The photographers redefining the erotic image for the 21st century


Vera Violette
Vera VioletteCourtesy of the artist

From cutting-edge fetish imagery to the beauty of queer bodies and perspective, these photographers are finding new ways to document sexuality in an era of online censorship

22April 2021TextAnastasiia Fedorova

Erotic images and BDSM art have always been a powerful part of artistic expression – but they also have an ambiguous history. Our society’s prevalent idea of the erotic is largely shaped by the white male gaze – from Renaissance paintings to covers of Playboy magazine. In the last few decades, erotic photography has both reinforced and challenged this history. The gay and queer perspective on sexuality has found its way into the art canon through the works of Robert Mapplethorpe and Catherine Opie, but a lot of names still remain much less known, including Ajamu X, or Doris Kloster. The history of the erotic imagery remains largely in the shadows, just as sex remains a topic which is taboo in our society. But the new generation of visual artists is keen to prove that documenting the erotic and the sexual is not only pleasurable but a vital part of our culture and creative expression.

For contemporary photographers and artists, working with erotic and sexual imagery poses its own challenges. In recent years, more and more mainstream social media platforms are becoming hostile towards nudity, sex work and even broader conversations involving sex – which also impacts artists, and especially queer, POC, and ones spotlighting diverse bodies. Despite the censorship, the visual language of the erotic photography is evolving to include more and more diverse perspectives. In this new world of radical erotic photography, the conventions of gender and power are flipped, the energy comes from authentic connection, kinks become a radical expression of freedom, and all kinds of bodies are given a safe space to truly shine. The work of these artists is playful, hot, authentic – and proves that sexual imagery can be about agency in expressing one’s desire.

Lanee Bird
Lanee BirdCourtesy of the artist; Model: Olivia Black


Based in New York, Lanee Bird is one of the most prolific photographers documenting the contemporary fetish and kink community. With a background in fine art, Bird admits that her kink and queer identities are key to her visual style – as much as the extensive research into the history of erotic and fetish photography. “I collect vintage fetish magazines and books, so many of my inspirations come from 1980s-90s fetish photographers,” she says. “There was a massive resurgence of fetish art during the 1980s, which influenced pop culture and mainstream runways at the time. I am very inspired by the likes Doris Kloster, Helmut Newton, Eric Kroll, Christophe Mourthé, Guy Bourdin, Trevor Watson, Bob Carlos Clarke and Chris Bell.”

Bird pays meticulous attention to the expressive potential of light, colours and textures while exploring the notions of playfulness, identity and power. Her subjects often dominate the image with truly exquisite presence. As much as her images come from the authentic world of the kink scene, they also belong in the art context – one of her aims is to challenge the status of erotic photography as low culture.

Alexandra Kacha
Alexandra KachaCourtesy of the artist


Alexandra Kacha’s photographs are instantly recognisable through a combination of enchanting dreamy atmosphere and unapologetic sexuality. A big lover of 1980s imagery, they often use soft hues and tenderly blurred lights, as well as draped satin and silk, candles, and religious and mystical symbolism. Based in LA, they often document kinksters, queer lovers, sex workers, dominatrixes – as well as doing in person and online “boudoir shoots” with anyone who would like to be captured in their most intimate beautiful state.

For Kacha, the aesthetic is not the goal, but a way to create a space for an authentic representation of desire. Kacha started their career by taking photos of their friends who worked as dominatrixes in Austin, Texas – and have been enjoying the collaboration and empathy in photography since then. “I loved Nan Goldin when I was really young. I wanted to do the same thing but in my own queer world. I just love the voyeur aspect of it all,” they admit. 

Rub magazine
Rub magazineCourtesy of the artists


Imogen May and India Jaggon are a couple and a creative duo behind Rub Magazine, launched this year and described as “queer DIY independent smut”. Their creative collaboration evolved alongside their romantic connection. “When we first started dating, taking photos of each other was a huge part of our relationship, especially at the beginning as I had just come out as a lesbian and was able to finally explore my desires and gaze through photography,” Imogen remembers. Images they create for Rub frequently feature themselves and their friends in London’s queer community – unapologetically owning the expression of their sexuality.

“I want to see more QBPOC bodies, gender non-conforming bodies, bigger bodies, sexualities that are kinky, complex, and fit outside of gender boxes or roles. Before we started Rub, I wanted to see myself represented sexually somewhere and I couldn’t seem to find it…” India admits. “I want the erotic imagery we wish the world could be filled with,” agrees Imogen. The first printed issue of Rub is coming this year, and the magazine is currently accepting content submissions. 

