“Posing Beauty in African American Culture,” on view last fall at the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, where our writer Vanessa Huang saw it, can now be seen at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond through July 27.
“Ain’t nobody gonna wreck our flow,” the congregation of kindred spirits in “Posing Beauty in African American Culture” rustle-sing-shout to me within the halls of Spelman College’s Museum of Fine Art. “No ma’am, not even the clumsy end start this here dear Empire,” I can almost hear from the image of Dolly, whose gaze knowingly meets my own each time I arrive at the exhibition. One of five fugitives who liberated themselves from white plantation owner Louis Manigalt in Augusta, Georgia, Dolly was the only one he was unable to find and recapture. “Here I am, evidence of freedom dreams done come to life,” her eyes assert between the lines of a bounty note that curator and photographic historian Deborah Willis had blown up to fill the exhibition’s entry.
Dolly and Manigalt are among the subjects and photographers of the more than 75 images and artifacts comprising Posing Beauty, a traveling exhibition organized by Willis, who is chair of the photography and imaging department at New York University. The works include portraits, reimagined photographic canvasses, and snaps from the hundreds she has handpicked during a life-long investigation into what she described in her October 17, 2013, lecture as “how we pose beauty” within African American culture. In her introduction to the catalogue for “Posing Beauty,” Willis credits her North Philadelphia childhood—surrounded by the women who converged in her mother’s home-based beauty shop before Saturday date nights and Sunday church—with sparking this study.
Posing Beauty’s first-ever migration Southeast and sojourn at a historically black campus conjure a regionally specific interaction among people, places, and cultures. Here, in the black Mecca of Atlanta, in the historic West End, home of the largest historically black college and university hub in the United States, Willis also includes a collection of the late 19th- and early 20th-century cabinet cards of the Spelman family from the school’s archives.
Each work buzzes with story, carried by its own jazz and flow. The placement of Manigalt’s fugitive note at the entry frames the exhibition, reminding us of the great tragedy that began with the kidnapping, forced migration, and enslavement of Africans. Traveling work by work across the eras represented, I stay awake to the significance of this visual story within the persistent dehumanization and vilification of African Americans through media coverage, racial profiling, brutality, and mass imprisonment.
Lauren Kelley’s 2007 Pickin’ features a subject whose head is entirely adorned with hair picks fashioned into proudly raised fists, each a golden brown nearly identical to the shade of the subject’s skin. Like Dolly’s fugitive note, Kelley’s image leaves evidence of African diasporic resistance: here by celebrating the legacy of ancestral hair care tools and paying homage to the Black Power movement. The silhouette of the subject’s dignified crown of bounty—hair picks standing tall and strong together—paired with that of the subject as a whole communicate a strength and poise almost resembling a tree in both form and spirit. “Like a tree that’s planted by the water / We shall not be moved,” this Afrofuturist visual field sings me in its celebration of lineages of African cultural, creative, and imaginative practice – here, at the nexus of everyday hair care – staying alive through it all, past, present, future.
Images from Sheila Pree Bright’s 2005 “Plastic Bodies” series features a cadre of fantastical subjects she has hatched through digital manipulation, sampling the bodies of both airbrushed Mattel dolls and real-life human beings to tell it like it is when it comes to industry norms of beauty. On the lower back of one such hybrid creature, the manufacturer’s stamp “Indonesia” places this work in the context of a globalized economy whose exploitative practices we inescapably partake in.
While the degrees of agency and collaboration in storytelling between photographer and subject necessarily vary across the visual archive of “Posing Beauty,” there is something noticeably intentional in each team’s choices. Separately and together, these works whispershout to me about the act of composing a visual legacy with deliberation.
For one, Renée Cox switches up what Willis calls the “art-historical script” of female nudes, gaze, and objectification. In her 2001 self-portrait Baby Back, Cox employs a BDSM femme aesthetic to frame the scene. Sitting atop a gold chaise lounge with her back turned to the viewer, wearing nothing but red heels, locs, and the whip in her hand, she is the top—the one in control of both her body, her sexuality, her black beauty; and this moment of encounter.
Willis’s curation unsurprisingly and necessarily examines—rather than assumes—the gaze, culture, and supremacy of what black queer poet and choreographer m.a. brooks calls “the hegemonic disaster that is whiteness.” “Bless your heart,” I can almost hear the first black Miss Texas thinking in Lauren Woods’s 2006 video The Teenth of June. In this slow-motion, sonically dissonant dramatic presentation of her crowning, we see her deliberately dodge, with grace and purpose, the put-on intimacies of her white peers while navigating the palpable tension in a world that continues to privilege white-normative beauty standards.
While identity politics may be winning in today’s Obama- and Scandal era of raced-, classed-, and gendered representation—from the United States’ first black presidential tenure to the TV queendom of Shonda Rhimes and Kerry Washington—voters and viewers alike know that true freedom and racial equity remain lacking. The title of Carrie Mae Weems’s self-portrait from her 2006 Louisiana Project installation directly states, “I looked and looked to see what so terrified you,” referring to white cultural narratives that continue to demonize black people to justify anti-black violence and legally sanctioned practices. Donning a two-piece suit tailored from quilted textiles, Weems gazes into a mirror she holds in one hand, the other just grazing her hair. Referencing and remixing the cultural resistance of African American quilting traditions, Weems the subject and Weems the artist hold court, weaving layer upon layer—from the scene she creates, to the photograph and text, to its place in the exhibition as a whole—to create a visual world invoking the long-standing urgency of the call to freedom from the legacies of slavery within African American culture.
Works such as Charles “Teenie” Harris’s 1944 A Waiting Horne—a portrait of Lena Horne in her dressing room—and Stephen Shames’s 1970 At Home, Huey P. Newton Listens to Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 honor moments of everyday intimacy free from the public eye for these cultural icons. These images lift up the private moments (backstage, at home) as significant parts of the African American story within the many undercurrents and explicit expressions of racism they and their audiences faced while navigating complex identities of integrity and import.
There is always more to include so as not to exclude vital stories in any historical survey. For one, I wished for images honoring out transgender aunties and aunty elders—so often the backbone of queer kinship networks and of intergenerational resilience surrounding black culture in the United States, such as Atlanta’s own Dee Dee Chamblee and Cheryl Courtney-Evans. The exhibition would also benefit from the acknowledgement of instances in which photographers might have assumed the gender identities of their subjects, for example, Jeffrey Henson Scales’s 1992 Young Man in Plaid, featuring a subject I read as a male-assigned New Yorker whose visual language is engaging with the city’s gender-expansive ball culture.
All in all, Willis offers a take on the posing of beauty deeply engaged with the call-and-response tradition rooted in black U.S. American culture, and a lineage of cultural workers unafraid to tell it like it is, break the rules, and remix traditions. Between poses, I hear the unswerving grit of Nina Simone, on freedom: “It’s just a feeling!” I hear Toni Morrison’s Beloved: “Freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self was another.” I hear Janelle Monáe’s defiant “They be like ‘Ooh, she’s serving face!’”; and her timeless prophecy, “Let love be your guide. You were built to last through any weather.” While visiting Posing Beauty, I heard all these echoes and more sing back and forth with me.
Home in diaspora from Atlanta and Oakland to Taipei, Vanessa Huang is a poet, interdisciplinary artist, and cultural organizer who weaves poemsongs with moments of creative aliveness and transformative encounter, color, and texture in call and response with kindred spirits who dream and make worlds where each and all of us are free.