DIA’s new photo exhibition explores the influence of photographer “Black is Beautiful”
Twiggy was the ultimate ‘it’ model in the 1960s with her short blonde hair, gangly limbs, and big blue eyes, but Kwame Brathwaite, a black photographer and activist, wanted to show the world a different standard of beauty.
Brathwaite and his brother, Elombe Brath, co-founded the Grandassa Models, a group of black models who were anything but Twiggy. They wore African inspired clothing and their natural hair. Some wore headdresses. They posed for an early 1960s fashion show, “Naturally,” hosted by another organization co-founded by Brathwaite and Brathe, the African Jazz Arts Society and Studios, which was so popular that it eventually turned to d other cities, including Detroit.
Brathwaite’s photograph, which includes images of the Grandassa models, is the focus of a major new exhibit that opens Friday at the Detroit Institute of Arts. “Black Is Beautiful: The Photography of Kwame Brathwaite” features 42 black and white and color photos of Brathwaite, some of them on a large scale. The exhibition also includes clothing designed by Grandassa models and accessories. It runs until January 16.
“This is a truly unique exhibit because it tells the story of a particular era in black history and culture,” said Nancy Barr, curator of photography at DIA.
The phrase “Black is Beautiful” may be ingrained in the American vernacular, but that wasn’t the case in the early 1960s. And the Grandassa and Brathwaite models helped change that.
The Grandassa models were “beautiful black women who wore their natural hair in a natural style, designed their own clothes, designed their own jewelry, it was all inspired, I would say, by 60s fashion and African fashion”, a Barr said. “They were unique in that they were a very different type of beauty than what we saw in magazines like ‘Vogue’ or ‘Life.'”
Brathwaite, who is now 80, grew up in the Bronx, New York, the son of immigrants from Barbados. A big fan of jazz, he took up photography in the late 1950s after seeing someone photograph a jazz performance. A follower of black activist Marcus Garvey, Brathwaite’s photos also focused on economic freedom and black liberation, featuring black-owned businesses.
Barr said Brathwaite was a “remarkable” technician as a photographer – using a medium format camera – who really knew how to light up black and brown skin.
“He really made sense to capture a moment and make you feel like you were there,” Barr said.
The “Black is Beautiful” exhibition, organized by the Aperture Foundation in New York, is similar to the one held in California in early 2020.
Yet many Americans have probably never heard of Brathwaite, Barr said. He was known in New York and Africa – he photographed the Jackson 5s there and spent a lot of time there after the 1970s – but not elsewhere.
“We are digging up a lot of stories of artists and photographers who have been marginalized for years,” Barr said.
Yet, known or not, Brathwaite captured a movement in the 1960s of life and beauty. He didn’t invent “Black is Beautiful,” but his photos and Grandassa models have grown in popularity in response to the lack of black beauty standards in American and Western culture, according to the DIA.
“I think a lot of people will be really enlightened (seeing the exhibit) about things they take for granted, especially now,” Barr said. “A lot of people don’t understand how rigid things were in the ’60s with print, photography and television. We haven’t seen a lot of people of color in the mainstream (media). I think that will give them perspective. “
“Black Is Beautiful: The Photograph of Kwame Brathwaite”
8 October-Jan. 16 at the Detroit Institute of the Arts
Go to https://www.dia.org/blackisbeautiful.