The London Vagabond
The London VagabondCourtesy of the artist


The London Vagabond duo has a near-to cult status in the kink community of London and beyond. The self-described “London-based lovers and fetishists” have been making work collaboratively for about four years. Their imagery is partly a reflection of their lifestyle – of male submissive and female dominant perspectives – but also an honest, visceral and uncensored survey of complex human sexuality. Favouring rare analogue cameras and printed books and zines over digital tools, they are not afraid to get in the thick of it when it comes to exploring the erotic and the sexual – be it parties, bodies, BDSM scenes or documenting their own lives.

“We are interested in the relationship between the lens and the erotic, whether that’s by the subject flirting with the camera with their eyes or the presence of the camera fulfilling part of a fantasy for the person involved. We are drawn to documenting exhibitionists and people that see our work and can imagine themselves inside it,” the duo comments. “The work is gritty, unapologetic, never retouched and is an honest portrayal of the subject in the image”.

Ottilie Landmark
Ottilie LandmarkCourtesy of the artist


Based in London, Ottilie Landmark is committed to creating a complex and nuanced portraial of queer and female subjects in both erotic and fashion imagery. She often works on the intersection of these two areas, while also combining the tools of the editorial, artistic and personal documentary photography. Inspired by the classic 20th century erotic works by Helmut NewtonGuy Bourdin, and Mario Testino, she is looking to subvert these refrences to reflect the queer and lesbian perspective.

“I think my images have a sinister tone to them, as well as sexual tension. That said, there are also intimate and private moments from my own life. Bringing these together I want to tell a story about female desire,” Landmark says. She has also been photographing sex workers and people from the kink community looking to challenge the existing visual stereotypes of these communities.

Vera Violette
Vera VioletteCourtesy of the artist


Vera Violette is professional dominatrix, video-maker, photographer, and a latex designer at Good Girl Latex. She has been interested both in visual culture and making things since childhood, and later studies film and photography. These interests naturally came back as she got into sex work – both designing and making latex outfits for herself and documenting her sessions and intimate experiences. Violette’s photography is a rare empathetic insight both into BDSM and its complex interactions, and queer sexuality in the world of sex work.

Amelia Sonsino
Amelia SonsinoCourtesy of the artist


For 22-year-old London-based Amelia Sonsino, photography is a passion and a tool to explore contemporary queer identity – and sexuality is its integral element. “Sex is universal and therefore should be more widely accepted rather than being a taboo subject,” she says. “As a queer person I love shooting the LGBTQIA+ community to uplift and show the diversity and creativity within the people around me. My favourite things to shoot are club kids, portraits and anything weird and wonderful. I also have a thing for toilets and the colour red. I want to produce work that has a shock factor but is also endearing and memorable”.

In Amelia’s work, sexuality is something endearingly playful and creative, and completely defined by her subjects – be it dancers at Harpies strip club or young queers choosing to wear spiked collars and silver thigh-highs in their home spaces.

Anastasiia Fedorova writes about BDSM, kink ,and fetish in culture at her platform ‘Other Kinds of Pleasure’, which you can follow here

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From Nobuyoshi Araki to Jo Ann Callis, These Photographers Captured the Desire and Dynamics of Fetish


From Nobuyoshi Araki to Jo Ann Callis, These Photographers Captured the Desire and Dynamics of Fetish

Jacqui PalumboOct 22, 2019 1:22pmKat Toronto (Miss Meatface)Miss Meatface as Mae West, 2017The Untitled Space$600 – 1,500Since the invention of the daguerreotype in 1839, photographers have probed the erotic and the explicit. Fetishes are often acted out behind closed doors, but photography can reveal the power structures, intimacy, compulsion, and raw sexuality of these acts. Photography gave us the means to question how we navigate our base desires within societal structures. Robert Mapplethorpe’s work epitomized this debate the year after he died, with his most visceral and sexual images thrust into the bright lights of a courtroom. Is it the photographer or the subject’s desire being shown? These five photographers exploring fetish have each contributed their gaze to criticism and acclaim.

Jo Ann CallisFollow

Jo Ann CallisUntitled, From Early Color Portfolio,, ca. 1976ROSEGALLERYContact for priceJo Ann CallisWoman with Blond Hair, 1977ROSEGALLERYContact for priceIn a body of work from the 1970s, Jo Ann Callis crops in close on the elements that make up desire. A man grips a woman’s ankles as she stands on a chair in heels, illuminated by the camera’s flash. A woman’s hand with dirtied cuticles lies in a pool of honey. A single marker line runs down the spine of a woman, who is face down in bed. Callis uses everyday items in suggestive ways: Duct tape stretches across nipples, or black silky gloves against bare skin.The photographer kept her figures anonymous in what she refers to as her “fetish project.” It heightens the sense of mystery in interactions that could be strangely innocuous or the makings of an illicit album. She made the series as a mother in Los Angeles, having just obtained her undergraduate degree after an extended hiatus from school. Though she wasn’t politically engaged with the feminism movement of the decade, she, like many of her contemporaries, reclaimed sexuality through the female gaze.

