The Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) is presenting Black Is Beautiful: The Photography of Kwame Brathwaite, the first exhibition to focus on this key—and until now under-recognized—figure of the second Harlem Renaissance. Organized by Aperture Foundation, the exhibition of more than forty iconic images illuminates how, in the late 1950s and 1960s, Brathwaite (b. 1938) harnessed the power of art, music, and fashion to effect social change and used his photography to popularize “Black Is Beautiful,” now considered one of the most influential cultural movements of that era.
Inspired by the writings of activist and black nationalist Marcus Garvey, Brathwaite, along with his older brother, Elombe Brath (1936–2014), founded two organizations central to their vision: the African Jazz-Art Society & Studios (AJASS) and Grandassa Models.
AJASS was a collective of artists and creatives founded in 1956 that organized jazz concerts in clubs around Harlem and the Bronx. 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. Brathwaite’s stunning portraits of jazz luminaries, including Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln, and Miles Davis, and behind-the-scenes photographs of the black arts community are a highlight of the exhibition.
In the 1960s, Brathwaite and his collective also sought to address how white conceptions of beauty and body image affected black women. To do so they popularized the transformative idea “Black Is Beautiful” and founded the Grandassa Models, a modeling troupe of local black women and the subject of much of the exhibition’s contents. Starting in 1962, the models appeared in wildly popular annual fashion shows at popular Harlem venues including the Apollo Theater, dubbed “Naturally: The Original African Coiffure and Fashion Extravaganza Designed to Restore Our Racial Pride and Standards” (often shortened to “Naturally”). The shows promoted African-inspired fashion and embodied black nationalist beauty principles. In addition to Brathwaite’s photographs of the models, the exhibition will display several garments worn during the fashion shows, as well as a selection of ephemeral materials.
Brathwaite’s son, Kwame S. Brathwaite, who curated the exhibition, remarked, “My father preserved the legacy of the ‘Black Is Beautiful’ movement, which is not merely a slogan, but a template for the way that art and activism can propel us toward equity and inclusion.”
Born in Brooklyn in 1938 and raised in the Bronx, New York, Brathwaite spent most of his adult life in and around New York City, where he currently lives.
Black is Beautiful: The Photography of Kwame Brathwaite
Exhibition Dates: December 4, 2019 –March 1, 2020
The Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD)
685 Mission Street (at Third)
San Francisco, CA.