Kwame Brathwaite’s Photography Comes to the Blanton with Black Is Beautiful

Experience the work of a photographer and activist who’s been empowering Black women and Black culture for decades

By Aaron Parsley
Photographs courtesy of the artist and Philip Martin Gallery, Los Angeles
Kwame Brathwaite’s Black is Beautiful
Kwame Brathwaite, Self-portrait, African Jazz-Art Society & Studios (AJASS), Harlem, ca. 1964; from Kwame Brathwaite: Black Is Beautiful (Aperture, 2019)

This summer, the Blanton Museum of Art will spotlight the work of Kwame Brathwaite in a long-overdue exploration of a photographer and activist who’s spent decades empowering Black women and Black culture.

Black Is Beautiful: The Photography of Kwame Brathwaite will open at the Blanton on June 27 and run until September 19, showcasing his performance photos, studio portraits and images of the Harlem community where he was inspired and influential.

Kwame Brathwaite, Marcus Garvey Day Parade, Harlem, ca. 1967; from Kwame Brathwaite: Black Is Beautiful (Aperture, 2019)

The title of the exhibition, which comes from the slogan popularized by Brathwaite in the 1950s and ‘60s, is fitting. Alongside his brother Elombe Brath, Brathwaite founded the creative collective African Jazz-Art Society and Studios in 1956 and six years later Grandassa Models, a group whose mission was to challenge white standards of beauty by featuring Black women with diverse body types, skin tones and natural hair as well as Afrocentric styles.

Kwame Brathwaite, Photo shoot at a public school for one of the AJASS-associated modeling groups that emulated the Grandassa Models and began to embrace natural hairstyles. Harlem, ca. 1966; from Kwame Brathwaite: Black Is Beautiful (Aperture, 2019)

“The show comprises 40 photographs total, spanning from 1958 to 1970, including large-format color portraits depicting the African diasporic fashions and beauty of the Grandassa models up close,” the Blanton’s Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art Claire Howard said in a statement about the show she put together. In addition, museum-goers will see “black-and-white images of the vibrant jazz scene, community events, and local landmarks in Harlem, as well as fashion, jewelry, and ephemera including jazz album covers featuring Brathwaite’s portraits and reproductions of vintage posters,” Howard adds.

Man smoking in a ballroom, Harlem, ca. 1962; from Kwame Brathwaite: Black Is Beautiful (Aperture, 2019)

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Brathwaite’s critical understanding of representation, the power of images and social change can be felt when viewing his photographs, which will be displayed in three sections at the Blanton. The first spotlights Brathwaite’s depiction of the Harlem jazz scene, artistic community and the spaces it inhabited. Second, “Think Black, Buy Black” will contain images of black-owned businesses in Harlem, festivals and street scenes as well as clothing worn as an expression of pride in the African heritage. The final section of the exhibit will focus on the Brathwaite’s images of the Grandassa Models and the “Naturally” fashion shows they produced to celebrate their beauty and Black identities.

Kwame Brathwaite, Sikolo Brathwaite, African Jazz-Art Society & Studios (AJASS), Harlem, ca. 1968; from Kwame Brathwaite: Black Is Beautiful (Aperture, 2019)

Two digital events are also planned during the run of Black Is Beautiful – a panel with University of Texas faculty to contextualize the show’s more-relevant-than-ever themes and a second panel with Austin photographers about activism in the age of Instagram. Dates and information on these events will be announced soon.


Read More From the Spring Style Issue | April 2021


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