Jo Ann Callis

Jo Ann CallisView Slideshow2 ImagesThough Callis explores the interior lives of the women in her scenes—both in their minds and in their homes—she told TheNew Yorker in 2014 that she rejects the word “domesticity” to describe her work. The home “is a place of comfort and discomfort,” she said. “There is a parallel between the two in most everything.”

Robert MapplethorpeFollow

Robert MapplethorpeJoe Rubberman, 1978“Mapplethorpe + Munch” at Munch Museum, OsloIn 1989, the year that Robert Mapplethorpe died at age 42, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., famously canceled his retrospective “The Perfect Moment.” The show had become both national news and a heated discussion on the U.S. Senate floor due to a small selection of BDSM images from Mapplethorpe’s “X Portfolio” (1978). Senator Jesse Helms was incensed that the museum had received government funding from the NEA to mount images of anal fisting and leather daddies.Helms didn’t stop the public from seeing the work, however. The following year, the retrospective opened at Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center. Nine members of a grand jury filed in to see the photographs when the center opened, and shortly thereafter, the museum’s director, Dennis Barrie, was indicted on charges of obscenity. He and the museum were later cleared. This year, some of the works were included in Mapplethorpe’s two-part retrospective at the Guggenheim in New York, “Implicit Tensions.”Robert Mapplethorpe

Robert MapplethorpeView Slideshow3 ImagesAt the time of his death, Mapplethorpe was already well-known for his black-and-white portraits of famous faces, bodies, and flowers, but the controversy spotlighted his explicit images of queer subcultures, as well. The court case asked: Was it art? Mapplethorpe once said he didn’t think there was “that much difference between a photograph of a fist up someone’s ass and a photograph of carnations in a bowl.” Curators who testified echoed this sentiment. Janet Kardon, who worked on the show with Mapplethorpe before his death, said the photographer was “very attentive to lighting, arrangement within a picture, texture of skin, the same criteria he would use when he would do a flower.”

Nobuyoshi ArakiFollow

Nobuyoshi ArakiKinbaku – Bondage Series, 1997Kunzt GalleryNobuyoshi ArakiBondage Series #2, 1997Kunzt GalleryNobuyoshi Araki’s prolific archive of images occupies a private world of sex that seems to exist in a vaccum. Tight frames in bedrooms, bathrooms, and—rarely—outdoors show nude Japanese women who are vulnerable yet guarded, bound by the gaze of his camera and often by ropes. They are certainly there for pleasure, but whose?Born in Tokyo in 1940, Araki grew up during America’s post-war occupation, as Western culture commingled with Japanese tradition while communist-anarchist student movements blossomed and burned. Araki’s contemporaries Daido Moriyama and Shomei Tomatsu roamed the streets of Tokyo’s dark beating heart, Shinjuku, seeking those who sought refuge in drink, dancing, or sex.Nobuyoshi Araki

Nobuyoshi ArakiView Slideshow3 ImagesAraki, too, captured the spaces where taboo reigned—his series “Tokyo Lucky Hole” (1978–85) captured Shinjuku’s sex clubs until they were shuttered under new legislation. Araki is also known for his images of rope play, or kinbaku. In black-and-white and color film images, as well as Polaroids, women in kimonos (or nothing at all) are suspended in the air or splayed on the floor, their limbs tied together.The photographer still enjoys notoriety and renown at age 79, but his most famous model and collaborator, Kaori, spoke out against him during the #MeToo movement in 2018. She accused him of exploiting her without a fair contract or pay, and of treating her like an object, raising questions about the realities of being an artist’s muse.

Helmut NewtonFollow

Helmut NewtonSaddle I, 1976ArtLife GalleryIn 1976, Helmut Newton had to decide which Hermès whips and saddles would look best in his shoot. Newton once called the equestrian-minded luxury brand “the world’s greatest sex shop.” The photographer earned the nickname “King of Kink” for good reason: At this shoot in the Hotel Lancaster, he created the image Saddle I, of a model on all fours on the bed wearing the titular accessory. It became iconic in fashion and inflammatory in feminist circles.Born in Berlin in 1920 to a Jewish family, Newton fled Nazi Germany and eventually joined Australian armed forces to earn his citizenship after a stint as a gigolo in Singapore. He became known for his erotic high-contrast fashion images in VoguePlayboy, and Harper’s Bazaar capturing the famous faces and lithe bodies of the era. His first book in 1976, White Women, featured a selection of editorial images enclosed in a cover of a bare bum with a black garter.Helmut Newton

