Marlon James puts masculinity under Pressure

Most Caribbean people might associate the word
Most Caribbean people might associate the word "pressure" with the hardships of everyday living, but Marlon James examined pressure in the form of men being vulnerable with each other. Photo by Sureash Cholai

Often men don't think about the fact that hands brush and saliva is shared in the male bonding ritual of passing marijuana, said Trinidad and Tobago-based Jamaican photographer Marlon James.

James examines this ritual in his 90-second video and four photos that will be part of the upcoming Kingston Biennial: Pressure. This is not his first time at the exhibition: he has been showing at it since 2012.

Taboo subjects are often the focus of his lens. The epicentre of his work is subjects like people who bleach their skin, random strangers in bars, portraits of people who cut themselves (inflict self-harm), and people who drag. (Drag is a gender-bending art form in which a person dresses in clothing and makeup meant to exaggerate a specific gender identity, usually of the opposite sex.)

James has a body of work which includes what he did with now-famous Jamaican novelist Marlon James at his graphic design firm, James Hill Design, in Jamaica. He worked with the other Marlon James from 2004-2010.

TT-based Jamaican photographer Marlon James will show a 90-second video and four still images as part of this year's Kingston Biennial: Pressure. The exhibition runs from June 26-December 31. Photo by Sureash Cholai

James calls TT home these days. He moved here nine years ago for love, but that did not last. James was also a part of the 2010 Alice Yard exhibition Shot in Kingston.

He was once again invited to be a part of the biennial, which will run from June 26-December 31. He won't be in Jamaica for the opening
but hopes to be there in July. The subjects of his work in this year’s exhibition are from TT but address the broad topic of Caribbean masculinity.

Most Caribbean people might associate the word "pressure" with the hardships of everyday living, but James examined pressure in the form of men being vulnerable with each other.

He considered the pressures of men being open about intimacy and of being emotional without being called names. His work looks at this through the interaction between a young man and an elderly one.

A portrait from Marlon James' exhibition Blackout is featured in Jamaica's National Gallery. Photo by Marlon James

There is a layering of emotion that happens when men smoke and talk, James added.

“The intimacy of how the hand might touch and graze one another does not seem any way homosexual. In Jamaica, we are very much anti-man. For me, when in those circles, men get asked questions about if you bow (perform cunnilingus). And if you do that, you’re told, ‘You can’t smoke with we.’

"So all these kinds of things, men were testing you to be a man.”

Photographer Marlon James focused on Caribbean masculinity for the upcoming exhibition, Kingston Biennial: Pressure. Photo by Sureash Cholai

In this male circle, young men are told what they should and should not do.

“You were tested in different ways, and that is what I look on as a form of pressure. We can’t even be ourselves.

“I wanted to convey that in the video, where a young man could be himself and an older man, recognising that, instead of shunning him, embraced him and allowed him to show his emotions,” he said.

The video and still photos were shot in Belmont.

Masculinity in TT mirrors that of Jamaica, James said, especially with the growth of the Trinibad/Zesser movement. He was not sure if Jamaica influenced the movement or it was developing in TT in parallel, but he sees the similarities.

Marlon James' Vogue shot in 2012 was a part of the 2016 exhibition called Explorations IV: Masculinities held at Jamaica's National Gallery. James often covers taboo subjects. Photo by Marlon James

He is not worried about a negative public reaction to the work, but believes there will be questions because of what he is trying to show.

“Especially the whole thing of the sensual touch we might have when we are passing a spliff, how the finger might graze and rub against the other.”

He said in the moment a man is not thinking about sensuality when passing marijuana, but when it is shot and people look at it in slow motion, it looks like intimacy.

“You’re not being aggressive when you’re taking a spliff from another man. You’re gently moving it from his fingers into yours, to pull on it to pass. Saliva is being transferred from one mouth to another...So even that, if you were to examine that closer, could be seen as if you indirectly kissed each other.”

He said in the male bonding ritual that is not seen, but is overlooked, because this is how it was done in the past.

“It is all about the communal gathering of men. This is where certain men might talk about certain intimacies, not in a romantic way, but more about triumph.”

James, a graduate of the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts, wants as an artist to offer a closer look at or another perspective on the issue.

Photographer Marlon James focused on Caribbean masculinity for the upcoming exhibition, Kingston Biennial: Pressure. Photo by Sureash Cholai

“Not saying that it is what it is, but: 'It could be seen this way, if you look at it from another angle.' So if you want to be upset about the truth as we see it, then so be it.”

He believes the work might cause some people to re-examine their views on masculinity and its bonding rituals.

He said men were layered human beings and people needed to understand they could be both sensitive and tough.

“We need to just be free to open up and be ourselves. Whether we are ready to accept it, I think that is for us to say. But I think Jamaica is slowly accepting stuff.

“We know we are still very much against homosexuality, but we still know that it is prevalent.

"People know people and turn a blind eye to certain things. They allow people to do what they want because of where they are in the stratosphere of the society.

One of photographer Marlon James' pieces from the 2010 exhibition, Shot in Kingston, at Alice Yard, Roberts Street, Woodbrook. Photo courtesy Marlon James

“We have a way where we say one thing but do the other.”

James agreed that the region needed a new breed of men and a new attitude, so that a man’s sensitive or emotional side is not looked down upon and he is not considered a lesser man for showing it.

He is now working on a solo exhibition with curator Dr Marsha Pearce. It is in its initial stages and he hopes to have 15 new pieces ready by early to mid-next year.

What he wants people to get most from this work is to simply let men be themselves.

“Not in the sense of what we have been taught to be. We are now in the age of enlightenment. We are rediscovering and redefining ourselves as individuals. As we go through this journey, we should be able to do so freely without being judged by others.”


"Marlon James puts masculinity under Pressure"

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