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Camera man: race, class, and British masculinity

Imran perretta the destructors film still architectural review masculinities

In both the palaces of Belgravia, and a community centre in Shadwell, bodies and buildings lay bare issues of masculinity, racism and class

A man of colour working as a servant stands poised in a corridor lined with statues, a silver serving platter in hand. These are private spaces of power, and seemingly filled with conversations about how to hold on to that power, albeit rendered deliberately absurd and satirical by the verse printed beneath: ‘Men are interested / in Power. / Women are interested / in Service’. Taken during both the early years of prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s tenure (1979-90) and the Falklands War (1982), the black and white portraits in Karen Knorr’s photobook Gentlemen (1983) document the Georgian homes of London’s upper class in Belgravia, transcribing overheard comments and snatches of conversation into mock Romantic poetry which is presented alongside the images in the book. 

Karen knorr masculinities aristocracy architectural review

Karen knorr masculinities aristocracy architectural review

Source: © Karen Knorr, Tate: Gift Eric and Louise Franck London Collection 2013

Karen Knorr’s satirical take on social hierarchy lays bare the treatment of class, ethnicity and gender by the aristocracy

The spaces are full of Neoclassical grandeur: high vaulted ceilings, antique furniture, chandeliers, portrait busts, dusty oil paintings; yet the timeless feel of each scene is somewhat unsettled by the references to contemporary politics in the poetic verse underneath. The architectures that frame such comments not only materially represent vast concentrations of wealth and power – but also rhetorically aim to represent an image of order and control to support a worldview built on fantasies about whiteness and masculinity. 

Britain’s histories of colonialism and white supremacy frame the snatches of conversation captured by Knorr. In one image, an elderly suited white man peers into an ornate mirror – as though hiding in the shadows under a grand staircase. A hand to his chin, his posture seems off balance – as though he is about to fall over. The text below the photo reads: ‘It was our Tongue, our Mother Tongue / that was heard in Chicago and Calcutta, / in Gibraltar, Trinidad and Vancouver. / To this day, judges pronounce English law / in Canberra and New Delhi, / in Ottawa and Washington’. The somewhat smug implication behind these lines hints at a British upper-class identity shaped by empire and built on a belief of being a ruler or custodian. In another photograph, which depicts a large room with antique furniture and an old painting of an affluent man dressed in a top hat on a horse – the text below reads: ‘reminding him of his own / Higher Nature. / Chivalry, he believed, / should precede all subsequent / Decency in Relations / between Races’. 

Karen knorr aristocracy masculinities architectural review

Karen knorr aristocracy masculinities architectural review

Source: © Karen Knorr, Tate: Gift Eric and Louise Franck London Collection 2013

Knorr’s legacy of colonialism: winner in the lottery of life

Rather than convey a sense of custodianship or timeless mastery that the Belgravia mansions in Gentlemen aim to evoke, Imran Perretta’s video the destructors (2020) considers what it might mean to live with violence without lashing out or adopting the same ideas of manliness that have played such a profound role in histories of oppression. Navigating the profound and systemic racism that constructs brown masculinity as an imagined threat, the video explores the experience of growing up as a Muslim man in 21st-century Britain. Gathering in Tower Hamlets’ Shadwell Community Centre, young British Muslim men talk about the deep pain and violence of growing up amid the War on Terror and decades of state-sponsored Islamophobia.

As if haunted by layers of history, the video’s title makes reference to novelist Graham Greene’s short story The Destructors (1954), where a group of young people plot to tear down an old man’s house in London in the aftermath of the Second World War, a city still reeling from the Blitz. Exploring the way youth is often imagined to be threatening to society, and playing with the prospect of tearing down an old order – all amid the city’s ruins as a consequence of conflict, a conflict that also seemed to strike a fatal blow for Britain’s empire – Perretta’s narrative imagines Shadwell Community Centre as both a space for collective gathering and support. In his film, the architecture is seemingly under attack from the outside – and yet also implicated in larger societal structures of containment, the former school feeling at times like a kind of metaphorical prison.  

08 imran perretta the destructors architectural review masculinities

08 imran perretta the destructors architectural review masculinities

Source: Imran Perretta

Perretta’s legacy of colonialism: isolated and faceless

13 imran perretta destructors architectural review masculinities

13 imran perretta destructors architectural review masculinities

Source: Imran Perretta

Perretta explains, ‘my “coming of age” was coming to know that my body was perceived as a weapon’

For both Knorr and Perretta, London itself is portrayed as a conflicted space. A place where wealth and power has long been concentrated – much of those riches a product of slavery and empire (including the very houses Knorr documents) – it has also always been a site of migration and profound inequality. Perretta’s the destructors paints not only a picture of the intense violence of Islamophobia and the ongoing legacies of colonialism in Britain today. If masculinity and race as rhetorical ideas and systems of oppression have long supported or been shaped by London’s built fabric, he also imagines buildings and bodies that refuse to reproduce the very conceptual architectures that shaped such violence. ‘Talk me down from all unthinkable masculinities’, says one of the film’s narrators, ‘a way for me to relent, to soften.’ The floods and toxic smoke that fill the former school may be symbolic of the very kinds of attacks and insults used against people of colour in an attempt to cast them as an out-of-control threat in need of containment. 

On another page of Gentlemen, a suited white man smokes a cigarette as he gazes out to Neoclassical buildings outside the room’s windows. His poise in an antique-looking armchair may appear relaxed with a sense of majesty – but the quote pasted below the photograph seems more anxious. In reference to the left-wing politician and then leader of the Greater London Council, the text reads: ‘If Livingstone / gets his way / we might soon be Living / in the People’s Republic of / Greater London’. The tension between the fear betrayed by the transcript, and the appearance of effortless mastery in the photograph, chips away at the impression of unshakable grandeur that the architecture and its inhabitants seek to project. 

Karen knorr aristocracy architectural review masculinities

Karen knorr aristocracy architectural review masculinities

Source: © Karen Knorr, Tate: Gift Eric and Louise Franck London Collection 2013

Fear of the Left is not betrayed in the palaces of male power in Knorr’s photographs

In Perretta’s film, the architecture plays a kind of complex character: at once claustrophobic and foreboding; while also a place of safety and intimacy. Its inhabitants, often rendered faceless, are either isolated in the corners of rooms, or form collective consolations with their bodies across the sports hall floor. ‘We’re just trying to survive this position we find ourselves in’, a voice says: ‘under protected and overexposed to events, suffering’. The hum of the building’s electric lighting has been amplified, bristling with tension.

As its hallways begin to flood and black smoke seeps into the corridors from the outside world, Shadwell Community Centre looks as if under attack from a hostile environment, but it also turns the building into a body – soft, permeable, fluid. Lit by harsh strip lighting and littered with gym equipment and office furniture, the former Victorian school is itself a conflicted character: both a space of collective gathering and an extension of the architectures of societal oppression. Certain kinds of stigma can be turned into collective forms of resistance. For all that Perretta’s figures appear isolated, they also gather together: the men leaning on each other to build structures of support. Our buildings and our bodies are deeply connected, materially and metaphorically, allowing us to rethink our conceptual and corporeal architectures of masculinity. 

Lead image: The identities of the characters in Imran Perretta’s the destructors are obscured, a comment on the surveillance of British Muslims in the UK

Exhibitions

Masculinities: Liberation through Photography, Barbican, London: 20 February – 17 May 2020

Imran Perretta: the destructors, Chisenhale Gallery, London: 16 January – 15 March 2020

This piece is featured in the AR March 2020 issue on Masculinities + W Awards – click here to buy your copy today