Helmut NewtonView Slideshow3 ImagesNewton’s fetishization was considered sumptuous, never seedy. “His menu—threesomes, sado-masochism, sapphism, prostitution, voyeurism, maids, mistresses, masters and beyond—may be the routine fare of pornography, but in his hands the potentially crude acquires an inimitable gloss of luxurious sophistication,” Sarah Mower wrote for the New York Times in 2003, the year before his death. Eighty of Newton’s celebrity subjects signed the first copy of the enormous Taschen tome published in 1999 titled SUMO. It became the most expensive book to be published in the 20th century, hauling in $430,000 at auction. This year, Taschen has released a new edition of SUMO for the 20th anniversary.

Kat Toronto (Miss Meatface)Follow

Kat Toronto (Miss Meatface)Miss Meatface Household Chores, 2017The Untitled Space$600 – 1,500Enter the home of Miss Meatface and she’ll play the perfect host—scrubbing the bathroom, dusting the corners, and serving you hot tea in the parlor—all while sporting heels and glossy head-to-toe latex.The alter-ego of artist Kat Toronto, Miss Meatface isn’t a persona created for sexual pleasure. Instead, the photography-based artist acts out fetishistic themes—like PVC outfits and dom-sub relationships—to playfully comment on gender roles. Why must a woman choose between being a dominatrix and a homemaker? She doesn’t.

Kat Toronto (Miss Meatface)

Kat Toronto (Miss Meatface)View Slideshow3 ImagesT oronto developed Miss Meatface during an exceptionally hard time in her life, following cervical cancer, a hysterectomy, and a painful divorce. What began as a series of therapeutic self-portraits evolved into a full character that she could step into and explore. After sorting through her grandmother’s mid-century photos and ephemera and looking back to classic manners books, she was intrigued by the idealization of womanhood and how it can be restrictive. Toronto even published an updated etiquette book in 2017 to guide other like-minded ladies.Inspired by an old etiquette book, she told Dazed,“My absolute favorite quote has to be: ‘Delicate flowers must know how to crack a fierce whip. That’s important, especially as women. You may look like the loveliest little flower, but down below, you have to be a hellion.”

Hong Kong shibari artist shares the truth behind Japanese bondage


By Time Out Hong Kong Posted: Wednesday June 17 2020

The art of bondage has long been seen as a sexual fetish, stigmatised with labels such as perversion and lust. We sat down with Subay, a local bondage artist and founder of Kokoro Studio, to find out the truth behind this mysterious art. By Cara Hung. Translated by Hoi Man Yau. 

The serenity of the room was broken by the sounds of tightening ropes rubbing against the bamboo, along with the occasional soft moans of a woman. The bondage artist meticulously binds the model with visually intricate knots, while constantly uttering reassurances to make her feel safe. While perfecting the art of ties and forms, the subtleties of the act show consensual restraint and trust. It is not a sexual act; just two people completely engaged in the moment, such is the art of Japanese bondage.

Shibari (to tie) is a form of Japanese artistic rope bondage. The concept can be traced back
to Hojōjutsu, a type of martial art from the Edo period in Japan, in which samurais used to capture criminals. Although, that’s not to say that Hojōjutsu and modern Japanese bondage have a direct correlation. Classical Japanese kabuki theatres brought the art of bondage to the stage, stylising torture bondage for the sake of dramatic tension. A common trope featured virtuous females being tortured, showing the aesthetic of tragedy through the kabuki’s bound bodies.

Tale through bondage

The art of bondage has many different layers, and every artist has their own style. Some people practise bondage for sexual pleasures, as shown in many adult films from Japan; some practise it for photography, pursuing the aesthetics of bondage; and some are more interested in the visually impressive acts of suspending a restrained partner up in the air.

“For me, the art of shibari lies in emotion. The ropes become a medium of communication,” shares Subay. She also believes that bondage should not be restricted to just the bedroom or between couples; it could also be a form of deep and meaningful communication between friends. “I love the Japanese saying ‘ichigo-ichie’ (いちごいちえ). It describes what I believe to be the essence of bondage, regardless of the style: that the beauty of bondage flourishes in one single, unrepeatable moment”.

“For me, the art of shibari lies in emotion. The ropes become a medium of communication”

Subay started practising bondage at the age of 18, when she secretly approached bondage artist Haruki Yukimura during a family trip to Japan and took lessons from him, unbeknownst to her family. Inspired by the experience, Subay delved deeper into the art of shibari as a student of Japanese bondage artist Naka Akira. In 2015, she eventually started her own bondage workshop in Hong Kong called Kokoro Studio.

