Exhibit Featuring Photographer Brathwaite
By LIBBY MOTIKA
Circling The News Contributor
It’s a curious hyphenate, African-American, as black Americans’
African antecedents (slaves) were purposely stripped of their “African” heritage, and the equality promised to all Americans for many still remains aspirational.
After emancipation and Reconstruction, blacks lived and worked within the confines of a white world. Continual political, economic and personal discrimination engendered helplessness and eroded self-esteem for many.
It was philosopher and activist Marcus Garvey (1887-1940) who espoused a movement to follow a new path toward success in life without relying on the white community. Hard work, ingenuity and entrepreneurial drive would yield pride in the race, he taught.
Most importantly, Garvey emphasized the need for blacks to honor their African roots. “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots,” he said.
Garvey’s ideas ignited a significant cultural movement in the 1960s that was crystallized in the phase “Black is Beautiful,” which flushed in the literature, art and music of the second Harlem Renaissance.
Visitors to the current exhibition at the Skirball Cultural Center, “Black is Beautiful: The Photography of Kwame Brathwaite,” learn how Brathwaite’s political vision exhibited through his photography enhanced the cultural ideals of the African race, reclaiming ethnic pride and self esteem.
The exhibition is co-curated by Brathwaite’s son Kwame S. Brathwaite with Skirball managing curator Bethany Montagano and Aperture Foundation’s Michael Famighetti.
Brathwaite was born in 1938 in New York, where he spent most of his adult life. He still lives there today. He and his brother Elombe became active in the African Nationalist Pioneer Movement, inspired by Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association, that envisioned “an educational, inspirational, instructive, constructive and expansive society composed of people desirous of bringing about a progressive, dignified, cultural, fraternal and racial confraternity among the African peoples of the world.”
The brothers founded the African Jazz-Art Society & Studios (AJASS) to promote black artists. They produced concerts and art shows in the Bronx and Harlem clubs showcasing black talent. Many of these artists later become renowned, such as Lou Donaldson, Cannonball Adderley, Hank Mobley, Junior Cook, Art Taylor, Betty Carter and others.
Brathwaite not only photographed these concerts but also built a career throughout the 1960s and 1970s photographing major concert celebrities, including Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley and James Brown plus the likes of Muhammad Ali.
In his work with the jazz label Blue Note Records, Brathwaite was the first to illustrate album covers featuring African-American women–a first, even for Miles Davis, who had heretofore illustrated his albums using white models.
A second prong of his vision to harness the power of art, music and fashion to effect social change was founding a modeling group for black women, emphasizing natural hair (the Afro) and clothing designs that honored their African roots.
In January 1962, AJASS staged a fashion show in Harlem called “Naturally ’62” that introduced the slogan “Black is Beautiful” and strove to promote African culture and fashion.
The models, all nonprofessionals of various shapes, decidedly dark skin and natural, unprocessed curly hair, were part of the newly formed Grandassa Models.
Taking the name the leader of the African Nationalist Pioneer Movement (ANPM) Carlos A. Cooks derived for all of Africa, Grandassaland, the eight women and two men not only sported the latest in African hairstyles but soon added fashions inspired by Africa, upending black Americans’ wariness of appearing too conspicuously “African.”
In the late 1950s and 1960s, most black women had their hair straightened; even black-oriented magazines like Ebony favored models with lighter skin and straightened hair.
“The shows became so popular that the hardest thing about them was finding a venue that would fit all the people who wanted to come,” Brathwaite said in a 2018 interview with the New York Post.
The Skirball exhibition displays several garments worn during the fashion shows as well as a selection of ephemeral materials.
Although the “Naturally” shows stopped in the 1980s, the “Black Is Beautiful” movement remains as vital as ever.
The “Naturally” shows are “a reminder of how even when faced with intense social violence, black people continue to find ways to express themselves with style,” said Tanisha C. Ford, author of “Liberated Threads.” “They were pioneers.”
The Skirball exhibition, continuing through September 1, will coincide with the publication of a monograph dedicated to Kwame Brathwaite, featuring essays by Ford and Deborah Willis and more than 80 images.
For more information, contact skirball.org.