by Nichole Sobecki
afriMAN is an exploration of evolving understandings of manhood on the African continent, and how traditional expectations are being subverted by individuals. Conceived in collaboration with artists Fitsum Berhe Woldelibanos and Zelalem Mulat Teklewold these portraits are our interpretation of Africa’s modern day chiefs — men defining their own sense of identity beyond gender essentialism. The interviews that accompany the portraits are an essential part of this project, preceding the making of images that were then conceptualized together with our subjects. The men here reflect the emergence of a fresh, unhindered image of gender that rejects the dominant masculine ideals of aggression, dominance and a closed emotional state. Their masculinity is not imposed on them by the outer world. It’s not the masculinity of their fathers. It’s not even a fixed state. “Being a man,” explains writer Kevin Mwachiro, “is just simply being comfortable in your own skin.” This is the afriMAN.
My father was the archetype. The masculine. The breadwinner. For him a man traveled with the herd searching for green pastures. They made sure the village was safe. But he was sophisticated too, and it was actually him who suggested that I go to art school. He could see I was confused, not knowing what tomorrow would look like. Being an artist, there’s no certainly. It’s taboo for many families. But he was sensitive enough to understand. I began by painting women, because that’s what all the artists I knew did. You see the Mona Lisa and you continue that trend. I didn’t even know if you could paint men. But then one time I was on the coast and I saw this gardener outside working in the fields. I asked him if I could paint him, and he was laughing. And it kind of took off immediately. Since then I’ve been exploring masculinity in many ways in my work, and the concept of the black male body, and what others project onto us. My goal is to bring back the dignity, power and humanity of those I paint.
I grew up in a slum here in Nairobi, in a one-room shed with my mom, my grandmother, my sisters. I never knew my father but I used to see my uncles with their wives. They would come into the house, sit down, and ask: “Where is my food? Did someone collect the water?” That was masculinity back then. So when I first started dancing people really didn’t understand. They told me I was stupid to give all of my time to something that would never go anywhere. But this is something that I can do that most people can’t. It’s like you’re a superhero. And that’s where my sense of masculinity comes from. If I feel bad I can channel that into this other side of my life. It’s taught me about myself. In a ballet class the choreographer doesn’t care about your gender. He’ll give you both masculine and feminine moves. And to be a great dancer you have to be in touch with both sides of yourself.
I never, ever see myself as just one thing. It’s only when other people bring it up. Sometimes people will be like: “Oh, you’re so butch for a gay man.” Or they’ll say: “Oh, you’re so effeminate.” And then I remember that I do have a gender that I’m supposed to perform, and express in a certain way. African masculinity, in a traditional sense, is very assertive. It was always OK for a man to take, just take take take. We hardly ever give; we just take. And that’s changing, in part I think because women are learning to demand what they deserve. I’ve grown up in this society and I’m a product of my environment. And so I’m constantly having to unlearn. For most men here it’s not comfortable to be emotionally open and vulnerable. Mainly I try to listen more to those around me, to the genders that have been oppressed. Because you might think that it’s OK to act in a certain way, but you don’t know that until you speak to the person on the receiving end of your actions.
In a traditional African household a baby, up until a certain age, is cared for almost entirely by the women. I’m not one to only show my love through action though, to say: “Hey, I put a roof over your head. I put food on the table.” It’s important to me to also show my love by holding my son, hugging him, smiling at him. I’m completely sold on the beauty and benefits of fatherhood, and I want to be a part of his life every step of the way. I change diapers, and give baths, and now that we’re transitioning to bottles I can even feed him. It’s a different bond, it’s huge. At any stage of my son’s life, be it middle school or going off to college, he’ll know he can confide in me, that I’ll be there. You’re more than just a father, you’re also a friend. I gave my son the name Mandela because that’s who I’ve been inspired by. [Nelson] Mandela, [Steve] Biko, Martin Luther King Jr., [Barack] Obama — they’re all family men. I love seeing photos of Obama with his daughters. He talks about taking Malia to college with the same weight as he does Obamacare. That’s how he wants to be remembered, as a husband and father, and that’s something I feel as well.
To man up; it’s an old school notion. Sometimes I think that being macho is just a way of covering up for ones insecurities. Being kind, and thoughtful, and loving; those are things I’m constantly working on within myself. I’ve thought far more about being alive, about existence, then about being a man. If I had to define it though I think manhood is really just to live with generosity, and to give what is asked of you. If you’re in a relationship, how do you support your wife or girlfriend emotionally. Or as a father, or a son. That’s a practice worth mastering. That’s life, and coexistence.
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