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THE POWER OF AN IMAGE “Posing Beauty” brings the conversation on Black beauty to VMFA. by Janel St. John

 

 

APRIL 2014. Frederick Douglass, orator and statesman; Booker T. Washington, educator and author; Ida B. Wells, journalist and sociologist; WEB Dubois, historian, activist and author, and Madame CJ Walker, entrepreneur and philanthropist - these pillars in American history, were dominant leaders in the African American community. As proponents of social reform, they were fighters on the brutal, often bloody battlefield for equality and political representation…and they too, were concerned with Black beauty.


In her book, “Posing Beauty, African American Images from the 1890s to the Present,” Deborah Willis points out that it was African American leaders, photographers, newspaper editors and artists, who spearheaded the movement to showcase Black beauty in its proper context - devoid of the negative imagery often found in mainstream media, or simply omitted from it. It wasn’t until the late 1960s and early 1970s that black models began to appear in magazines and newspapers. “Posing Beauty” is
therefore, the first photographic history of Black beauty - a window and panoramic view of the life and times of African American people as told or ‘constructed’ by her own people. It is a multi-faceted story, so important, that individuals, time and again, created campaigns supporting and promoting Black beauty in visual culture. They understood of the power of an image.

In his own photos, Douglass often looked away from the camera, creating a profile ‘of intellect, of a scholar, of a free man in the 19th century.’ “When we look at these images of Frederick Douglas, ” Willis said, “We see his style of dress. Style of dress and fashion was also important.” Newspaper editor, Ida B. Wells-Barnett was also concerned about beauty in the public arena of
publishing. She complained in print, drawing public ridicule. Booker T. Washington was instrumental in coining the term, ‘New Negro’ which came to represent the spirit of self-awareness, artistic consciousness and racial pride that arose in black communities after 1900, and was reflected in art, print, photography and film. “The Exhibition of American Negroes,” organized by W.E.B Du Bois, was a grand showcase of the accomplishment and progress of Black people and a direct challenge of racial stereotypes with images and objects. Du Bois installed 350 photographs of middle and upper class Black life for the display at the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris. Though generally ignored by mainstream American newspapers, the exhibit received over fifteen medals including two grand prizes and four gold medals during its time on display.

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But it was the image of a Runaway slave ad, that Willis said, significantly transformed her research for the book. The 1863 reward notice for a woman named ‘Dolly,’ was placed in an Augusta Police Station by Louis Manigault, owner of Dolly. The ad is very telling. It has a picture of Dolly and refers to her as being “30 years of age, light complexion, and rather good looking with a fine set of teeth.” It said that she had ‘never changed her owner, and had always been a house servant.’ “It is thought that she has been enticed off by some white man,” the ad reads. “Dolly was special to Louis,” Willis said. “She visited the photographer’s studio. She may have been a concubine.” The ad reveals a relationship as the owner expressed a sense of betrayal that Dolly may have left him for a white man. “In discussions of slavery, we rarely find a discussion that talked about beauty and women,” Willis said. “Women were seen as objects.” But this image clearly states Manigault’s desire for Dolly by describing her physical features.

This expression of beauty is, in part, the basis of the exhibition based on the book, for which Willis also serves as curator. “Posing Beauty in African American Culture” is now in view at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts through July 27, 2014. Carrie Mae Weems, Charles ‘Teenie’ Harris, Mickalene Thomas, Moneta Sleet and Gordon Parks, are featured among the 85 works of art.

Peer into a world that many people never knew existed! With historical figures and celebrities, the exhibition is much more than beauty and fashion; “Posing Beauty” is a comprehensive ‘reading about Black life’ - from Easter Sunday to the neighborhood barbershop.

 

Style of dress and fashion was also important. - Deborah Willis

Crowds Outside of a Fashionable Negro Church, Easter Sunday, Chicago, Bronzeville, April 1941, Edwin Rosskam

(above) A Prosperous Chicagoan (Revery Clarence Cobb) Spending an Evening at Home, April 1941, Russell Lee

 

 

(right) Mary Louise Harris on Mulford Street, Homewood, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, c. 1930-1939, Charles “Teenie” Harris.

In conjunction with “Posing Beauty,” African American artists will explore race in “Identity Shifts: Works from VMFA.” This collection-based display of paintings and sculptures from the 1970s to the present features an array of perspectives and styles from many of the 21st century artists, such as iona rozeal brown, Trenton Doyle Hancock, and Robert Pruitt. The selection of photographs offers a survey of 20th to 21st century work from artists like James VanDerZee and Hank Willis Thomas – while also highlighting lesser known artists, such as Richmond native, Louis Draper, who played a primary role in founding the first African American photography collective, Kamoinge, in New York in 1963. Many of the works in “Identity Shifts” will be on view at VMFA for very the first time.

 


Shifting Identities

Race, culture, identity and beauty are complex themes. But in the hands of brilliant artists, they are the basis of exceptional works of art. “Identity Shifts: Works from VMFA” is a thought-provoking series featuring works by African-American artists. Now on view in conjunction with “Posing Beauty,” the exhibition features many 21st century artists such as iona rozeal brown, Trenton Doyle Hancock and Robert Pruitt.

Photographer Sheila Pree Bright’s, “Plastic Bodies” tackles all four themes at once. Bright said she was in grad school in 2000 when she developed the work. “I was a photographer in hip-hop culture when gangster rap was prominent,” she said. “And I became very aware of how a stereotype was ingrained. We project an image, but we’re not there to talk about it.” Bright said she took the cultural icon of the Barbie doll to challenge the notions of beauty standards and highlight their imact on a young girl’s psyche. “I was looking at women of color and what we think is the ideal of beauty based in Western culture,” she said. “Women of color are really not happy with our physical looks and bodies. Actually, no woman can fit this body type without plastic surgery.” Bright contends that blending of cultures is responsible for the desire of people to want to emulate each other.“We have become plastic and the Barbie doll has become human.” Other photographers in “Identity Shifts” include James VanDerZee, Carrie Mae Weems and Hank Willis Thomas. There is also work by lesser known artist and Richmond native, Louis Draper who played a primary role in founding the first African American photography collective, Kamoinge, in New York in 1963.

We have become
plastic and the
Barbie doll has
become human.


-Sheila Pree
Bright

Plastic Bodies, 2000, Sheila Pree Bright

 

 

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