Photographer broke ground by embracing natural beauty

By: K. Michelle Moran | Metro | Published December 8, 2021

  This self-portrait by Kwame Brathwaite was taken at the African Jazz-Art Society & Studios in Harlem circa 1964.

This self-portrait by Kwame Brathwaite was taken at the African Jazz-Art Society & Studios in Harlem circa 1964.

Photo provided by the Detroit Institute of Arts

  In this photo taken by Kwame Brathwaite circa 1968, his wife, Sikolo Brathwaite, wears a headpiece designed by Carolee Prince.

In this photo taken by Kwame Brathwaite circa 1968, his wife, Sikolo Brathwaite, wears a headpiece designed by Carolee Prince.

Photo provided by the Detroit Institute of Arts

 Photographer Kwame Brathwaite captured this image of the  Marcus Garvey Day Parade in Harlem around 1967.

Photographer Kwame Brathwaite captured this image of the Marcus Garvey Day Parade in Harlem around 1967.

Photo provided by the Detroit Institute of Arts

Advertisement

DETROIT — Some artists recognize that their work can do more than just amaze or entertain — it can also inspire. Kwame Brathwaite is one of them.

“Black Is Beautiful: The Photography of Kwame Brathwaite,” on display through Jan. 16 at the Detroit Institute of Arts, showcases the photographer and activist’s works from the 1950s and 1960s — works that impacted the Black is Beautiful movement. Organized by Aperture traveling exhibitions, the display features more than 40 black-and-white and color images, from studio portraits to shots of Harlem’s artistic community.

Moved to action by the writings of Marcus Garvey, Brathwaite co-founded the African Jazz-Arts Society and Studios, or AJASS, which included designers, dancers, playwrights and fine artists. His images broke from Western standards of beauty at the time and showed Black models and others wearing their hair naturally — instead of using harsh chemicals to straighten it — along with clothing and jewelry that referenced African heritage and culture. AJASS founded the Grandassa Models, the earliest Black modeling troupe, and many of Brathwaite’s photos are of these models, who likewise wore their hair naturally. Their popularity was such that the models toured the nation in the 1960s, staging fashion shows, including one in 1963 at Mr. Kelley’s Lounge in Detroit.

“Kwame really believed his photography was a tool for social (change),” said DIA James Pearson Duffy Curator of Photography Nancy Barr. “(He) was a wonderful photographer who tells a story” in his work.

A section of the “Black Is Beautiful” exhibition is dedicated to work involving the Grandassa Models and includes clothing and jewelry worn by them.

“The pictures are so beautiful,” Barr said of the images, many of them large-scale. “He knew how to light his models. He knew how to compose.”

Brathwaite’s love of jazz is also evident in photos of musicians such as Abbey Lincoln, and he encouraged support of Black-owned businesses.

While “Black Is Beautiful” focuses on artworks created in the 1950s and 1960s, the images and message remain timely.

“I really want people to learn about the issues surrounding Black representation and Black beauty,” Barr said. “These conversations are still so relevant, and I want people to have those conversations.”

This exhibition brings greater attention to an artist whose work was pivotal to artists in various fields who came later.

“Kwame Brathwaite was a vital figure in the second Harlem Renaissance, and it has taken far too long for an exhibition recognizing his work,” said DIA Director Salvador Salort-Pons in an email. “This ground-breaking exhibition gives our visitors the opportunity to see these striking works that helped advance one of the most influential cultural movements of the 1960s.”

Admission to this exhibition is free with regular museum admission, which means it’s free for residents of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties. However, advance reservations are needed because of the pandemic. Those can be made online or by calling the museum. The DIA is located at 5200 Woodward Ave. in midtown. For reservations or more information, visit www.dia.org or call (313) 833-7900.

Advertisement