Carnival is still a few months away, but a series of photographs by Grand Rapids-based Jeffrey Augustine Songco channels the revelry of Mardi Gras beads and explores identity, masculinity, and brotherhood.
Nice Beads, Bro! is directly inspired by the 17th-century Dutch Golden Age painting genre of the “tronie”—portraits of anonymous, stock characters focused primarily on facial expression and costuming. Here, I cast subjects to play the American pop cultural phenomenon of the bro—the storied alpha, straight, Christian, white male who graduated from college with top honors in pumping iron and chugging beer. Using models, friends, and my actual fraternity brothers from college, I offer luscious portraits of bros—peripheral characters in the brotherhood of my personal narrative—draped with throw beads.
Following Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, this suite of images now resonates with a political snapshot of power, glamour, and violence. My artwork is often recognized when it begins to produce a polarizing effect (see GayGayGay robe, 2011, or Society of 23’s Locker Dressing Room, 2017), though I don’t intentionally seek out this controversy. Instead, my art practice—filled with works documenting my anxieties, hopes, and fears—inevitably archives a personal struggle within a larger debate.
In 2015, I began working with Mardi Gras beads as a symbol of celebration, as well as an extension of the shiny material’s use by Felix Gonzalez-Torres in his untitled curtains. When his bead curtains were produced in the 1990s, gay culture was radically different from a world two decades later filled with Grindr, PrEP, and same-sex marriage. Today, words like “viral,” “positive,” and “exposure” have shifted from the anxiety of the AIDS crisis to the lexicon of social media and pop culture. Gonzalez-Torres activated and allowed people to walk through the beads—normally an object of spectacle with little context outside revelry—as a symbol of love, life, and death.
As an artist, a gay man, and a Filipino-American, I wanted to continue this symbolism of the beads to capture a story about my own experiences of celebration and suffering within American bro culture. I navigated through this lifestyle in college where I rejoiced in my recruitment into a secret fraternity, passed in a white world, and abused myself as a closeted homosexual. I continue to develop my own fictional brotherhood called the Society of 23 where I remain curious and critical of my own identity construction—learning from my past, surviving the present, and hoping to create a better future.