Since June 2010, Oakland's Ajuan Mance has been drawing portraits of black men. Almost five years later, she's less than 200 short of her goal of drawing 1001.
1001 Black Men is an online collection of drawings by Mance, an artist, zine-maker, and professor who specializes in African American literature at Mills College. She started drawing portraits as a way to broaden the representation of black men in popular culture – to get beyond stereotypes and "create images of Black men that reflect the wonderful complexity of African American lives–our history so deeply embedded in our present, our celebrations so often tempered by grief and, yes, the pleasure and danger we find in so many of the people, places, and activities that give us joy." With all the recent news of racial profiling and the deaths of young black men by police in Baltimore, Ferguson, Oakland, and elsewhere in the U.S., the importance of Mance's project resonates strongly.
But it's not just how non-African Americans represent black men that interested Mance. She also feels that black media has failed to show the possibilities of what it is to be African American today. In an interview with California Institute of Integral Studies, Mance noted, "Certainly mainstream media represents African Americans in a marginalized and often problematic way…but then I started looking through Black magazines with a different perspective and started thinking about how ideas of representation were manifest in Black media. Each Black magazine has a specific way that they depict men, and the categories are limiting. It was looking at Essence magazine’s "Men We Love" issue that made me think, what would happen if I tried to draw Black men without asking them to be anything in particular?"
And so she did. Mance has drawn images of African American men she's seen at Bent-Con and the Alternative Press Expo, shopping at Whole Foods, driving in cars, riding public transportation, or met at art supply stores. Mance creates her drawings in a three-step process: all the drawings are created in pen on paper, then scanned into her computer, and then colored in Photoshop. Sometimes, she adds backgrounds using altered photographs. Her influences that inspired the style she chose – heavy black lines and a limited color palette – include street art heroes like Shepard Fairey and Doze Green, as well as working in stained glass. The resulting images are bold, striking, and especially, when seen together, are powerful.
See all 836 and counting of the 1001 Black Men on Ajuan Mance's site.