In “Posing Beauty,” an exhibit of photos between the 1890s and now, curator — and NYU professor — Deborah Willis poses questions about beauty, authenticity and who gets to decide how African Americans are depicted.
The motto “black is beautiful” was widely proclaimed in the 1960s as a declaration of pride, self-love, admiration and activism.
Photographer and New York University professor Deborah Willis extends this idea backward and forward in time in a stunning exhibition of photographs from the 1890s to the present at Northwest African American Museum.
Willis’ deft curatorial choices insist that we consider both words of the exhibition’s title: “Posing Beauty.” Beautifully crafted photographs of stylish, powerful or just downright attractive men and women — and an exhibition layout that disrupts easy chronological or thematic readings — give us the opportunity to think about beauty as poses and positionings, either culturally imposed or self-defined points of view.
‘Posing Beauty in African American Culture’
11 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays, until 7 p.m. Thursdays, through Sept. 4, Northwest African American Museum, 2300 S. Massachusetts St., Seattle; $5-$7 (206-518-6000 or naamnw.org)
Organized in conjunction with a comprehensive book by Willis of the same name, this show has been traveling through the U.S. and Canada since 2010 and has now landed in Seattle.
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The timing is fortuitous. While Seattle Art Museum’s wildly popular show of paintings by Kehinde Wiley closes this Sunday (May 8), “Posing Beauty” continues and broadens the discussion about representations of African Americans in art and popular culture.
A nice nod to Seattle greets NAAM visitors right away — the first photograph in the show is Irving Penn’s moody 1947 portrait of Jacob Lawrence and Gwendolyn Knight, renowned artists who lived in Seattle for decades.
A group of works near the entrance emphasizes the historical underpinnings of the theme. Photographs from over a century ago display ideas of identity, sexuality, class and respectability.
“A Desert Queen, 1898” by Edward Curtis — a white ethnographer and photographer known and critiqued for his depictions of Native Americans — sets the stage for a contemplation of how identity is constructed. With an ambiguous, costume-y headdress, and a dress that reveals more than it conceals, the “Queen” is posed as an exotic, sexualized being.
The next images, by some of the earliest African-American photographers, offer an immediate and important counterpoint. Thomas Askew photographed African Americans elegantly dressed and gathered in well-appointed rooms or on university steps.
From there, the exhibition unfolds in unexpected ways. We jump back and forth in time, from bold images of contemporary celebrities like Denzel Washington, Serena Williams and Lil’ Kim, to vintage photographs of 1960s street culture.
Work by well-known documentary photographers such as Charles “Teenie” Harris and Jamel Shabazz is interspersed with imagery by contemporary artists like Carrie Mae Weems and Renee Cox.
In addition to the deliberate avoidance of strict genres or a chronological path, the focus on reconstructions and cultural references keeps us guessing: Photographer Ifetayo Abdus-Salam recasts herself as Pam Grier, the actor famous for her work in “blaxploitation” films, and Mickalene Thomas creates a spot-on imitation of a 1970s living room, complete with harvest-gold décor.
Images like these — and the overall arrangement of the show — force important questions: What is “authentic”? What is posed and what is candid? Who is posing and who is behind the camera? How have notions of beauty changed over time?
Culturally specific signifiers of beauty and power appear again and again. For “Pickin,’ ” Lauren Kelley photographed herself wearing hair picks that match her skin tone. Their handles are upraised fists, symbols of the Black Power movement, and create a crownlike Afro.
Nearby, a 1968 photograph by Stephen Shames portrays Kathleen Cleaver, wife of Eldridge Cleaver and a key member of the Black Panther Party, who deliberately avoided hair-straightening as a pointed cultural comment. Its concentrated clarity makes it one of my favorites of the exhibition.
In a written statement, NAAM’s executive director Rosanna Sharpe says: “This exhibit contains some of the most arresting images of African Americans in front of the camera that you will find anywhere. But just as importantly, it allows us to examine how the beauty narrative has been shaped both for and by African Americans in the United States.”