Decoding Masculinity @ Ravensbourne: A conversation on Race, Religion & Masculinity.



How do you really define Masculinity?

Shades of Noir’s first debut event of Decoding Masculinity: A conversation on Race, Religion & Masculinity, took place last Friday 18th November at Ravensbourne University, this event was lead by James Ward, Associate Dean at Ravensbourne University, Greenwich.

The panel discussion consisted of photographer and practitioner Asa Johannesson, spoken word artist IGGYLDN and visual artist, Othello De’Souza-Hartley, also lecturer at Ravensbourne University. The panel discussion was lead by Shades of Noir’s very own Aisha Richards, an academic and creative practitioner currently teaching at CSM and founder and creator of Shades of Noir.

This dynamic trio of panellists and chair delivered both an intensely thought-provoking and interactive conversation amongst themselves and with the audience on the topic of Masculinity and all of its intersections, meanings, cultural resonances, performances, societal constructs, etc.

With examples of each artist’s work on rotation in the background setting, the very first question directed to the panel was: ‘How do you define Masculinity?’

“The usefulness of the term ‘masculinity’ is to be able to change the idea of what it means to be a man”


Åsa Johannesson is a photographer with a focus on gender fluidity, she examines relationships between gender, self-image and photographic portraiture and responded from her personal experiences of masculinity haven grown up in Sweden, where as a child there were no visible gender distinguishments amongst children; as she pointed out that ‘the boy’s clothes were no different to girls clothes’ and that she ’would dress like a tomboy’, (unknowing that that was actually a thing.)

These contrasts of upbringings and understanding of masculinity from a young age were interesting angles of approach to the topic and shed light on how much our initial ideas of notions such as masculinity sculpt our experiences.

IGGYLDN, a spoken word artist living in London, whos most recent work Black Boys Don’t Cry combines a mixture of music, visual arts and poetry to aid his storytelling; spoke more so on the emotional links to masculinity and about his understanding as a young boy growing up with the idea that masculinity meant: ‘You had to speak in a deep tone voice’, ‘act like I didn’t really care about my studies’..etc and in different times and places of his life he felt as if he: ‘Wasn’t masculine enough’ for example within his University experience studying Law.  

IGGYLDN also speaking on his experiences with his father and with expressing emotion from a young age: ‘My dad is an emotional person, he taught me it was okay to cry. I was able to talk to him, cry with him.’

‘Masculinity for me was about achieving success and meeting a ‘gold’ standard’

He also spoke on the occasional yet perpetuated narrative that we would hear in cis hetero or in the media or in reality TV relationships such as ‘I need a REAL man’.

What the hell is “real” man? – IGGYLDN

Responses from the audience included the concerns of older generations and our generations scope on relationships and what it meant to be a ‘real’ man or a ‘real’ women today.

Is the pressure to be a “real man” or “real woman” still prevalent? Do young people still expect that in relationships? -Audience Contribution


Othello De’Souza-Hartley whose work is inspired by the local, narratives of the body in relation to the history of place and coded space, and the complexities of identity formation works both predominantly in photography and film. Othello spoke on the importance of introducing these questions on masculinity to our youth from a young age and implement these narratives and conversations within our curriculum from the start.

“The idea of masculinity needs to be challenged from a younger age, so we can have conversations about our insecurities as men” -OH

Referencing his research from focus groups he had held and from the Samaritans stats on mental health and recent suicide rates amongst men in the UK, he spoke on the urgency of also including non-academics within the conversation, our families, locals, etc.

Insights on how the term masculinity was being constantly attached to the sex of the individual instead of the performativity or the characteristics of masculinity was brought up from the audiences observations, also responses on the question of  ‘What role has religion played in our understanding of masculinity?’

Conversation on the black male identity and the struggles of being unable to ‘control one’s surroundings’ and the idea of the family home being the only place to ‘be in control of’ questions on hyper-masculinity arose such as: ‘Does hyper-masculinity in domestic settings, come from the home being the only place you could have full control?’


The audience also gave their responses and observations from some of the questions being asked:

‘’Boys are told not to cry because it’s a sign of weakness, whilst girls are allowed emotion and told “it’ll be okay” -Audience Contribution

‘Men are expected to be “functional”, the family structure teaches men to be masculine by bring practical & resourceful’ -Audience Contribution

As we the conversation gradually peeled back layer after layer of the multilayered term of Masculinity, harder to answer questions were being asked with incongrous answers or some that just couldn’t be answered for now, such as the notion of Power and privilege that is associated with Masculinity.

Whilst we couldn’t find ALL the answers to ALL the questions asked – the discussion had started and continued way past the end of the panel discussion.

A final thought this first event has left me, (alongside many more questions for the next event Decoding masculinity at Camberwell College) is the ’shying away’ from using words that describe how we feel.  This was mentioned towards the end of the discussion, not so much in the political correctness sense, but in the ’this is the only language we have’ or ‘ the language we grew up with’.

Why must we shy away from words that describe how we feel?…


Words by Tiffany Webster.

Related Links:

Shades of Noir Interview with Othello De’Souza Hartley

Shades of Noir Spotlight on Aisha Richards


Black Boys Don’t Cry

Shades of Noir’s next Decoding Masculinity event will take place at Camberwell College UAL: