Navigating Black Masculinity. Interview with Artist and Writer, Kenny Sang.
A photographic artist, writer and dancer. Kenny Sang’s work converses with themes too seldomly discussed in mainstream spheres. The complex interplay between masculinity, sexuality and fetishization, and the unique tensions one deals with when experiencing these concepts as a black male — Kenny’s artistic and photographic voice is a strong one in the important, ongoing discourse around these ideas.
For probably around seven years Kenny and I were connected on Instagram, mutually lurking each other’s work from a digital distance, years before moving to Berlin was a thought in either of our minds. As fate would deal though, amongst the side streets of Berlin’s Moabit last summer, we serendipitously happened across each other in the physical realm. A few coffees and conversations later, I thought it was only fitting that we invite Kenny to the studio to discuss his socially-focused artistic practice and share it with our readers.
We talked first of Kenny’s geographically scattered upbringing.
“I was born in the UK but I moved to different countries because of my parent's careers. I was in Senegal for a couple of years, Kuwait for a couple, I was in Chicago, and then went to university in Frankfurt. And here we are, a couple of years later… It was really fascinating, but I think it’s only now I’m at a point where I’m starting to take it all in, feel all the experiences I’ve gathered from those places and see how they’ve shaped me.”
Though clearly a person of several disciplines, the medium of photography seems to be the unifying beacon of practice for Kenny, and so, I queried him on his personal relationship to photography.
“It’s been an evolution. Though I’d say I’m more of a visual artist than just a photographer… Because you begin with a camera, and then the more experiences you gain from life kind of diversifies your view and you become more open to ideas and not limited to the elements of photography itself. So I try to incorporate different genres of artistry; architecture, cinema, movement, dance… Because I used to be a dancer, which has influenced the way I take my pictures as I try to incorporate movement into my imagery and give them more life that way.”
I was enthused to learn about Kenny’s history with dance.
“I used to dance at home when I was a kid, and then I joined different dance schools… I was mainly doing hip hop, but then I also moved towards different types of dance like salsa and contemporary.”
What does dance mean to you? I asked.
“I think [dance] is one of the things that actually kept me sane during COVID. It’s something I can always gravitate to myself for some sort of therapy.”
I wondered how else the pandemic has affected Kenny’s artistic practice.
“What I was very much concerned about in the beginning of the pandemic was creating work about intimacy. Because I’d just moved to Berlin, I was a new person trying to make friends, and so intimacy was an important part of my life. And that’s something we never really get to talk about. And so I’m very interested in creating work about intimacy and humanly contact.”
I was interested to ask about Kenny’s influences; which voices, images and memories inform the work he creates.
“Personal experiences influence how I make my work; things I’ve dealt with as a person. It’s come from trying to find myself as an individual in society — and as a man — which has led me into a kind of photojournalism, where I can actually talk about social issues which affect me personally — like my ongoing project on masculinity.”
What draws you to the subject of masculinity? I wondered.
“Because I’ve grown up in a lot of places, and the perception of masculinity is very different in different places. And that’s always fascinated me because I think my type of masculinity doesn’t match the traditional notions of what society expects. Like being a guy interested in fashion… And so I think that’s why I got interested in masculinity, and how men — especially black men — are being portrayed. In fashion, but also in the media.”
“When it comes to the representation of black men in magazines and culture, it’s often this unapproachable type of person. Someone who’s emotionless. Shown through violence. And there’s also this fetishization of male black bodies which is an issue to this day where you have black men stripped off, objectified and hyper-sexualized in magazines, where there’s no soft aspect to them… I think this is very counterproductive to black men and the way society views them, and I think that’s why you find that people still to this day are scared of black men.”
“I’m looking at how this perception of black men has actually changed how they view themselves. And I’m looking at how hip hop itself as a genre has affected black men directly and indirectly. From dressing, behaviour, how they act in the streets, and how the world perceives black men through the lens of the genre.”
“Growing up black, there are certain topics of conversation that we don’t discuss much in our culture. And so it can take a lot to get to the point where you have the confidence to actually speak about these things. It takes a lot of courage to say ‘I don’t think I am the traditional man… Maybe I’m attracted to both women and men’... And then you’re forced to rethink your whole idea of masculinity because before, you think you’re supposed to be a man who walks a certain way or exhibits some sort of traits or talks in a certain way, and so it puts you in a very complex place… And for me, I’ve always looked into what I’m feeling about such topics and communicated it visually.”
I was curious how Kenny might articulate this process of communicating things visually; from ideas to images.
“For instance, to incorporate architecture that’s cold and standing alone, very much like in a desert, to convey the message that black men can feel like they’re in a desert when it comes to these topics because there’s no oasis of information out there for them to hold on to. These answers are not readily available to you, from a cultural point of view.”
A meaningful, lesser-explored topic in today’s cultural conversation, I was keen to hear what kind of responses Kenny’s received to his expressions on the subject.
“It’s been refreshing and enlightening… I get answers for myself personally, but then I also get to share those experiences. And sometimes I have people DM me or email me and tell me about how it resonated with them, which is great because people can look at it like ‘oh, maybe I’m not the only person going through this’... At the same time though it gives me confirmation that there is an issue here and we need more voices.”
How is your own engagement with the topic evolving?
“As I engage myself more with the topic, I don’t think I want to use the phrase ‘toxic masculinity’ any longer. What I think we can do is rephrase it, and instead talk about progressive masculinity. Because I think it’s a lot of internalised trauma and societal issues which make a man act in a certain way, and I think we can try to find the root of the issue of why all these men are aggressive and toxic with their masculinity, and we can try to progress and move forward together, instead of calling the whole issue of this person toxic.”
“It’s also important to mention that it’s not only women who went through the #MeToo movement, as on a large scale, men were also abused and assaulted in their workplaces, which is another problem because men really can’t talk about it.”
As a parting question, I wanted to hear what makes Kenny hopeful about this ongoing conversation.
“There are more people looking into this topic of masculinity than before. More people coming out and saying ‘Oh, this happened to me’ — and we’re able to talk about it. More and more, men can come out and be vulnerable. That’s important for the younger generation so they have someone to relate to and look up to… So they can be honest, and not be ashamed.”
Thank you to Kenny. You can find him on Instagram.
Words by Ewan Waddell.
Photography by Ewan Waddell & courtesy of the artist.