“Posing Beauty in African American Culture,” at the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art through December 7, explores photography’s role in invoking, creating and complicating the nascent beauty of blackness.
The photographs assembled here, curated by award-winning author and scholar Deborah Willis, span more than a century. Studio portraits, cartes de visite, documentary photos, self-portraits, fashion photography, pin-ups, anonymous snapshots and conceptual pieces join to represent the emergence of the African-American subject in visual culture.
This eclectic array of images prompts reflection about the conundrum of beauty, a subject that Willis has addressed extensively in her work. What is beauty, and does it matter? How does beauty relate to power? How is beauty turned into a commodity to be consumed and exploited? How is beauty constructed? Are we trapped inside those constructions?
Carrie Mae Weems’ self-portrait, “I looked and looked to see what so terrified you,” from her 2006 installation “Louisiana Project,” indicates the complexity not only of the black self-image but of self-image in general. Reverse exposures of this large photograph, in which the artist critically assesses herself in the mirror, seem to confront each other.
We look at ourselves in the mirror; we look at ourselves looking at ourselves in the mirror; we look at others looking at themselves in the mirror; and we look at ourselves looking at others looking at themselves in the mirror. And we wonder how all of this looks. “Posing Beauty” is full of mirrors.
One of the most provocative ideas emerging from the show is that beauty is a conscious, often defiant creation and not a graced instance of the natural state. Beauty is crafted, constructed, won — not a quality that “naturally” belongs to some and not others. The construction of beauty, especially for African-Americans coping with a poisonous atmosphere of negative stereotypes, is inevitably bound by the politics of culture. To assert beauty is to assert power, and it demands a strategy.
In some of the oldest photographs here, several of them by Thomas Askew, one of the first black photographers in Atlanta, beauty seems synonymous with grace, decorum and gentility. His portraits of black women in the early 1900s emphasize refinement and education, but not at the expense of sensuality. He represents them as serene and self-contained, but almost dangerously alive.
Complementing Askew’s photographs are selections of cartes de visite, postcard-size calling cards that were widely traded among young women. The subjects, many anonymous, are invariably portrayed as serious and high-minded.
Competing with these respectable personae are “exotic” depictions of African-American subjects, such as Edward Curtis’ bejeweled and scantily draped “Desert Queen.” She appears skeptical and slightly indignant about her role, despite her regalia and Curtis’ stunning photography.
White photographers were no doubt sincere in their enthusiasm for the wild beauty of “the primitive,” but the exploitative dimension of this trope fairly shouts in F. Holland Day’s 1897 photo “Youth on a Leopard Skin.” The nude subject, who apparently was Day’s chauffeur, appears vulnerable and ill at ease, and there is something decidedly predatory about Day’s depiction.
In the middle decades of the 20th century, photographers such as Charles “Teenie” Harris in Pittsburgh and John Mosley in Philadelphia were inspired by the vitality of their urban black communities. The relaxed, bright-eyed “Waitress at the Crawford Grill,” photographed by Harris in 1952, conveys the comfortable functionality of African-American enclaves. Figures in the background — a woman in formal dress and a man sitting on a bar stool staring at the waitress — add some tension to the shot, but the waitress seems to transcend it.
The work of David Heath, inspired by Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank, reflects the pent-up force of alienation. In Heath’s “Washington Square” (1960), two impeccably groomed, proper young women sit back to back like sentinels. The figure facing the viewer expresses a power that is barely contained. The resoluteness of her glance is that of Antigone. She is beautiful, and she will not be moved.
The images in “Posing Beauty” not only represent shifting ideas of what constitutes the beautiful in black culture, but reflect intensifying levels of self-consciousness as both subjects and photographers negotiate increasingly urgent and complex questions of identity.
In the late 1960s and ’70s, the beauty of blackness becomes overtly political and confrontational. Use of hair straighteners and lightening creams signified capitulation to domination by white culture, and natural hair became a symbol of revolution. Philippe Halsman’s 1970 portrait of Angela Davis, patron saint of the “black is beautiful” movement, represents its spirit.
The movement signaled an important turn away from the standards of the mainstream, not only for blacks but for all subgroups denied entry into “the big house” of privilege. A new aesthetics of “the hood” was emerging. Anthony Barboza captures this edgy sensibility in his Harlem Series, and Jamel Shabazz continues in this vein with his celebratory documentation of street life in works such as “We Are One,” from 1997.
But both Barboza and Shabazz move well beyond mere documentation of a new aesthetic. Both have worked as fashion photographers, and both understand how to present their subjects as harbingers of a “new look,” as icons of visual power. Shabazz’s “Rude Boy” from 1980, for example, heralds the advent of “bling” into the fashion mainstream.
But there is a downside to the creation of a highly marketable aesthetic. Having arrived, do we really want to be there? Barboza’s portrait of Toukie Smith, from the 1970s, presents a goddess of modernism, framed by abstract metallic swirls and cloud forms that are echoed in her extravagant lamé drapery. But the subject, one of the first black supermodels and the longtime partner of actor Robert de Niro, appears completely eclipsed by this extraordinary presentation. When does the obligation to express power through beauty compromise other experiences of identity?
The contrast between Barboza’s portrait of Smith and Carla Williams’ 1994 self-portrait, “Venus,” is striking. Williams’ arresting photo also represents a goddess, but a goddess of the naked self, not of trappings. She depicts an extremely vulnerable beauty that will not be found in the pages of a fashion magazine, a beauty not only of form but of soul.
How can any of us preserve a place for this deep beauty in a world that is hungry for icons that sell? Perhaps in art.
Sheila Pree Bright’s “Plastic Bodies” series, from 2003, confronts the commodification of ethnicity directly through a “mix-and-match” assortment of images of Barbie dolls. Some have dreadlocks, some straight hair. Some have one brown eye and one blue eye. Some appear to represent a fusion of black and white features. By “mixing it up,” the Atlanta artist challenges the commercialization and consequent imposition of an ethnic look. On the night of the opening, these photographs were constantly surrounded by groups of young women who seemed to get it.