Portraiture As Performative Armour



The portrait captioning this piece features me in resplendent regalia. This is the way I present myself on social media, on my website and in the press, but the truth is, I look nothing like my portraits. In my daily life I’m not an Afrofuturistic androgyne queen with pep and power in my back-pocket. Instead I’m a relatively shy, socially awkward nerd with a penchant for playing dress-up. But don’t I make this mess look and smell like monyeta? Don’t I?


Ten years ago a British magazine sent a photographer over to my apartment to take some photos of me standing in front of a wall of my paintings. It was summer and the top-floor loft that I call home was sweltering. The photographer was a pleasant bloke but I couldn’t disguise my discomfort. The resulting shoot was shambolic and I ended up resembling a Sweaty Betty in heat. I learnt my lesson, which was this: if you want to be in the public sphere in any capacity, you have to try to control your image and your narrative. It sounds semplice, don’t it? But the truth of it is that trying to maintain my public persona has been a bracing and exorbitant experiment for me. Surely there must be a more meaningful reason to keep creating these images than a basic need for control; than mere ego?


I use these photos of myself not merely as performance art, but as performative armour. I’m uninterested in looking sexy or stylish. I want to present an alter-ego representing undiluted self-control and dominance, a direct counteraction to my reality. In my daily life you’ll find me in sweatpants, torn socks and tatty tee-shirts soiled with ketchup. I’m often in a daze: depressed and confused about every decision I make. The only space where this skata makes sense is when I’m writing, or when I’m posing in a sloshed fashion before a stressed-out photographer. The page and the portraits animate me because they suggest a certain level of dynamism that I don’t actually possess: the illusion is something for me to aspire to.


Even though I’m not physically taking the photographs and work with very different photographers, there’s a distinctive through-line that’s informed entirely by my worldview. I come up with the concept for each shoot, devise the styling and the makeup, even going so far as providing the catering for the crew. If you examine each of my photographs, there’s an emphasis on metal, be it excessive jewellery or pieces of my garments. This is to emphasise weaponry: edges so sharp one becomes an untouchable being. The formerly bullied kid becomes the badass ruler of his own queendom, transfiguring his entire identity in the process.


Who said that redemption stories were for suckers?



Image by DIRIYE OSMAN and STEVE BRIGHT