Museum  April 19, 2019  Jordan Riefe

"Black is Beautiful": the Photography Behind a Social Revolution

Courtesy of the artist and Philip Martin Gallery, Los Angeles

Kwame Brathwaite. Sikolo Brathwaite wearing a headpiece designed by Carolee Prince, AJASS, Harlem, 1968.

Kwame Brathwaite didn’t coin the phrase “black is beautiful,” he just popularized it. The year was 1962 and those immortal words had already been uttered by black nationalist Carlos A. Cooks. But it was Brathwaite, impresario and photographer, who ushered the phrase into the pop lexicon with “Naturally ‘62,” a Harlem-based event melding jazz, art and fashion, organized by he and his brother, Elombe Brath at Harlem Purple Manor where it was billed "the original African coiffure and fashion extravaganza."

Courtesy of the artist and Philip Martin Gallery, Los Angeles

Kwame Brathwaite. Black Is Beautiful poster, with portraits of Brathwaite’s wife, Sikolo, and their daughter, Ndola, pictured in the K, ca. 1970. Designed by Bob Gumbs.

Such transformative moments, big and small, make up the core of the new show, Black Is Beautiful: The Photography of Kwame Brathwaite, at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles through Sept. 1, curated by his son, Kwame Jr. On display are over 40 black-and-white images of everyday people as well as jazz legends like Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln, Dizzy Gillespie or Art Blakey taking five with a smoke and a drink, as well as the beautiful ladies of Grandassa, a modeling agency that featured black women, some professionals others off the street, representing a variety of body shapes and skin tones. 

“This exhibition is kind of like the origin story. We really do a deeper dive into a lot of his really good early work,” Kwame Jr. tells Art & Object about the new show. “He was self-taught, so he’s kind of figuring out the ways in which he wants to shoot.”

Kwame Brathwaite. Self-portrait, African Jazz-Art Society & Studios (AJASS), Harlem, ca. 1964.
Courtesy of the artist and Philip Martin Gallery, Los Angeles.

Kwame Brathwaite. Self-portrait, African Jazz-Art Society & Studios (AJASS), Harlem, ca. 1964.

Kwame Brathwaite. Nomsa Brath wearing earrings designed by Carolee Prince, AJASS, Harlem, ca. 1964.
Courtesy of the artist and Philip Martin Gallery, Los Angeles

Kwame Brathwaite. Nomsa Brath wearing earrings designed by Carolee Prince, AJASS, Harlem, ca. 1964.

Kwame Brathwaite. Photo shoot at a public school for one of the AJASS-associated modeling groups that emulated the Grandassa Models and began to embrace natural hairstyles. Harlem, ca. 1966.
Courtesy of the artist and Philip Martin Gallery, Los Angeles

Kwame Brathwaite. Photo shoot at a public school for one of the AJASS-associated modeling groups that emulated the Grandassa Models and began to embrace natural hairstyles. Harlem, ca. 1966.

Kwame Brathwaite. Marcus Garvey Day event, Renaissance Ballroom and Casino, Harlem, ca. 1966.
Courtesy of the artist and Philip Martin Gallery, Los Angeles.

Kwame Brathwaite. Marcus Garvey Day event, Renaissance Ballroom and Casino, Harlem, ca. 1966.

Kwame Brathwaite. Grandassa Model on car during Marcus Garvey Day celebration, Harlem, ca. 1968.
Courtesy of the artist and Philip Martin Gallery, Los Angeles

Kwame Brathwaite. Grandassa Model on car during Marcus Garvey Day celebration, Harlem, ca. 1968.

Kwame Brathwaite. Grandassa Model onstage, Apollo Theater, Harlem, ca. 1968.
Courtesy of the artist and Philip Martin Gallery, Los Angeles.

Kwame Brathwaite. Grandassa Model onstage, Apollo Theater, Harlem, ca. 1968.

Originally from Brooklyn, Brathwaite no doubt picked up something from his father, Cecil, a painter, and learned even more from his Uncle Lionel, who lost four fingers in a printing press accident and, seeking another outlet, took up photography. Like many at the time, Kwame and his brother were followers of Marcus Garvey and Pan-Africanism. Founding Grandassa Models was their way of redefining the standard of beauty established by white-dominated media that, at best, ignored black people and, at worst, demonized them. 

At the same time, the brothers ran African Jazz Arts Society and Studios (AJASS), a collective of artists, playwrights, designers and dancers, because it gave African Americans a way to experience jazz away from the barriers and restrictions found in Manhattan clubs. If they couldn’t get Miles Davis, they could get his band, or bassist Paul Chambers. 

Courtesy of the artist and Philip Martin Gallery, Los Angeles

Kwame Brathwaite. “Naturally ’68” photo shoot, featuring Grandassa Models and founding members of AJASS. Back row includes: Eleanor Ballard, far left; Sikolo Brathwaite, third from left; Juanita McLean, fourth from left; Zeta Gathers, fifth from left; and Pat (last name unknown), third from right. Front row, left to right: Klytus Smith, Frank Adu, Bob Gumbs, Elombe Brath, and Ernest Baxter. Apollo Theater, Harlem, ca. 1968.

“He was given the moniker ‘the keeper of the images’ because he was the person there documenting the things that were happening,” says Kwame Jr. about his father who, at age 81 remains engaged, if not as active as he used to be. “He did it specifically for promoting the movement of ‘Black is Beautiful’ and African liberation around the globe. One of the things he says is you guys gotta carry on the legacy and continue until everyone is equal.”

Brathwaite’s work will be honored in a new monograph by Aperture, concurrent with the show, which tours next to San Francisco.

About the Author

Jordan Riefe

Jordan Riefe has been covering the film business since the late 90s for outlets like Reuters, THR.com, and the Wrap. He wrote a movie that was produced in China in 2007. Riefe currently serves as West Coast theatre critic for The Hollywood Reporter, while also covering art and culture for The Guardian, Cultured Magazine, LA Weekly and KCET Artbound.

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