“It is challenging to find a suitable venue for this art in Hong Kong. You want to protect the privacy of all participants, but most venues for rent have CCTV installed,’ says Subay. She opened her studio aiming to create a safe and private space with her friends to connect with the local bondage community. Subay also noticed that there were a lot of people falsely claiming to be bondage artists on the internet, and hopes to protect her friends from these charlatans through educating them.

Solace amidst peril

“Bondage is not a 100 percent safe practice, one missed step and it can lead to injuries such as nerve compression, which is invisible to the naked eye,” explains Subay. She stresses that knowing which part of the body is prone to injury and communicating this effectively with your partner should come before anything else. There are a lot of risks involved, but the danger builds a strong sense of trust and security between the rope top and the rope bottom. When one is restrained by ropes, the binder and the bound have to trust each other while exposing their vulnerable sides. “It’s like finding your soulmate, who will give you a sense of security. You’ll discover a feeling of rapture during the process, and deprivation yet fulfillment when it ends.”

The binder and the bound

Though Subay is a full-fledged bondage artist who has taught and performed her art across the globe, she remains Naka’s student. “It’s not just about the techniques of the art, but also, the attitude and way of life.” Subay demonstrates the style of her two masters in her art, putting emphasis on sensuality and visual impacts.

“I don’t bind my partners for sexual purposes, regardless of their sex. I use ropes to understand my partner’s emotions and find out what they desire.” Even when practising erotic bondage, Subay aims to manifest love and intimacy through her partner’s imagination rather than physical contact.

Bondage model ‘K’ agrees that the essence of bondage lies in the interaction of the partners. Elegant and soft-spoken, ‘K’ is not someone you would associate with shibari. “When you are bound, not only are your limbs entangled, your vision is also restricted. There’s a sense of anxiousness, which comes with the thrill of anticipation,” she enthuses. A common, yet misguided, view about the bondage artist and the model is that they have a dominant-submissive relationship. However, Subay insists that they are on equal ground. “If my partner derives pleasure from pain or turmoil, I will try to deliver.”

Let subcultures remain subcultures

Subay thinks that the majority of the Hong Kong society holds a conservative stance regarding this topic. “They can’t accept the concept of bondage as they do not understand what eroticism and BDSM is. They equate it with violence and inelegance.” However, Subay does not expect bondage to become a mainstream art, though she hopes Kokoro Studio can keep running for the small bondage community. “When Hongkongers can openly discuss topics like LGBTQ+, eroticism, and when sexual education goes beyond using a condom and birth, I will think about promoting the shibari culture.”

‘Fetish’ Fun House


Buller’s homoerotic exhibit at Zodiac Gallery riffs on the ‘male gaze

by Jonathan OrozcoApril 15, 2021

“Busts”, 2021, ceramic, all photos courtesy of Jonathan Orozco

Fetish at the Garden of the Zodiac Gallery is just so nonchalant about the chains, handcuffs, phallic sex toys, and BDSM dungeon-like scenery you’re exposed to. It’s also surreal to see something like this being made in Nebraska, a state not really known for liberalism or sexual freedom like California and New York. But Larry Buller truly pokes fun at this by mixing Christian imagery and gayness into humorous and suggestive ceramic vessels. It feels like it should be controversial, but it doesn’t. Though, you wouldn’t want to bring your grandma to this show.

Overall, his ceramics feel anachronistic in two ways: that of the China cabinet and the socially repressed homosexual man. The former being represented through over-the-top Rococo decorative techniques, like abundant floral patterning and gilding that recall the overpriced and underutilized porcelain dishware every family seemed to complain about, and the latter, represented by the hypermasculine male figure of another era. Think the early 1970s-80s stereotypical representation of gay men: a buff beefcake, mustached, and dressed in the clone look.

Initially, this exhibition presents itself as a sex dungeon. You walk in and red lights flood a small room with hanging chains and three male busts propped on an elaborately gold-coated shelf. These busts all wear different gay signifiers. To the left, a man wearing a wig à la Freddie Mercury in I Want to Break Free, the center, a Leatherman, and to the right, another man wearing a leather dog mask, with a studded gilded leash. It’s easy to tell that Buller isn’t trying to hide anything in shame. 

Classy Tchotchkes and Plugs, 2019-2021 (Detail)

There are certainly more comical aspects to his objects that satirize American consumer habits. Don’t you remember a collection of knick-knacks or kitschy decorations lining a shelf in your grandma’s house? Well, Buller sets up shelves with ceramics not too dissimilar from a Precious Moments grouping, only this time, statues of the Virgin Mary, dandies, fruit, and images of Jesus, are surrounded by adult novelty items. On occasion, a golden studded toy is covered with a picture of Jesus himself.

