Dragan’s effort to free the black male from his perceived social “shackles” is a noble cause especially as a white man. But one photograph in his Modern Slave exhibition, “Hanged Weapon,” displays the problem that is inherit in Dragan’s aims. The photograph’s title itself lies somewhere between an excessively stern attempt at creating social awareness and a tired pun on the historic fears of the black male genitalia. Without contextual evidence of his aims as an artist, many viewers have a hard time seeing past the penis.
“That’s been a large complaint from visitors, the amount of penis in the show,” McMenamin says with an uncomfortable laugh. Though his gallery was brave to take on the brash works, they knew it wouldn’t come without controversy and misunderstanding. “A lot of people I’ve talked to are almost scared to go because of the title,” says Stan Bizell, owner of Café Mocha, a neighbor of AxD Gallery. “Some people see it as a ploy to drum up publicity. My problem is with the amount of full frontal nudity. I understand male nudes,” he continues. “But with that many penises on view, that’s what the show becomes about.”
Still, Modern Slave has been one of the most highly visited exhibitions for the gallery.
When addressing the criticism of his work, Dragan says, “The sexuality is irrelevant to me. The majority of my models are straight ... If the man was gay at times there would be some supposition that after the shoot it would lead to something else. It won’t. The shoot is not drudgery, but when it’s done, it’s done.”
Dragan likes to tell the story of one of his first exhibitions in Harrisburg. “I remember the opening night of the show. There were these two middle-aged women looking at photographs. They stopped at this one photograph. One of the women had this angry look on her face.” The woman, upset by the perceived objectification of the male subject and his body, locked in handcuffs, was expressing discontent. Dragan overheard the woman and pulled down the photograph and showed her the title, a version of “Bitter Equality” (titled “¿Created Equal?” for that particular exhibition). Dragan says she “immediately got it.” And then she was fine.
“The people that seem to have the most comments, positive or negative, are black women, and I’m delighted by it. Far too few women of color have seen my work. I think there is something there that can really appeal to them.”
Overexposure of the black penis isn’t the only criticism Dragan’s work has received. “This show encapsulates many of my ideas about religion,” says Dragan. One image features a man, photographed from navel to knee, stepping from behind bars of captivity to urinate on an old Bible. And as you can expect from a man who says, “going to Catholic school cured me of my Catholicism,” those ideas and convictions are strongly held. “Religion has been used to pacify for centuries. When slaves were held captive, they handed slaves a Bible to pacify them again. And that is the truth that I want to reveal.” Dragan believes that religion still has a stronghold over the lives of black men today. “When I was of a certain age in the late ’60s, I was very optimistic. It was a time of revolution in this country. Along with that came a more secular view of the country, and I encouraged that because I think it’s necessary in a democracy.”
But Dragan’s photograph, used to represent the ideological rebuke of religion over the lives of black men, feels like a fumbled attempt at making an unnecessary political statement. The photograph’s title itself lies somewhere between an excessively stern attempt at creating social awareness and tired pun on the historic fears of the black male genitalia. Can the black male figure be liberated in any way through the sexualized and fetishized use of three of the most damning images that have plagued their advancement? “I think that Modern Slave as a title sort of was the best way for me to encapsulate why I wanted to show these images that seem to be political. To me it was a succinct way to describe what I was doing, why I was doing it and how this was a cohesive collection ... each image shows us how we’re enslaved in this modern society. My only twist is that I focus exclusively on men of color in showing this example. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t spill over to the rest of us as well.”
One might be led to believe that after 30 years of photographing one type of subject in a very specific way, a photographer would grow tired or complacent with that subject. But black men continue to intellectually and visually excite Dragan. “Much like any artist, I have found that as you define your genre, instead of finding less to explore, you find more to look at,” Dragan says. And I continue to discover more to explore in black men as a subject of my photographs.
And as the weeks plod on, the photographer is forging new territory in his work, exploring photographs of less “pristine”-looking men. “I’m going to be doing another young man in the near future. He looks thoroughly urban. He has tattoos, poetry that he’s written (on his chest), lots of piercings. And I asked him, because I was looking at all of his piercings, I said ‘Here’s what were going to do: I’m going to find a piercing parlor that will allow me to photograph you getting pierced nude. The most important part is already hanging out anyway, so let’s just take off the rest of the clothes.’ So I’m going to be doing a nude shoot of him getting pierced.”
And this is only the beginning for Dragan. He is constantly willing to explore new avenues to exhibit and exalt the bodies of black men. “I have more ideas than I have years left to live.”
JD Dragon hosts an artist talk Sat., July 16th, 3pm. AxD Gallery, 265 S. 10th St. 215.627.6250. a-x-d.com
First Person Arts Podcast: Proud Mom