity and risk as pivoting points for a two-day photography workshop he facilitated. Ajamu led a number of participants in a dialogue about the socio-cultural biases—gender, race, class—a photographer can bring to the act of taking a photograph.
As part of his stay, he also engaged in a conversation with local photographer Rodell Warner. The event was moderated by Guardian Sunday Arts Section contributor Shivanee Ramlochan and it gave insight into the processes and intentions of the two image-makers. Ajamu leaves Trinidad with thoughts about bacchanal and how the concept might play a role in his photography. He is also set to work on part two of his Fierce project. In 2013 he produced 25 portraits of black, queer artists and cultural activists—all under 35 and living and working in London. “There is another generation coming up who are looking for representations of themselves, so Fierce is there for them.” Fierce 2 will go beyond the bounds of London to share faces from Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow and other places in an effort to expand the mental pictures people often conjure up when they think of the LGBTQ community. Ajamu holds on to the belief that his work can make a difference. “Photography can be used for social and cultural change,” he said. “I am still romantic about the medium.”
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