Buller also jokes about functionality with his ceramics. They’re not just decorative – they’re just as functional as a vase or delicate China dishware, but it’s hard to imagine actually using many of these objects, not because they’re ceramics, but because of their relative size and decorative studs, spikes, etc. These absurdly goofy artworks have two immediate responses: “…how?” or “Ouch!”

“Heavenly Compotes with Eggplant and Peaches” (Diptych), 2021

Some more current references known to younger audiences include eggplant and peach emojis. In both millennial and zillenial vernacular, these two fruits are stylized euphemisms for male reproductive organs and human bottoms. Knowing this, Buller approaches these symbols with his elaborate decorative approach, glazing and gilding, which take on an exalted air of sophistication and refined taste, far from their original raunchy meaning.

Propping any object on a stand truly adds a feeling of refinement and distinction, and Buller does just that with his tickler toys. Again, we know what these devices are and what they’re used for, but through an astute use of blood red, lacquer black, and gold, the works appear like dignified tools. One of these ticklers made in 2019 looks more like a custom-made knife encased in a Japanese resin cover than a toy. As a jokester, Buller also made variations of these curved objects with pale yellows, purples, pinks and baby blues, with an excessive, but appropriate, use of cherub, cat, dog, and rose motifs.

More explicitly homoerotic is his dishware and canteens. On these objects are images of men from the torso up, shirtless, and looking at us. Burly and very masculine, these men are a response to the male gaze – in this context, they’re literally for the male gays.

“Beefcake Serving Plate”, 2019

These two works, titled “Beefcake Canteen” and “Beefcake Serving Plate,” present a dated, but culturally relevant view of men. In a literal sense, we’re encouraged to interact with these objects in a highly abstracted manner. In his serving plate, for example, the approach is to eat something off this obscenely overdecorated dish. We’d be forced to symbolically eat this man up. His canteen is equally suggestive, and this time, we would drink from a phallically shaped tube. It all feels like a lighthearted joke.

This lack of seriousness is truly what binds this exhibition together. It’s gay, it’s flamboyant, and it’s unabashedly about an oppressed minority group, but it’s not political. To Buller’s credit, being too loud would make this series seem too much like shock art, something these works are not. They’re suggestive, but they don’t hit you over the head (well, unless you want them too).

Larry Buller: Fetish runs through May 23rd at the Garden of the Zodiac Gallery. Located at 1042 Howard Street in the Old Market Passageway, the gallery is open Tuesday-Saturday from noon-8pm and on Sunday from noon-6pm. For more information, please contact 402.341.1877, email, or visit the Garden of the Zodiac page on Facebook.

The Inside Story of Black British Queer Pioneer, Ajamu X


Ajamu X archive Black queer art photography

CL Mayers has an audience with Ajamu X, the underground artist and archivist, who has an exhibition and book both around the corner

FEBRUARY 08, 2021

TEXT CL Mayers LEAD IMAGE Ajamu X, Circus Master Series, 1997 Courtesy the artist

DICKPRINT editor, CL Mayers, spoke with Ajamu X for the magazine’s inaugural issue back in 2019. Published online for the very first time, with updates on his latest exhibition Ajamu: Archive Sensoria, he speaks with Ajamu X about founding the Black Perverts Network, kink and fetish within the Black queer community, and his upcoming fine art book Ajamu: Archive.

In the basement of 9 Brighton Terrace in Brixton, the nightclub and cruise-bar Substation South used to host an underwear-themed event called Attitude. Monday nights here would witness an audience comprised of “99 per cent white men,” Ajamu X begins. “Roughly, at the end of the night, Black men would always congregate in a corner having sex with each other. White guys were slightly on the outside.” Suzie Kruger’s monthly fetish club night Fist, established in February 1994, would also hold its “sleaze pit for dicks and clits” – as advertised on their flyers – at Substation South too. Now though, the long-gone venue is an assortment of co-working spaces touted as a “vibrant, cool and contemporary workplace, a creative social campus – a landmark in the heart of Brixton”. In reality, it’s another queer venue fallen victim to a wave of high rises and higher rents. But an oral history, one which Ajamu recounts with glee, isn’t as easy to erase.

“I tried to get into Fist one night, and I was dressed in a full-length garment – you could just see my eyes,” he remembers. “The guy on the door was in a Nazi uniform. On one level, I found the image problematic but I could kind of work with it because it was in that space. I was dealing with it in the context of fantasy. This guy in the Nazi uniform then says to me, ’I cannot come in because I am not in fetish gear.’ I said to him, ’Call your manager!’ I’m not going to have somebody tell me what my fetish is or (what it) can’t be. I would argue that predominantly white gay men have colonised what fetish wear is. From the 1960s onwards, there has been a specific type of look.”

