Black Is Beautiful: The Photography of Kwame Brathwaite at the Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco

BY Roula Seikaly, March 3, 2020

Black Is Beautiful, the robust Kwame Brathwaite retrospective on view this winter, deftly conveyed the spirit of community and entrepreneurship that influenced the fight for self-determination, equality, and civil rights among African Americans in the mid-20th century.

Born to Barbadian-immigrant parents, Brathwaite grew up in a multicultural Bronx enclave and after graduating from high school, he and his brother Elombe, along with other collaborators, founded AJASS, the African Jazz-Art Society & Studios. Described by Black Is Beautiful curator Dr. Tanisha C. Ford as a “radical collective of playwrights, graphic artists, dancers, and fashion designers,” AJASS members modeled their collaboration on previous generations who had formed social clubs that affirmed and fortified multiple black cultural identities. 

Brathwaite’s devotion to jazz is evident in the black-and-white photographs presented over half of MoAD’s third-floor gallery. Capturing unguarded moments between sets or slow-burning performances by such legends as Max Roach and Miles Davis, Brathwaite’s compositions convey the moment when jazz forever altered the American pop cultural lexicon. Moreover, photographs of AJASS patrons and audiences mark a pivotal moment in which black Americans created and occupied space in opposition to white culture.

Thanks to this exhibition, Brathwaite’s photographs are gaining long-overdue recognition in a fine-art context, but from the 1960s on, they were well known to black audiences. Ephemera on view, including AJASS event flyers, posters, and advertisements in newspapers and magazines, demonstrate a command of visual and textual language that subverted mainstream corporate agendas, which overwhelmingly constructed black culture as Other. 

Kwame Brathwaite, Grandassa Models at the Merton Simpson Gallery, New York, ca. 1967. Courtesy the artist and Philip Martin Gallery

Foremost in his beautifully subversive marketing efforts were images of the Grandassa Models, an AJASS-associated women’s cooperative that refused to accept Western beauty standards – straight hair, light skin, rail-thin bodies – that were promoted by popular magazines, even those aimed at black audiences, including Ebony and Jet. Embodying black nationalist principles including economic self-sufficiency and racial pride, the Grandassa Models designed, sewed, and modeled African-inspired clothing.

Sikolo Brathwaite wearing a headpiece designed by Carolee Prince, African Jazz-Art Society and Studios, Harlem, ca. 1968, resonates with contemporaneous portraits by Nigerian photographer J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere (1930-2014). Isolated against a concentrated ochre backdrop, the headpiece and earrings suggest the sartorial choices that were part of the transnational African political and cultural consciousness that Brathwaite and many associated with the Black Is Beautiful movement embraced.

It’s not coincidental that Aperture produced the books and exhibitions Black Is Beautiful and Antwaun Sargent’s The New Black Vanguard: Photography Between Art and Fashion in close succession. Sargent’s project centers on contemporary black fashion photographers whose work blurs the line between commercial and fine-art photography. Their work marshals social media’s 24/7 immediacy, but also considers old-school formats including publications and billboards. That important aspect, plus a consideration of how contemporary photographers de-emphasize the white gaze, link these projects in profound ways. Black Is Beautiful celebrates Brathwaite’s vision and the cultural basis from which subsequent appreciation of black cultural accomplishment starts.