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Bianca Saunders: ‘there’s more to black masculinity than wearing pink’

15 Jun 2017

On Friday 16 June, menswear designer and RCA graduate Bianca Saunders will be exhibiting a multimedia examination of her new collection at Miranda London. Personal Politics explores themes of black masculinity, displaying Bianca Saunders’ research on the topic. The exhibition will showcase her lookbook, shot by award-winning photographer Adama Jalloh and styled by PC Williams, and research films, as well as selling a zine detailing the development of her collection. There will also be a screening of the film Permission, made by Akinola Davies Jr, examining black masculinity with some of London’s most creative and critical minds.

Bianca was inspired to work with Akinola on the film after listening to his NTS radio series ‘Talking Men’s Club’, which brought conversations about masculinity to the radio. “That was what really made me want to do this film,” Bianca says, “because he actually had this conversation going on outside of his own work.” On the show, Akinola invited guests to talk freely on topics relating to gender, masculinity, patriarchy, in a way more commonly reserved for men’s spaces: the pub, a locker room, a sofa in the living room of your best mates mum’s house whilst she’s busy in the next room, but rarely in public where women are also a present audience.

Photo still by @by_nwaka

That permission to start a conversation is what inspired Bianca. In her earlier research films, it seemed there was a barrier surrounding the topic of masculinity. “Sometimes with people I interviewed, they were very sure of themselves but at the same time they were second guessing what they actually said and they came across very vulnerable.” With Permission, Bianca wanted the story to be one that embraces that vulnerability instead. “It shows actions of trust and them giving each other permission to be comfortable with their masculinity and let go of these stereotypes in a way.”

Throughout June, London has seen several collections by black women imagining black masculinity through a female gaze. Mowalola Ogunlesi’s described her boldly coloured, futuristic collection at the 2017 Central Saint Martins graduate show to Dazed as “a celebration of the black African male: his culture, sexuality, and desires”, whilst Grace Wales Bonner told the Guardian that her latest collection, featuring nude photographs of young black men by the famed white patron of the Harlem Rennaissance, Carl Van Vechten, was “sexuality over sensuality”.

It’s not surprising that the topic of black masculinity serves as the inspiration behind collections by many young, black women designers. Black women are often excluded from a femininity that favours whiteness, and simultaneously exist in a society that conflates blackness with masculinity (“All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men” is the famed prefix to black feminist essay collection But Some Of Us Are Brave). Because of this, conversations about black masculinity can seem to belong to black women in some way too. But the balance between opening that conversation and dominating the discussion can be tricky to navigate.  “I didn’t want my concept to be seen as ‘I came up with a concept and this is what masculinity looks like’ and it doesn’t actually talk to the people that are actually challenging these ideas,” Bianca explains. “Throughout doing this project I’ve tried to get as many men involved in it so that the research is really strong, so it wasn’t like a woman looking at it from a distance.”

Photo by Adama Jalloh

Photo by Adama Jalloh

Many of those she collaborated with have explored themes of black masculinity within their own work. Caleb Femi, the Young People’s Laureate for London, as well as James Massiah and Seye Isikulu have all lent their words to the project, alongside Hilary Speaks and Abondance Matanda. Her muse, writer and curator Kareem Reid, will be at the after party representing Body Party, the club night founded by Kareem. (“I have really good friends” Bianca laughs, when I mention the talented line up of black DJs and musicians that she’s pulled together, which also features CKTRL, Aletha Vandross and BBZ).

During Bianca’s end of year presentation at the RCA Fashion Show 2017, Kareem Reid is lifted up by the other black male models walking and carried out, elevated on their shoulders. “The show last week Thursday was almost a replica of the actual film,” Bianca says. “My head of year, Zowie Broach, really liked Akin’s film and said ‘this moment, of how the guy at the end gets picked up and the camera goes right through him, you have to have that in the show.’” Bianca’s presentation stands out: hers is the only collection bathed in a pink light, sourced especially for her. It was Bianca’s way of acknowledging the trope that aligns pink with a softer, gentler construction of masculinity.

Photo by Adama Jalloh

Photo by Adama Jalloh

Explaining her lighting choice, Bianca says “it’s almost like a comment on social imaginings of black men and masculinity. I feel like it’s common for black men to be dressed in pink and it’s usually very dark skinned guys that people get as a statement of ‘oh this is black masculinity and we’re trying to show that this guy is a feminist and gentle so we’re going to dress him in pink’…there’s so many more layers of it to me.” It’s because of this that Bianca has shied away from typically gendered colours, such as pinks and blues, in her collection, instead combining neutral, earthy, and industrial tones.

Photo by Adama Jalloh

“At the show, people told me that they cried when they watched the guys come out and do the actual performance,” she says. “A lot of press really liked it, it really touched people.” With comparisons to Moonlight, Barry Jenkin’s Oscar winning film about a young boy navigating masculinity and sexuality in Liberty City, Bianca says that “it’s amazing to be compared to something like that, such a poetic film”. She stresses how important the score of Permission, which possesses a similar heavy power to Nicholas Brittell’s chopped and screwed instrumentals for Moonlight, is to those comparisons. It’s an emotive meandering by Yassi Grez called Inner Child. “It’s really soft and the lyrics really match.”

Personal Politics is the culmination of Bianca’s research into black masculinity, and the exhibition will provide a unique look at the development process for her menswear collection. The resulting collection is an inclusive assembly of versatile cuts and textures, examining preconceived notions of masculinity through a permissive and impartial lens.

Personal Politics private view runs from 7pm- 9pm on Thursday 15 June and the exhibition is open the following day Friday 16 June from 10am – 4pm. More information can be found about Bianca Saunders on her website and Instagram.