Utopian Voices Here and Now is on at Somerset House until Monday the 29th of August. This weekend is the last chance to see the work.
‘It could be considered by all of your gangbanging friends as some sort of a dress or skirt…But there are warriors that have killed people in kilts in the past. Who gets to decide what’s hard and what’s not hard?’ That’s what Kanye told Paper Mag when Riccardo Tisci urged him to wear a kilt, and that’s exactly what Ib Kamara envisaged in his recent work, 2026.
The exhibition was born as Kamara’s final year Fashion Communications and Promotion project at Central Saint Martins and is nothing short of a challenge to heteronormative attitudes, not only in relation to global fashion but gender, racial and sexual politics in Africa.
The collaboration between Kamara and South African photographer Kristin Lee-Moolman is part of the group show Utopian Voices Here and Now at the Somerset House, and imagines what menswear might look like in just a decade. Through customising and rehashing fabrics from rubbish skips and thrift shops in Johannesburg, the photographic series creates an inquiry into the fragile relationship between menswear and masculinity; and how fashion relates to the sexuality of black Africans.
Crotchet doilies and kitsch florals normally associated with a waify effeminate aesthetic adorn the bodies of black men. Yet there is a striking juxtaposition with the rawness of heavy gold jewellery, reminiscent of a more accepted fashion deriving from American Rap culture. It is thus the consciousness of these distinct pairings that highlight that the limiting conventions of black masculinity have long since been an issue throughout the world; but in Africa the prominence in everyday life is all the more arresting.
Originally hailing from Sierra Leone, Kamara, like his artistic partner Lee-Moolman, is all too accustomed to the homophobic attitudes of his continent. It is your appearance, the clothes on your back that define your identity, your gender and your sexuality; and that for Kamara should not be the case, asserting ‘I hope in the future there is no policing of men’s fashion. A world where a man can be who-ever he chooses to be and not restricted by the norms of his environment.’
The striking portraits of South African men tell a story of gender neutrality, spinning the alpha-male stereotype on its head. Latex bodysuits, leopard print mini dresses, chiffon frills, velour buckles all contrast with the sporty aesthetic of football socks and the standard working man’s Clarks shoes. As Lee-Moolman tells Dazed, the focus is not on gender roles but on the breaking down of social constructions imposed on gender – gender fluidity is not the simple swapping of gender stereotypes but ‘the fact that there is no line.’
2026 asks us to question our own preconceptions of masculinity. What does it been to be masculine or feminine? Does the hindering binary opposition exist anymore and should it even ever have existed?
This year has seen innovative London menswear designer Grace Wales Bonner win the prestigious LVMH prize, catapulting the multi-faceted issue of black male identity to the forefront of high fashion. And with up and coming unisex labels such as Gypsy Sport and Vejas already taking last year’s AW15 New York Fashion Week by a storm, Kamara’s imagined future does not seem far off.
Kamara sees ‘the light in Africa’ and enforced by the group shows curator Shonagh Marshall, understands that the future lies within the cultural movements of New Africa; ‘Africa is the new world and a place to experiment – she is so progressive and ahead of her time.’
2026 is a utopia. It is our world. Where the abnormal once accompanied a dystopic dialogue, self-expression void of the constraints of linear gender politics now signifies real freedom.
We’re already over the scandal of Kanye rocking the infamous kilt; stereotypical forms of masculinity are long dead. So who says that in 2026, off the shoulder shirts and boobtubes won’t be a sell-out in Zara Mens.
Words by Helene Kleih.