By Shawn Chitnis

DENVER (CBS4) – Colorado actress and artist Christina Pittaluga created a project to challenge the view of masculinity in men of color and help some of her own models in the series of photographs reexamine what it meant to them. She started the project at the beginning of the year and scheduled the photo shoot weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic but started releasing the images in June just as the country was having a national conversation on race and justice.

Art by Christina Pittaluga

(credit: Christina Pittaluga)

“The project ‘Are We Still Cool?’ is an exploration in masculinity with men of color. A lot of times men of color are told they can’t show certain emotions,” Pittaluga, 23, told CBS4 on Wednesday. “I’ve always been really interested in why they weren’t allowed to feel the same way I was.”

The title plays off of the phrase men sometimes use to quickly address any conflict among each other without actually sharing their feelings. It also represents a thought she found these men asking themselves as they agreed to participate in the project.

“Are we still going to be cool? Are people still going to think that we’re dope if they see us in lace, in flowers, smelling nice and pretty, hugging other men?” she said some of the men were asking as they were posing for photographers. “I felt that it was important, I wanted to start a conversation, especially amongst men of color in the Colorado community.”

Art by Christina Pittaluga

(credit: Christina Pittaluga)

Inspired by artists like Kehinde Wiley, Barkley L. Hendricks, and Tsoku Maela, Pittaluga came up with her own concept and worked with local photographers Michael Board II and Nadiya Jackson to create the collection. There are 42 pieces in all, 30 photos and 12 collages. She released 17 images initially with another dozen set to be shared online over the weekend.

“Sometimes men of color are looked at as villains, or in a scary way,” she said. “You walk down the street and someone’s going to clutch their purse tighter or people are going to bring their kids closer if they see a man of color walking the same direction as them.”

The idea pulls from moments she shared with uncles and cousins who did not want to show emotion or were told not to cry when she was a child. She asked men of color in various fields to pose for the photographs who were leaders in their communities, hoping to share the message of these photos with others.

“They have feelings too, they’re just now allowed or given the space to show it in that way,” Pittaluga said. “I was always searching for men and women of color in like a Michelangelo sculpture and you don’t see that, you don’t.”

Christina Pittaluga

Christina Pittaluga (credit: CBS)

While the photos were taken before the outbreak, the impact of coronavirus prevented her from exhibiting these photos in a public venue. But she started sharing some online with plans to have select images on display inside Coffee at the Point in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood this fall.

“It’s never they’re glorified, they’re beautiful, they’re shiny,” she said of the way men of color are traditionally portrayed but changed that in her photos and encouraged these men. “You’re so beautiful, you’re gorgeous, you’re a model, you’re all these beautiful things, you kind of saw this hard exterior melt away.”

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Pittaluga noticed that men of color were having body dysmorphia but would not discuss it as openly as women. She said some encouragement helped her models to feel special and appreciate the moment. They told her they saw the value in the project and the men believed they deserved to be presented in this context.

“You have all these ideals of what a man of color is but here’s what they actually are, here’s what they could be if you gave them the space and allowed them to be this way,” she said. “They’re people and they deserved the recognition of being beautiful humans and having feelings.”

Her timeline led her to unexpectedly releasing these photos just as protests across the country were calling for racial justice, across America people were examining multiple cases of Black men and women killed by police. She hopes this project can add to that discussion. As a member of the Black Actors Guild, she is proud to receive funding from the organization to support this project and give it a home online.

“I just really hopes this makes people think, that it starts conversation,” Pittaluga said. “This could be a part of the movement that’s happening right now, I know it’s not stopping anytime soon.”

“Are We Still Cool?” reflects what she saw in the men of her family and others around her but also tries to challenge the lack of diversity in media she saw growing up. Pittaluga hopes this project can encourage others to create this kind of content for the community.

“I really, really want to keep seeing representation of Black and Brown bodies in art, cause that’s extremely important,” she said. “I know that if I would have grown up seeing more Black women and Black men in art I probably wouldn’t have felt like this is so foreign.”

Shawn Chitnis

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