My first exposure to Kwame Brathwaite’s work was in 2019 at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston as part of an exhibit titled “Icons of Style: A Century of Fashion Photography.” A black wall was printed with the words “Black Is Beautiful,” occupying the entire space from floor-to-ceiling. Before attending this exhibit, I had known nothing about the photographer, but the striking photographs (and the impact of the slogan I had heard hundreds of times before) prompted an ongoing interest in his work.
This past summer, I went to the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Texas to see “Black Is Beautiful: The Photography of Kwame Brathwaite,” and I was incredibly moved by the glamour and depth of his work. The exhibit tells the story of Brathwaite’s illustrious career through his depictions of the Black art and jazz scene in Harlem. Images of Muhammad Ali, Nina Simone, Miles Davis, and countless others dress the walls. Though he photographed some of the most influential Black artists, musicians, and cultural figures of the 1950s and 1960s, and though he is credited with popularizing the phrase “Black is Beautiful,” Kwame Brathwaite remained largely unknown until the past decade. His work experienced a resurgence due to his own retellings of his life, in addition to the work of the brilliant Black cultural scholar Tanisha C. Ford, who wrote the catalog for the current “Black is Beautiful” traveling exhibit.
Brathwaite and his brother, Elombe Brath, founded the African Jazz Art Society and Studios in 1956. The organization was a collective of photographers, musicians, fashion designers, dancers, artists, and writers that centered its values around Pan-African politics. This group would lead to the start of Brathwaite’s photography career. He later worked with members of AJASS to found Grandassa Models, a group of diverse Black women models who aimed to both contest the images of white models featured in mainstream U.S. publications, and also to contest the exclusion of dark-skinned, natural-haired models in Black-owned publications like Ebony Magazine as well.
AJASS and the Grandassa Models produced a series of fashion shows, the first of which was titled “Naturally ’62: The Original African Coiffure and Fashion Extravaganza Designed to Restore Our Racial Pride and Standards.” In addition to celebrating Black women’s beauty, the Grandassa Models also hoped to change Black American perceptions of Africa as being primitive by wearing African and African-inspired clothes and hairstyles that demonstrated Africa’s vibrance and cosmopolitanism. While most of Brathwaite’s earlier photographs had been in black-and-white, he decided to shoot some of the Naturally shows in color to better display the range of shades of Black skin and the vibrant colors of the garments.
Brathwaite’s work is an indispensable visual contribution to the “Black is Beautiful” ideology. His images and his work with AJASS and Grandassa produced a shift in mainstream perceptions of what constitutes Blackness. More Black women began to embrace natural hair as a result of his artistic advocacy and his undeniably beautiful portraits of natural-haired Black women. His vision led to increased diversity of models in Black publications, and eventually in mainstream U.S. and global publications as well. As an avid consumer of fashion magazines, the diversity in beauty that I see (in part due to Brathwaite’s advocacy) is incredibly impactful. Seeing people like myself represented in glossy pages reminds me of my own beauty, and it builds a relationship between myself and the media I consume.
One of my favorite images of Brathwaite’s is part of a past exhibit called “Changing Times” at the Phillip Martin Gallery in Los Angeles. In the photograph, a Black woman with an afro is placed against a black-gray background, in sharp relief against the diffuse light that illuminates her face. She is twisted so that her back faces the camera, and we see her face at an angle. There are flecks of gold glitter that seem to be emanating from her figure, and she leans into herself, eyes closed, lips parted, head slightly back, and she seems to be ascending—to where, we’re unsure. This image, to me, so clearly displays the magical empowerment that comes along with the ability to recognize the inherent beauty and power we all hold.
The woman in the image seems to be in her own elegant, soft, world, untroubled by the world’s piercing eyes.
Onyx E. Ewa ’24 is an Art, Film, and Visual Studies concentrator in Winthrop House. Their column “All Black Everything” appears on alternate Thursdays.