Video: DIA hosts 'a long-overdue exploration' of 'Black Is Beautiful' pioneer Kwame Brathwaite

October 22, 2021, 7:00 AM

A video interview with DIA curator Nancy Barr by Michael Lucido of Deadline Detroit is below this partial repost from Oct. 8.

A three-month photography exhibit at the Detroit Institute of Arts presents works by Kwame Brathwaite, described by director Salvador Salort-Pons as "a vital figure of the second Harlem Renaissance."

The influential New Yorker, now 83, helped propel a catchphrase -- Black is beautiful -- to iconic status decades ago.

Kwame Brathwaite in a 1964 self-portrait.

The three words, reinforced in part by Brathwaite's portraits of women and men in natural hairstyles and African-inspired fashions, "radically instilled pride among African Americans and redefined beauty standards around the world," California arts writer Colony Little says in a Hyperallergic review of the traveling exhibit's Los Angeles debut.

"Black is Beautiful: The Photography of Kwame Brathwaite" explores the origins of the phrase through the visual imagery he created to promote natural beauty and the cultural flashpoints he captured on film that sparked the Black is Beautiful movement of the 1960s and 1970s. ...

[He] pushed the boundaries of beauty that would transform how we define Blackness for generations to come.

The DIA features 42 large-format color and black-and-white photographs, mainly studio portraits and fashion shots that defied Eurocentric beauty standards. 

Grandassa model at Harlem's Apollo Theater around 1968.

The De Salle Gallery presentation "offers a long-overdue exploration of Brathwaite's life and work," posts the museum.

The exhibit, which opened Oct. 8 after three months at Austin's Blanton Museum of Art, was shown earlier in San Francisco and Columbia, S.C. It's booked next year in Winston-Salem, N.C., and the New York Historical Society on Central Park West in Manhattan.

Marcus Garvey Day Parade in Harlem, 1967

Brathwaite admired Marcus Garvey, an impactful Black nationalist and Pan-Africanist from Jamaica who died in 1940. The Bronx-raised photographer and an older brother, Elombe, founded the African Jazz Arts Society and Studios (AJASS) when they were teens and later created the Grandassa Models agency, the DIA show description notes:

AJASS was a collective of artists, playwrights, designers and dancers. Grandassa Models—the subject of much of the exhibition's contents— was a modeling agency for black women, founded to challenge white beauty standards.

The exhibition includes documentary photographs of stunning studio portraits, fashion work [and] behind-the-scenes images of Harlem's artistic and jazz community, including Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln.

Photos on view, spanning roughly the first 10 years of Brathwaite's career, are mostly from his personal archive.

Sikolo Brathwaite, the photographer's wife, in a headpiece designed by Carolee Prince of the African Jazz-Art Society & Studios. (About 1968)

Also showcased through Jan. 16 are clothes and accessories designed by the models.

The show, Brathwaite's first major retrospective, is accompanied by a 144-page monograph (annotated catalog) produced by the nonprofit Aperture Foundation, a New York visual arts organization, with essays by Deborah Willis, chair of photography and imaging at New York University, and Tanisha C. Ford, associate professor of Black American studies and history at the University of Delaware. It's at the DIA gift shop and on Amazon for $35.

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