designing for difference

Othello De’Souza­ Hartley

We meet Othello De’Souza­Hartley, photographer and visual artist, at the Barbican Centre on a Wednesday afternoon. He excitedly tells us that his first major solo exhibition of a personal project has just been announced, next October at Photofusion Gallery, where he’ll be showing all five phases of his Masculinity project together.

Has the masculinity project affected Othello’s own conception of masculinity? “I remember when I was eight, I wanted to ask my dad if I could do ballet; but I didn’t ask him. I remember sitting in the car thinking ‘I really want to do ballet but I can’t ask my dad’.” Othello radiates self­assurance ­ so where did this hesitation come from? He explains, “masculinity is a performance. Your perception is from society, and your understanding is in conflict sometimes, because you may not be that person. But there’s this male role you have to portray to the world.” And ballet was contradictory to the role of masculinity that Othello as an 8 year old felt he ought to perform for his family. “So when my dad saw the masculinity piece, it was interesting because we’ve never spoken about the work that I do in detail.” The artist went on to explain that despite this, “I think he’s accepted me as I am, he’s never said to me ‘why are you naked’.”

Was it ballet, or something else that helped Othello first fall in love with art? “Ever since I was a child, I’ve always been doing something creative. More performance stuff than visual art... The link happened when I discovered Jean­Michel Basquiat.” Othello lights up, visibly recalling the strength of that first connection. “I’m amazed by this guy, just wow! I think because it’s someone who I could identify with... it was Basquiat, and it was his work. How he was this graffiti artist that became this artist. There’s something about him.” Basquiat’s art was in contradiction to the minimalist, uncommunicative works of his contemporaries. And Othello echoes this spirit of rebellion and uncompromising independence: “I’ve never really wanted to fit in.”

Basquiat was both celebrated and commercially exploited by the artistic establishment. Does Othello relate to the establishment in a comparable way? “I’m very aware of it. Somehow I’ve always been around it, it’s always found me, especially through Central St Martins. I’ve met people who’ve been in that kind of scene but it’s never really something that’s phased me or attracted me. I don’t have that [reverence] at all.” Although he pays tribute to the organisations and galleries that gave him a leg up in the industry, he insists, “The most significant thing, in my work, is to truly be honest; honest to the work I’m trying to make.”