New-York Historical Society Showcases Black Is Beautiful: The Photography of Kwame Brathwaite

Beginning August 19, 2022, the New-York Historical Society is the exclusive New York City venue for the traveling exhibition Black Is Beautiful: The Photography of Kwame Brathwaite, the first major show dedicated to this pivotal figure who helped launch and popularize the “Black Is Beautiful” movement of the 1960s. On view through January 15, 2023, the exhibition features 40 large-scale color and black-and-white photographs that document how Brathwaite helped change America’s political and cultural landscape during the so-called Second Harlem Renaissance, using his art to affirm Black physical beauty, celebrate African American community and identity, and reflect the vibrancy of Harlem’s jazz scene, local businesses, and events. “We are thrilled to bring this exhibition to New York City, Kwame Brathwaite’s hometown and the location of many of his most powerful images,” said Dr. Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of New-York Historical. “His work is a testament to the power of a visual medium to impact the movement towards racial equity. We hope Kwame Brathwaite’s photographs inspire a deeper understanding of the Black empowerment movement and how its legacy resonates today.” The exhibition chronicles Brathwaite’s evolution as an activist and artist. Born in Brooklyn in 1938, and raised in the Bronx, Brathwaite was still a teenager when he saw the horrific photographs of Emmett Till in his open casket published in Jet magazine in 1955. For Brathwaite, as for so many people, the impact of those photographs was decisive. As the son of a Caribbean American family, Brathwaite was also greatly influenced by the ongoing Pan-Africanist legacy of the Jamaican-born activist Marcus Garvey. With his brother Elombe, Brathwaite founded the African Jazz-Art Society & Studios (AJASS) and organized concerts featuring jazz luminaries such as Miles Davis, Abbey Lincoln, and Max Roach. In addition to promoting musical events, the group advanced a message of economic empowerment and political consciousness in the Harlem community, emphasizing the power of self-presentation and style. “Think Black, Buy Black” became a rallying cry. In the 1960s, Brathwaite and his collective also sought to address how white conceptions of beauty and body image affected Black women and culture. To do so they popularized the transformative idea “Black Is Beautiful” and founded Grandassa Models, a group of Black women of varying backgrounds from the community who embraced natural hairstyles and their African ancestry. The modeling troupe sought to counter both the slight, androgynous figure made famous by 1960s British supermodels Jean Shrimpton and Twiggy and the ubiquity of lighter-complexioned, straight-haired Black models in Black-owned publications such as Ebony. Alongside striking photographs of Grandassa models, the exhibition features several dresses and pieces of jewelry worn by the women. Special to New-York Historical’s display of the exhibition is a new audio guide available on the Bloomberg Connects app. The audio provides context about the “Black Is Beautiful” movement, the African Jazz-Art Society & Studios, and the Grandassa Models. The audio guide also explores other topics explored in the exhibition including jazz, Black activism, natural beauty, fashion, and Harlem during the time period depicted in Brathwaite’s photographs. Organized by Aperture in partnership with Kwame S. Brathwaite, Brathwaite’s son and director of the Kwame Brathwaite Archive, the photographs—mostly shot in Harlem and the Bronx—tell a story of a movement and a time. Following its presentation at New-York Historical, the exhibition travels to the University of Alabama at Birmingham for the Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts in February 2023. The exhibition is accompanied by the first monograph dedicated to Kwame Brathwaite. Featuring essays by Tanisha C. Ford and Deborah Willis and more than 80 images, Kwame Brathwaite: Black Is Beautiful (Aperture, 2019) offers a long-overdue exploration of Brathwaite’s life and work and is available from the NYHistory Store. For more info, visit nyhistory.org.

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