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"Flow" — Fronzo D. Gilkey and Danny Ramos
"Flow" — Fronzo D. Gilkey and Danny Ramos
Michael Board II and Nadiya Jackson

A New Photo Series Upends Representations of Men of Color

Artist Christina Pittaluga grew up watching her two brothers being bullied into stifling their tenderness. If they showed intimacy or softness, they were accused of being gay, told to be a man.

When Pittaluga saw black men in pop culture, they were depicted as hardened and emotionally unavailable, and rarely shown as beautiful. Politicians called them "thugs." They were criminalized...even beaten and murdered by law enforcement. Then told to suck it up and not cry.

With a deep love for black and brown men, she wanted something better for them — something that allowed them to feel, and share, their full range of emotions. So she set out to create the portrait series Are We Still Cool?, which is being released in several installments, with accompanying essays.

The photo-collages in the series depict black men and other men of color through a high-art lens, wearing flowers and traditionally feminine garb, exhibiting their tenderness and desires. The images present a liberating alternative to centuries of dehumanizing art and culture, recasting the models as sensitive humans, rich with taboo emotions.

"Flower Warrior" — Jay CruzEXPAND
"Flower Warrior" — Jay Cruz
Michael Board II and Nadiya Jackson

Pittaluga, who is the creative director and collage artist for the series, worked alongside photographers Michael Board II and Nadiya Jackson on the shoots.

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Are We Still Cool? is being released on the website of the Black Actors Guild, a collective of creatives formed in 2009 by students from the Denver School of the Arts that has been bringing theater, comedy, music and other creative projects to the Denver area over the past decade. The collective is also one of the leaders behind We Are Denver, a 24/7 online video channel launched during the COVID-19 pandemic, filled with shorts from Denver creatives of all stripes.

Now 23, Pittaluga first connected with the Guild several years ago, when she was studying theater at the Denver School of the Arts. “They gave me a platform that helped me realize my interest in all things art,” she says of the group. “As I got older, I realized I wasn’t just a 'theater kid' — I was an all-around creative. That led to me becoming the director of creative content with the Guild.” Through that role, she created this project.

Westword caught up with Pittaluga to find out more about the series.

"Easy, Breezy, Black and Steezy" — Tyriq Swingler
"Easy, Breezy, Black and Steezy" — Tyriq Swingler
Michael Board II and Nadiya Jackson

Westword: How long have you been exploring black masculinity through your work? How has that evolved?

Christina Pittaluga: It’s been less exploring it through my work and more observing it my whole life. I have two older brothers. I’m the only girl. I think for a while it was something that didn’t sit right with me, but it was widely accepted to sweep their feelings under the rug. Therefore, it stopped being at the forefront of my mind. As I continued to observe through life and find a love for the arts, I also became intrigued by my culture. I started playing around with collage in 2014, and I’ve been doing a series of digital collages every Black History Month for the past three years. For example, I researched Kerry James Marshall’s art and Jamel Shabazz’s photography and melded their ideas together through collage. Through that collage work, I was able to find many black male artists who inspired these ideas. My interest in black and brown cultures and love for men of color culminated in this idea. Wanting them to feel seen and heard.

What were some of the tensions and struggles that came up while working on this shoot?

Most of the models are men that I hold near and dear to my heart, from my dearest friends and fellow Black Actors Guild members to my maternal grandfather, brother and nephew. They are all men of color in communities where their voices matter. From the jump, I wanted the models to feel comfortable. We gathered together all of the models' favorite songs and created a playlist that played in the background of each shoot. There was home-cooked food for the models to eat before their on-screen interviews.

The biggest struggle that I saw come up among the men was their negative views on their bodies. When certain models said, “I feel fat” or “I’m too skinny,” I immediately met them with words of love and affirmation, while also working to not invalidate their feelings. We were able to overcome those thoughts and keep the men feeling confident and pretty. The overall experience, and especially the video interviews, all make for a good story. A lot of knowledge and beautiful vulnerability was shared because of this project.

"Mingzen's Father: The Heart of Denver" — Ryan Foo and Mingzen Foo MontoyaEXPAND
"Mingzen's Father: The Heart of Denver" — Ryan Foo and Mingzen Foo Montoya
Michael Board II and Nadiya Jackson

Walk me through your process on each shoot. How much did these models have a say in how they were portrayed, what their fashion was and what props they would use?