“I would argue that predominantly white gay men have colonised what fetish wear is” – Ajamu X

Ajamu is alluding to the dickprint-inducing Levi 501 jeans immortalised by urban gay men in the big cities and trickling up to films such as Cruising (1980). Or the leather-festooned folk captured in the photography of Hal Fischer and Robert Mapplethorpe – then shocking images that penetrated the public imagination and dominate the fetish and kink identity in the mainstream to this day. Ajamu feverishly notes that fetish goes beyond the stereotypes: “I think anything can be a fetish, period,” he offers curtly. In the early 90s, Ajamu visited America and attended Black Jacks, an event hosted by Alan Bell. Formed in 1986, this space was a safe place for Black gay men to meet up and engage in safer sex parties on the first Friday and third Saturday of each month. “I came back to London fired up thinking about how I and Black men take up spaces in white gay clubs and issues around having to justify one’s fetish at a fetish club.”

Ajamu X archive Black queer art photography
Ajamu X, Seyon, 2020Courtesy the artist
Ajamu X archive Black queer art photography
Ajamu X, Boots, 2020Courtesy the artist

I’ve nestled myself in the corner of Ajamu’s sofa, flicking through piles of memorabilia. Ajamu had invited me over to his place for our chat, granting me access to a daunting array of material: stacks of porn magazines from decades prior; queer and kinky zines; a ceiling-skimming bookcase and some notable documents and paraphernalia. Trains whizz past his back window, punctuating moments of silence in which he weighs his choice of words. He is charismatic, cheeky and mischievously flirtatious, but all in good nature. He pays complete attention throughout our time together and manages to jump between flippant quips and real earnestness – indulging me in a multitude of stories and histories. Every so often he retrieves books and artefacts from his encyclopaedic shelves to illustrate the conversation. Sensational Flesh by Amber Jamilla Musser, he tells me, is a “must-read”. As is Coldness & Cruelty by Gilles Deleuze. There is an audacious confidence about Ajamu as he details the scenes of his more radical endeavours. An audacity that you must need to establish a community like the Black Perverts Network.

“My politics have always been to create the space that I needed to step into first and then create a space whereby Black men could come and talk, connect, play, fuck, eat, drink, get tied up, get pissed on if they wanted to”

Founded in 1996 and operational until 2000, Black Perverts Network (BPN) was an organisation founded by Ajamu as a form of resistance against a community which he often felt ostracised from. It was a place of liberation for a cohort of Black and Brown gay men who felt isolated by their kinks and fetishes. The artist James Belasco illustrated all of their flyers with all events held within the same Brixton residence he currently resides in. “It was not only about creating this space for Black men into leather, rubber, PVC and water sports, it was also about playing around with this double negative. Black, I would argue, is still a word that has negative connotations. And then pervert is a seriously loaded word. So, Black Perverts Network! My politics have always been to create the space that I needed to step into first and then create a space whereby Black men could come and talk, connect, play, fuck, eat, drink, get tied up, get pissed on if they wanted to. Without being judged. That was the Black Perverts Network.”

Flyers were handed out to friends, fuck-buddies, and men met at saunas and cruising grounds, which have long ceased to exist. It was strictly invitation-only with the number of tops and bottoms needed for a successful night worked out by mood and day. Friends could invite friends, although he tells me that “If somebody just turned up it’s because they’ve heard through the grapevine … I would turn them away because it is still private property.” Some of the attendees would ask if they could bring their partners who were not Black or Brown men. Ajamu would tell them that it is a space for Black and Brown men only and rejects any claim of reverse racism with a poignant “Bollocks!”

Ajamu X archive Black queer art photography
Black Perverts Network flyerIllustration James Belasco, courtesy Ajamu X
Ajamu X archive Black queer art photography
Black Perverts Network flyerIllustration James Belasco, courtesy Ajamu X

“I think sometimes we have a fear of creating our own spaces because people push back against Black and Brown folks. A question is why are Black and Brown folks creating their own spaces?” On one hand, the majority of Black British spaces cater to heterosexual audiences predominantly. Here in the UK, a majority of queer spaces are often overwhelmingly white. It is equally as tricky within the context of kink and fetish. “The Black Perverts Network space was about me feeling less isolated as a Black gay man into kink and BDSM,” he starts “For me, when I have 25 Black men from the States, from Europe, in a room talking, some fucking or whatever – that proves why this space is needed. It’s as simple as that. It’s just there and for me, part of my politics. I’ve never been one about waiting for someone else to come along and do the space. I’m not from the school where I need permission, where I need validation, I just create the spaces that I need to create. Those who come, come. Those who don’t, they don’t. And that’s OK.”

