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We should embrace our beauty. It doesn’t matter if you are tall, short, fat, slim, the color of coffee with lots of cream or a shade of the darkest chocolate.
“Posing Beauty in African American Culture,” the latest exhibition at the David Driskell Center, confirms that Black people are lovely. “Posing Beauty” began touring the country in 2010 and is now in the D.C. area at the Driskell Center on the campus of the University of Maryland, College Park.
The exhibition was curated by Deborah Willis, professor and chair of the department of photography and imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts of New York University. It is art seen through a range of media, exploring the contested ways in which African and African-American beauty has been represented in historical and contemporary contexts.
“It took about two years to curate starting in 2000,” Willis said at the opening reception. “It’s about Black themes and identities we have through our work and through our play. I thought about the ways that we pose in different experiences and I wanted to tell the story through multiple lenses. We have a range that most people don’t see.”
Near the gallery entrance is a profile headshot of a woman. Upon closer look, the observer sees it’s a photo of Susan Taylor from her modeling days, taken in the 1970s by Ken Ramsey, years before she became editor-in-chief of Essence magazine.
The images on display for “Posing Beauty” are shown through a range of media including photography, video, fashion, advertising and other forms of popular culture. The oldest images are from Edward Curtis in the late 1800s and Thomas Askew taken between 1899-1900. Many of the photographs through the early 1960s are in black and white.
“Posing Beauty” shows Black people at work, but also in what one might call their “Sunday best.” As the exhibition continues with images through contemporary years, there are still many black-and-white photographs, but color images emerge, and some are quite provocative. Mixed media is used to add layers of striking visual dimension.
“We have our own definitions of what beauty is,” said Bonnie Thornton Dill, dean of the College of Arts and Humanities at the University of Maryland, College Park, in her opening remarks. “This is an opportunity to see the many varied ways we see beauty of ourselves, for ourselves and for others to see us.”
Walking through the exhibit, visitors will see images of everyday people as well as famous faces such as Lena Horne, Kathleen Cleaver, Pam Grier, Isaac Hayes and Lil’ Kim. Photographers whose works are on display include Gordon Parks, Carrie Mae Weems, Robert Sengstacke, Charles “Teenie” Harris, Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, Gerard Gaskin and Sheila Pree Bright.
Willis is well into her next photography project, for which she is taking pictures of closets.
“My mom is 97, and I look at the way she preserves her clothes and tells stories about individual items in her closet,” Willis said about her inspiration for this latest project. “It’s interesting how women form their identities through dress, so I decided to explore the closet and it’s been fun.”
“Posing Beauty in African American Culture” is at the David Driskell Center at the University of Maryland, College Park until April 27. For hours and directions, go to driskellcenter.umd.edu or call 301-314-2615.