How much power and sense of agency does a muse have? That is one of the penetrating questions that arise when viewing Robert Mapplethorpe’s engrossing 1983 photograph of Ken Moody alongside Holly Bass’ incisive and insightful intervention.
Nearly 40 years after that photograph was taken, Bass — an acclaimed dancer, poet, performance artist, and journalist — scrutinizes Mapplethorpe’s work as she zeros in on the now widely-known controversy about the white gay photographer’s legacy of fetishizing darkskinned black gay men in his art.
Her intervention is a mixture of admiration and admonishment. Using white chalk to frame his sinewy body, almost like the police outlines a dead body in a crime scene, she makes note of Moody’s perfect symmetry and how his body resembles a gorgeous cello, particularly with the passages: “perfection of ass” and “complexion of brass.” She also comments on Mapplethorpe’s sleek juxtaposition of dark hues and white spaces with the word, “chiaroscuro.”
Still, she questions Mapplethorpe’s imagination and the possible limitations of photography technology at the time in the text of the left corner of her intervention. It is as if she pondering if this wondrous photograph resulted in yet another series of Mapplethorpe’s obsession with black men.
Some of Mapplethorpe’s erotic photographs focused heavily on black penises, sometimes transforming them into alluring hyper-sexual weapons, while simultaneously flattening the complexed humanity of the models. These works in the 1980s were all the more provocative, given how the AIDS epidemic devastated the gay community amidst insurmountable homophobia.
It is also important to note that during this time, and in comparison to their fairer-skinned counterparts, dark-skinned black models were not as celebrated as they are today.
It’s nearly impossible not to feel the predatorial energy simmering inside the photograph. You can sense the camera’s lens slowly approaching Moody’s sculpted nude body as if it was a prey to be devoured. In the original, we get to observe Moody’s body from Mapplethorpe’s perspective.
In Bass’ intervention, she keenly writes “What do you see, Ken Moody?”
Moody’s slight flexing of his back muscles hint that he indeed sensed the photographers’ skulking presence. Bass’ inquiry, however, compels us further contemplate Moody’s perspective in the work. It also invites us to explore deeper into Moody’s own legacy as fitness instructor turned-model and about his professional relationship with Mapplethorpe.
Moody was Mapplethorpe’s most photographed model. But unlike many of the photographers’ other black male models, Moody didn’t have a sexual relationship with him. The model went on record several times to note that, although they had tremendous chemistry on the set, they were not friends. And, Moody never modeled full-frontal nude or allowed his penis to be captured on film.
In several interviews, Moody said that he was wasn’t Mapplethorpe’s sexual type. He explained that Mapplethorpe preferred “ghetto men” whereas Moody was suspicious of people who were driven by sex. That loaded assessment comes with whiff of classism, superiority (and possible jealousy) on Moody’s part, prompting us to wonder what greater qualities he saw in himself that Mapplethorpe’s black sexual conquests possibly lacked. What insights did Moody have into the power dynamics between Mapplethorpe and his black gay lovers? Going back to Bass’ intervention — “What do [or did] you see [or know], Ken Moody?”
Moody prided himself for being well-spoken and for his conservative upbringing, which helped guide his decision to not allow his penis to be photographed. More intriguing is Moody noting that not only was he not friends with Mapplethorpe, the two didn’t even like each other. Moody reported that Mapplethorpe even called him an “Oreo,” a derogatory term for a black person who is considered white inside, based upon how they talk and carry themselves, in ways which often challenged prevailing negative racial stereotypes. All of this forces us to wonder just how intoxicating the working chemistry between the two was.
Bass’ intervention alludes to Moody being exploited with her inscription, “economies of scale.” She also reminds the viewer that he was more than just a body by writing, “Here is a body/a black body/a male body/a queer gay body/somebody, anybody, everybody, every body” as if to restore his fuller humanity against the tyranny of objectification. But does her intervention neuter Moody’s agency?
Moody wasn’t forced into posing nude for Mapplethorpe; he worked with the photographer for three years. Contemplating this, perhaps, clues us into Moody’s potential sense of agency derived from a combination of desirability and unattainability. Indeed, there is a great power in being able to refuse the sexual advances of another. When you add the racial and celebrity dynamics into the mix, the ability to say “no” is all the more powerful.
As a black, dark-skinned gay man myself, who has both slept with white men and has been photographed nude by a white photographer, I wonder if Moody too was subjected to insistent messages from the black community that he was less attractive because of his dark complexion.
Colorism within the black community was a bigger issue when he worked with Mapplethorpe than it is now. What happens to the psyche when, after receiving so many messages that you’re less attractive because of your dark skin, you receive adoration from a white photographer? Will the white gaze inspire a reassessment into one’s own beauty? And what does one think of their beauty and overall self-worth once the white gaze has left?
What happens when your currency is your beauty? Bass piques this question with the statement, “What becomes a LEGEND most?” It inspires us to consider the emotional, mental, and physical demands Moody had to upkeep his currency as a model. And did it lead to a spiritual crisis similar to that of soul singer D’Angelo, who performed seemingly full-frontal nude in his iconic music video, “Untitled,” an act that contributed to his crushing depression.
Bass forces us to consider the inner-workings of Moody’s mind with her inscriptions “crown, glory, and halo” around his head. These are the other entry points in Bass’ intervention that seduce me to want to know who Moody was beyond being one of Mapplethorpe’s most prominent muses. The more you ponder, the more you see Bass’ intervention as provocative and alluring as Mapplethorpe’s original.