Photographer and activist Ajamu’s picture of his friends Malcolm and Chris (1992) is a kind of anti-portrait. This striking image depicts one figure facing away from the lens, whilst the other “figure” is represented only by his hands, exploring his partner’s lowered head with firm tenderness. The photographer’s intimate eye and the texture of the monochrome silver gelatin print creates something with real presence. The image is inviting and anonymous, compelling us to bridge the gap between viewer and subject.
At other times, Ajamu’s wit and sexiness can be caustic. The current show at Autograph includes many of his photos from the 1990s, which are carnal and carnivalesque. They feature circus ringmasters brandishing whips or powerful sex-masters sitting on thrones and resting their feet on cowering submissives, as can be seen in Master Aaab (1997). For decades, Ajamu has made a sexy stock-in-trade of reclaiming bondage and playing with power dynamics as a way of examining Black masculinity and identity.
However, there is always a tangible feel for intimacy present, with a faith that the hand, eye and camera can be sublimated into vehicles of love. Images such as Umbrella (2023) are an homage to Ajamu’s late friend and artist Rotimi Fani-Kayode (1955-1989). Often, however, the dialogue between image and viewer can be gleaned through the sheer and unshackled humanity with which Ajamu depicts his subjects. Bound by leather gear, there is always a monochrome palette and / or an objectifying gaze.
Just look at the self-portraits of Ajamu giving the most warm and conspiratorial smile imaginable. Or the series Ecce Homo [Behold the Man]: Portraits of Black Trans Men (2023). Ajamu presents smiles, held-back laughter, pride and determination – making visible those often-hidden moments of human connection.
Autograph, London: The Patron Saint of Darkness | 28 April – 2 September
Words: Adam Heardman
- Ajamu, Malcom and Chris from the series Black Bodyscapes , 1992. Commissioned by Autograph . Courtesy the artist and Autograph, London. Copyright © Ajamu.
- Ajamu, Bodybuilder in Bra from the series Black Bodyscapes , 1990. Commissioned by Autograph . Courtesy the artist and Autograph, London. Copyright © Ajamu.
- Ajamu, Power Drill Heels , 2021. Courtesy the artist and Autograph, London. Copyright © Ajamu.
- Ajamu, Malcom Brower from the series Black Bodyscapes , 1993. Commissioned by Autograph . Courtesy the artist and Autograph, London. Copyright © Ajamu.