Two weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic started really picking up in Denver, local creative Christina Pittaluga was directing a room full of black men in lace durags, faux pearl necklaces and tulle veils for a beautifully soft photo shoot and video project.
The project, called “Are We Still Cool?” is a multimedia installment focused on an idea Pittaluga has been brewing for a very long time: healthy masculinity in men of color.
“Who made the rule that men of color have to be so hard all the time? That they have to just swallow their pain because they will be less of a man if they express it? When you look at what society tells them from the age of five, it’s no wonder that they fear showing emotion,” Pittaluga said about the project. “I’ve always been fascinated by this because I was surrounded by men of color growing up. Alongside my wonderment of the hard exterior of a brown man, I noticed the lack of representation of men of color in art.”
“Are We Still Cool?” fuses photographs, video and an article together examining what it means to be masculine and black or brown.
Michael Board II and Nadiya Jackson photographed and edited the photos and video of the dozen models that appear in the project, which will live on the Denver-based Black Actors Guild website instead of a physical gallery like Pittaluga originally envisioned because of the pandemic.
In the video models are asked questions like “When was the last time you cried?” and other topics Pittaluga knows can be uncomfortable from her experience growing up with two brothers and lots of male cousins.
“It just never sat right with me. I’d be upset or crying, they’d be like, ‘ah man, we’re dudes, we don’t do that.’ Why? Why can’t they be upset too? Nobody was telling me not to cry,” she said.
Whatever bad timing the pandemic presented has been superseded by the recent elevation of the Black Lives Matter protests and marches. High profile cases, nationally and locally, like George Floyd, who was killed by Minnesota police, and Elijah McClain who died after an encounter with Aurora police last August, have reinforced the need for conversations about black men and masculinity, Pittaluga said.
“It all makes me really sad and I wish this wasn’t where we were,” she said, adding that recent social justice conversations and her own exhibit have kind of come together like a puzzle. “It just has extra weight now…No matter when I released this, that (police brutality against black men) was still happening. It’s just that much more relevant. The timing really helps because people are finally trying to give black and brown people the recognition they deserve.”
Ryan Foo, a model in the project and director at the Black Actors Guild, said the project embodies what the guild is all about, breaking molds and producing original, thoughtful work.
“The photos are amazing, but the context is what’s important. That’s the number one thing for me,” Foo said. “These are amazing beautiful human beings who should not be afraid to be flowery, not afraid to be soft and not afraid to be human.”
Pittaluga’s hope for the project is that it starts real conversations, because race and masculinity aren’t easy topics. While there has been a big push to talk about, specifically, how black men are viewed in society, the creative said she’s eager for the photos to spark conversations with families, too.
To view the “Are We Still Cool?” project, visit http://www.blackactorsguild.org and click on the articles tab. Prints are available to purchase.