Deadline Detroit | Gallery: DIA salutes ‘Black Is Beautiful’ photography pioneer Kwame Brathwaite


Promotional photo for “Naturally ’68”, Grandassa Models’ fourth biennial fashion show in Harlem. Seven more images from the DIA exhibit are below. (Photo / s: Kwame Brathwaite, via DIA)

A three-month photographic exhibition that opens Friday at the Detroit Institute of Arts features works by Kwame Brathwaite, described by director Salvador Salort-Pons as “a vital figure of the second Harlem Renaissance”.

The influential New Yorker, now 83, helped propel a slogan – Black is beautiful – to iconic status decades ago.


Kwame Brathwaite in a 1964 self-portrait.

The three words, reinforced in part by Brathwaite’s portraits of women and men in natural hairstyles and African-inspired fashions, “radically instilled pride in African Americans and redefined beauty standards around the world.” California writer Colony Little said in a Hyperallergic review of the traveling exhibit’s debut in Los Angeles.

“Black is Beautiful: The Photography of Kwame Brathwaite” explores the origins of the phrase through the visual imagery he created to promote the natural beauty and cultural flashpoints he captured on a film that sparked the Black is Beautiful movement of the 1960s and 1970s. …

[He] pushed the boundaries of beauty that would transform the way we define darkness for generations to come.

The DIA presents 42 large format color and black and white photographs, mainly studio portraits and fashion shots that challenge Eurocentric beauty standards. (Four works are below this post.)


Model Grandassa at Harlem’s Apollo Theater circa 1968.

The 14-week De Salle gallery presentation “offers a long-awaited exploration of Brathwaite’s life and work,” the museum says.

“We are digging up many stories of artists and photographers who have been marginalized for years,” Nancy Barr, curator of photography for DIA, told Detroit News.

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Marcus Garvey Day Parade in Harlem, 1967

The exhibit, which opens here after three months at the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, was shown earlier in San Francisco and Columbia, SC. It is reserved next year in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and the New York Historical Society on Central Park West in Manhattan.

Brathwaite admired Marcus Garvey, a black nationalist and Pan-Africanist from Jamaica who died in 1940. The Bronx-raised photographer and an older brother, Elombe, founded the African Jazz Arts Society and Studios (AJASS) when they were teenagers and were then created the agency Grandassa Models, the description of the show DIA notes:

AJASS was a collective of artists, playwrights, designers and dancers. Grandassa Models – the subject of much of the exhibit’s content – was a model agency for black women, founded to challenge white beauty standards.

The exhibition includes documentary photographs of stunning studio portraits, fashion works [and] behind-the-scenes footage of Harlem’s arts and jazz community, including Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln.

The photos on display, covering roughly the first 10 years of Brathwaite’s career, are mostly from his personal archives.


Sikolo Brathwaite, the photographer’s wife, in a helmet designed by Carolee Prince of the African Jazz-Art Society & Studios. (Around 1968)

Clothing and accessories designed by the models are also on display until January 16. “It tells the story of a particular era in black history and culture,” Barr said as quoted by The News.

“They [the models] were a very different type of beauty than what we saw in magazines like Vogue or Life.

“… A lot of people don’t understand how rigid things were in the ’60s with print, photography and television. We didn’t see a lot of people of color in the mainstream.”

The exhibit, Brathwaite’s first major retrospective, is accompanied by a 144-page monograph (annotated catalog) produced by the non-profit Aperture Foundation, a New York-based visual arts organization, with essays by Deborah Willis , Chair of Photography and Imaging at New York University; and Tanisha C. Ford, Associate Professor of Black American Studies and History at the University of Delaware. It’s at the DIA gift shop and on Amazon for $ 35.

DIA exhibition selections:


Members of Grandassa at the Merton Simpson Gallery in New York circa 1967. The gallery still exists in the Chelsea neighborhood of Lower Manhattan.

Models pose in a Harlem public school circa 1966.

Namesa Brath (left), the photographer’s sister-in-law, wears earrings designed by Carolee Prince. Right, Prince shows one of his jewelry designs from around 1964.


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