“I recognise that lots of us don’t have our own spaces to bring men back to, and so once again, that’s part of my activism – to create a space where brothers can have pleasure” – Ajamu X

Historically, the Black body has been subject to both fascination and fetishisation. In English novelist Colin MacInnes’ 1957 novel City of Spades, he tells the stories of a burgeoning Caribbean community in West London. His fictional retelling has a lustful layer to it which perpetuates the same racial fetishisation and sexualisation that both Ajamu and myself still experience decades on: details of the “coloured boys” and how they “are wonderful fighters. You’re the tops”; characters who engage with Black men by “delicately feeling his bicep”. Darcus Howe, the civil rights activist and writer described MacInnes as “a sexual predator”. “He made a pass at me when I was working at the Mangrove [restaurant] and I told him to fuck off,” he says. “A fiver was a lot in those days and he paid at the top end. That’s how he was seen by the hustlers – give him what he wanted behind some dustbin and take the money – he wouldn’t have had a clue about the West Indian woman. It was all about men, Black men.” In the same Guardian article by Ed Vulliamy, he notes MacInnes’ “stereotypical view of Blackness as sexually exotic” and how it “seems, according to some accounts, to entail objectification.”

Today, although BPN has ceased operations, its spirit lives on. “My flat is also a refuge for when some brothers cannot accommodate,” he explains. “I recognise that lots of us don’t have our own spaces to bring men back to, and so once again, that’s part of my activism – to create a space where brothers can have pleasure.” In 2020, he teamed up with Channel 4 to release Me and My Penis, a documentary exploring the relationship men have with their penises, as well as the taboos surrounding it. In true Ajamu style, it notably featured the first fully erect penis to be broadcast on British national television.

Ajamu X archive Black queer art photography
Ajamu X, Seyon, 2020Courtesy the artist

This past January saw the reveal of his Frieze magazine cover, picturing his new muse, Seyon Amosu, in nothing but a pair of Vetements heels. “I capture what I find sexy. I think people can pick up that energy that I want the work to have. Ultimately, it is about what I find desirable in Black men and so my pictures are going to capture that,” he explains of the eye-catching cover. “What the image does actually … is gentle. We are used to images of Black men being aggressive, being violent, hyper-sexual. We also see Black men being quiet. This image is still quiet yet sexy, and then it does everything else. Also, people then read into what they want to read and add what they want to add. So basically, the image should never try to resolve something. It’s there to keep everything open and constantly moving.” This is only a glimpse of a range of new work that he has been producing. It’s had him revisiting some of his reading from the 90s and achieving that particular energy he is so fond of. “The challenge is how people can get a sense of the erotic or something sensuous. Even if the person is not naked. Even if they are clothed or covered in a sack from head to toe … how do they feel the different sensuous things about this. What’s erotic about him?”

“The challenge is how people can get a sense of the erotic or something sensuous … Even if they are clothed or covered in a sack from head to toe” – Ajamu X

It all seems to be leading up nicely to his upcoming exhibition at Cubitt in London. Initially set for a January reception, Ajamu: Archival Sensoria is rescheduled to open from 31 March to 23 May, 2021. Expect to encounter an array of his images at this show, with both young and old subjects, and work dating from the 80s and onwards. The exhibition will be soundtracked by Calvin Dawkins, whose curated a selection of songs “we used to jump around to during the 80s and 90s,” Ajamu explains. “As the people come in, they will hear this music and so really, a lot of my thinking is how we talk about the archive through the senses, not just a visual.” This sensory exploration ventures as far as his plans for his own fragrance. “There’s a project coming up! I will create a fragrance called the Darkroom. That’s all I’m saying! Hopefully, by the end of the year,” he teases.

In the meantime, we can look forward to Ajamu: Archive, his limited edition fine art book, crowdfunded with his £15,000 target being achieved in a mere six days. It will include close to 90 images: new, old and unseen – until now. Alongside this is a specially commissioned contextual analysis of his work by Professor Johnny Golding, Ajamu’s supervisor at the Royal College of Art. “I am working with Calvert Press who have a long history of working on artists’ books,” says Ajamu. “There’s one version that is regular and another that is leather-bound. There are only going to be 30 of those in the world. These are the ways I like to talk about how we are in the world, through the senses. Smell, touch and taste even … that’s where these ideas excite me more. There are these other ways which we also are in the world.” It would be easy to assume that times are indeed changing, and there have certainly been strides since his earlier 90s exhibition’s famously banned from exhibiting by the police. However, he is quick to note that although things may seem like things have progressed, there is still a lot of work left to be done. “If you pass laws on diversity and inclusion, people then think everything has shifted. However, laws do not move at the same pace as culture so then actually, we’re still dealing with that cultural experience.”

Head here to donate to the Ajamu: Archive Kickstarter campaign.