Black Silk: Robert Mapplethorpe’s Photography of Black Men
Beautiful black bodies set in scene, masculine and strong, yet also sensitively captured in delicate black-and-white photography by Mapplethorpe, are still not only quite fascinating to look at, but remain a controversy in the art world.
Although Mapplethorpe’s photography has been highly praised and valued, it has also been criticized for being too stereotypical and for simply expressing racial structures already inherent in society.
Fig. 1: Christopher Holly, 1980
There has been the accusation of so-called “sexual racism” in Mapplethorpe’s photography, especially by gay white men who would see black men only as an erotic fantasy and subject for their sexual desires. Black gay men in this context are a symbol deprived of their personality, cultural background and emotional or even human side. The debate has been about whether it simply mirrored white supremacy and power over black men and fueled the fashion industry even more to present the picture of a typical “black stallion” in the media.
Fig. 2: Cock, 1985
Obsession With Big Black Genitalia
Another accusation has been that Mapplethorpe’s work was not about aesthetics or depicting beauty, but rather making racial differences even clearer. One of his most controversial pictures “Man in a Polyester Suit” that shows a man in a suit with his black penis coming out of the zipper, was criticized for being dehumanizing, because Mapplethorpe did not show the man’s face, therefore ignoring his identity and personality. Critics like the black author Essex Hemphill or film producer and artist Isaac Julien concluded that he would dominate and control the black male body by fetishizing it in his photographs. The focus on the black penis would only undermine that Mapplethorpe flaunted his provocative obsession of black genitalia in front of his audience regardless of the impact.
Fig. 3: Man in polyester suit, 1980
Fig. 4: Cock, 1982
Like Black Bronze
One could certainly argue that Mapplethorpe was obsessed with black men. However, in describing his work himself, he expressed a rather artistical and even personal attachment. His objects often were men he was involved with and was keen on showing through his art. “I often say that photographing black men is like photographing bronze”, he said and explained that his intentions were never to exploit Afro-American men in any way.
Fig. 5: Bob Love, 1979
Fig. 6: Jimmy Freeman, 1983
Fig. 7: Derrick Cross, 1983
Fig. 8: Gregg Cauley, 1980
Fig. 9: Untitled, 1981
In the extended Premium edition more about Mapplethorpe's obsession with the artistic process, his relation to his models, the black rebellion in his photography and much more visual examples of his 'black' sensuality.
Click HERE for drags, drugs, and sexual dramas in the photography of Nan Goldin
Source: Mapplethorpe, teNeues Publishing, 1992; Robert Mapplethorpe “Black Book”, St. Martin’s Press, 1988