In Antwaun Sargent’s Saatchi Gallery exhibition, Black bodies are present in the works of all of the photographers on show, but no two of them portray the Black body in the same way
Antwaun Sargent describes his groundbreaking exhibition The New Black Vanguard: Photography Between Art and Fashion as a ‘movement’ – and it is. The exhibition brings together the work of 15 innovative Black photographers, based internationally, whose works blur the lines between fashion, photography and art. Now on display at the Saatchi Gallery, The New Black Vanguard provides a refreshing gaze through the lens of several of the brightest young, Black photographers, including the likes of Campbell Addy, Nadine Ijewere and Tyler Mitchell amongst others.
The New Black Vanguard demonstrates the multiplicity of Blackness. Black bodies are present in the works of all of the photographers in the exhibition, but no two of them portray the Black body in the same way. Sargent explains the importance of recognising diversity within the work created by the artists, saying “[these image makers] are all living around the world and all creating from their local content … each of these photographers are thinking about beauty in their own ways, thinking about desire in their own ways, thinking about the camera in their own ways and thinking about the different things they need to image in their own ways.”
This is clear in the broad range of cultural influences that the photographers draw on, from Ruth Ossai’s Nollywood and Nigerian studio-portrait-inspired images, to Quil Lemons’ exploration of gender and masculinity in US Black communities in his Glitterboy series. As Sargent says, “What ties them together is an identity that is rooted in Blackness but is not limited to Blackness being some type of monolith.”
Sargent first conceived of The New Black Vanguard in 2018, when he was commissioned by Aperture to produce the eponymous book. Reminiscing on his process, he says “it could have gone in any direction really, but what I saw then was that there was a burgeoning group of Black image-makers of my generation who were trying to make a statement. Some of them were breaking through and some of them had already made their own platforms. I just thought that if I was going to do a photography book, I wanted to add something to the conversation. I didn’t want it to be just another book that didn’t say something about my generation and the way that my generation is thinking about images.”
Fashion photography and fine art photography are often categorised separately, but this exhibition proves that such labels can be restrictive. “It’s strange that there is such a divide – the divide only works to hold people down, and it’s only applied to hold people down. Photographers make images, everybody else categorises them … I just think of it as image making,” he explains. “I’m more curious about how images travel and the afterlives of images. Like the book cover, which is a Vogue shoot that Tyler [Mitchell] did – I think that particular image was about the lipstick.” Now, the image in question – of Somali-American model Ugbad Abdi – is more likely to be recognised as an emblem of The New Black Vanguard and as an artwork in itself, outside of the editorial for which it was first commissioned.
Now in its tenth iteration, the exhibition is on view in London for the first time. Sargent reflects on the journey of The New Black Vanguard, saying: “we did not plan to tour this exhibition, you know. It just happened that people really responded to it – the culture needed it in this way. So, I’m just happy that we all came together to do this.”
The New Black Vanguard is on view at the Saatchi Gallery until January 22, 2023.