Last month, Francis Kpue (COL ’21) debuted his photo project FLOWERBOY, a series of portraits challenging conceptions of black masculinity. In an interview with The Hoya, Kpue — who uses the name Francis Kendoll in his artwork — discussed the inspiration behind his work, the consequences of toxic masculinity and the affirming power of #blackboyjoy.
What is the backstory behind the creation of FLOWERBOY?
I’ve always been intrigued and interested in doing this photo series. I started doing photography when I was 15 in high school, and I didn’t just want to do meaningless shoots. I wanted to base my project around the things that I struggle with and I know masculinity-slash-femininity was just one of those adversities that I faced. I thought it would be cool to show men, black men specifically, in a vulnerable light, because you never think of them as flower boys. You only ever think of flower girls.
I remember reading an article about this lady who was planning a wedding and didn’t want to have flower boys because she thought it would weird out her guests. I didn’t think it was that serious — why not just let the boys embrace their femininity?
I don’t think that would be weird at all. I thought — why not create a project to counter this kind of attitude toward masculinity, because it can be pretty toxic, in my opinion.
The project lasted longer than I expected. It was in mind for so long, as far back as August. I knew for a long time I wanted to do a photo series surrounding toxic masculinity, but the “flower boy” part of it didn’t come until later. Originally, it was just going to be regular portraits, but the “flower boy” part came in later, like September, November. I started seeing a whole bunch of #blackboyjoy photos on Instagram, and that started to inspire the “flower boy” aspect. I had the project in mind around toxic masculinity for so long, and that’s when I knew how I was going to do it.
What does the recurring element of flowers signify in the portraits?
When I thought of flowers, I thought it was the perfect metaphor for what we can blossom into as black men when we dive into our vulnerability. When you think of a flower, you think of something that’s fragile, something that’s easy to break, something that’s feminine, and those are all qualities that I wanted the black men in my photo series to embrace. I thought it aligned with the project I had, visually, metaphorically, bringing it all together.
Why did you feel it was important to address the issue of masculinity in the black community?
I think toxic masculinity is something that affects all genders, all races and all ethnicities. That said, in my own experience, I’ve received the most criticism from black men themselves. I want to say that when I’m creating, I like to think of my own experiences, so I’m speaking from things that I’ve been through and experiences I’ve had. I remember walking into barbershops and feeling uncomfortable because it was a bunch of heteronormative, heterosexual black men.
Toxic masculinity is something that is detrimental to personal development and personal growth, and I think it’s detrimental to youth who are trying to figure out themselves and who get restrictions on them where they’re not allowed to even put together this gender politics in their head. It stops people from doing things they love. That can be very detrimental to people trying to grow as a person, because how can you grow as a person if you’re afraid of certain experiences, if you constantly worry that you’re not masculine enough?
How does your own identity and experience intersect with the themes you explore in FLOWERBOY?
It’s so funny, because as I was doing this project, it was such a stepping stone for me fixing some of my problems. I’m not vulnerable at all, so it was ironic that I was doing this project capturing men being vulnerable while I struggled with it myself. I don’t talk about my feelings, and I still struggle with feeling like you come off as weak when you talk about your feelings. It’s all in my head.
It’s part of the experience of coming out to my parents and not being totally accepted at first. Coming out of that situation, I struggled with expressing myself, and expressing how I feel, and fearing rejection, holding everything in, masking everything to seem strong. This project was such a stepping stone for me, conquering things that I wanted to be and not being afraid of those qualities. All my projects are a representation of my life, and I think that it was a step in the right direction, and I can step back and be like, OK, the project works really well, and now I can work on myself, too. I’m helping others, but it’s helping myself as well.
What are some other issues you want to explore in your work?
Besides toxic masculinity, colorism in the black community is something that I have struggled with. I want to conquer that with my next photo series. I don’t know what I’m going to name it yet, but it’s in the works. I want to work with all different shades, and people with skin conditions, such as vitiligo and people who are albino. It’s going to be very cool, and I am definitely excited for that.
You mentioned one of the major influences on your work was the #blackboyjoy tag on Instagram, which is a kind of celebration of black men on social media. What does this movement mean to you?
Yeah, one of the things that definitely inspired me is the #blackboyjoy posts. To me, it means being so comfortable with yourself and your sexual identity and your sexual orientation that you’re not afraid to explore and dive into figuring out who you are. You can still be comfortable with who you are as a person and not be judgmental of others and not be judgmental of yourself. The movement is about being open to figuring out who you are and still being comfortable with who you are as a person and your race and your sexual orientation.