My creative team and I had a very clear-cut idea of most of the images we wanted to shoot. I made quite a few mood boards to show the photographers so they understood what I wanted. It was divided into three parts: genres with lace du-rags, silk scarves and grills as recurring motifs. Part one: Flower Boys adorned in flowers and tulle; part two: Pearl and Lace Boys wearing lace du-rags, pearl necklaces and pearl face adornments in front of lace backdrops; part three: Statue Boys standing in statuesque poses in front of velvet backgrounds. The poses were inspired by classical art. The clothing that was asked of the models was a sort of “’hood uniform": white tank tops and khaki pants or chinos.

The mood boards were up on the walls during the shoots, and before we started shooting, I reminded the models to look at them for inspiration and clarity. We made sure to keep their boundaries intact while also encouraging their tender side. The models showed up with open minds, open hearts, and a loving trust in the creative team.

"Men of Grace" — Kevin Quinn Marchman and Fronzo D. Gilkey
"Men of Grace" — Kevin Quinn Marchman and Fronzo D. Gilkey
Michael Board II and Nadiya Jackson

How do sexuality and gender play into this series? How do these men identify? How does that relate to the portraits, if at all?

Gender roles and the expectations for black and brown men played a big role in the series. Men of color and masculine-presenting folk deal with the taboo topic of feminine energy and emotions. However, I wanted there to be a good mixture of sexuality, gender and racial identities between the subjects. There is a stigma across all of their cultures. I wanted to debunk the pressure on them to be manly, stone-faced breadwinners.

We're in a moment when the president is referring to Black Lives Matter protesters as "thugs," black people are being murdered by the police, and black men are being disproportionately incarcerated. How do you see this series as an intervention in all that?

Men of color have that same stereotype tagged onto them: thugs. They are often associated with fear or negativity. This project challenges those harsh stereotypes by putting these men in traditionally “feminine” situations. Presenting men of color in a lesser explored lighting opens up room for discussion — genuinely checking in and realizing men of color have tender and pretty sides as well. This can help with the dehumanization of BIPOC in the media. It's a literal juxtaposition of what that president is saying.

"Gimme Hug" — Fronzo D. Gilkey, Mykail Cooley, Michael Board IIEXPAND
"Gimme Hug" — Fronzo D. Gilkey, Mykail Cooley, Michael Board II
Michael Board II and Nadiya Jackson

I'm curious to know which artists were reference points for you.

I drew a lot of inspiration from painter Kehinde Wiley, multimedia artist Tsoku Maela and painter Barkley L. Hendricks. Each of these artists is a man of color who showed POC in a glorified state. Tsoku Maela has a lot of compelling work inspired by his own mental health struggles. I found it admirable that he was that vulnerable in his work.

Looking at your work, it's hard not to think back fifty years to the Black Liberation struggle of the late ’60s and early ’70s, when the 'Black Is Beautiful' slogan and movement took off. How do you see that history in relation to this project?

This project speaks strongly to that movement. The movement never stopped. Black and brown folk have always been told that they are somehow less beautiful than their non-POC counterparts. Are We Still Cool?declares the beauty within men of color. Unapologetically, this shows the opposite of what they’ve been told they are: strong, elegant, a real piece of art.

Christina Pittaluga is the creative director of "Are We Still Cool?"EXPAND
Christina Pittaluga is the creative director of "Are We Still Cool?"
Courtesy of Christina Pittaluga

In the essay that accompanies this project, you talk about how black men feel obliged to be "so hard all the time." Are We Still Cool? is a direct intervention in that social script. What sort of journey did these men go on through this?

My creative team and I created a list of twenty questions that we asked each of the models — three to four questions per model. The subject matter was intimate and could be uncomfortable if you’re not in a safe space. It doesn't regularly cross people's minds to go up to a black or brown man and ask them, “When is the last time you cried?” or “Do you tell your male friends you love them?”

I was grateful to the men who were a part of this, because they chose to open themselves up to have important conversations. We all want to stop these stigmas. It can start with the leaders in our communities simply asking that little brown boy if he needs a shoulder to cry on.

"Effervescent Pearlescent" — Jaden Anderson
"Effervescent Pearlescent" — Jaden Anderson
Michael Board II and Nadiya Jackson

Have you spoken to them now that the project has been made public, and what's that been like? What have they said?

Yes! I have spoken with a lot of the models, and many of them said, “You made me look beautiful!” It’s funny, because I didn't do anything but show them themselves.

View "Are We Still Cool?" at the Black Actors Guild's website; see it for free through the windows at Understudy through September 12.

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