Kwame Brathwaite, Black is Beautiful

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by Aperture (here). Hardcover with jacket, 144 pages, with 91 color and black-and-white reproductions. Includes essays by Tanisha C. Ford, Deborah Willis, and the artist. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: While plenty of photobooks are published each year that are engaging, innovative, and filled with durably original photographs, if we are honest, only a very few of these well-made books rise to the level of being historically important. This year, Kwame Brathwaite’s Black is Beautiful is one of these important books. Given his visual influence on the definition of black identity in 1960s America, his work should have been gathered into a solid reference volume years ago, and that book should have stood on library shelves and recalibrated the arc of not only fashion photography, but of the larger cultural conversion around the African-American and diaspora experience. This photobook has essentially arrived decades too late, but perhaps that delay will make the rediscovery of his vision that much more resonant for those it should have influenced earlier.

Brathwaite’s story actually begins not with his camera but with jazz. After graduating from the School of Industrial Art in Manhattan, he and his brother Elombe started their own social club, the African Jazz-Art Society (AJAS). It was a gathering place for those interested in the intersection of the black art world and the politics of Marcus Garvey’s black nationalism. AJAS held events and salons, and later, after Brathwaite became frustrated by always having to travel downtown to hear jazz, started hosting jazz events at Club 845 in the Bronx. With the hustling enthusiasm of an entrepreneur, Brathwaite booked acts and took photographs, his camera pointed at musicians at work on the bandstand and toward quieter moments at rehearsals and in between, as well as at the hip crowd in attendance. His 1962 image of Cannonball Adderley intently listening to playback is an example of Brathwaite’s patient approach – he waited and watched, and eventually the rest of the surroundings in the picture seem to dissolve away until we’re left looking at the force of the saxophone player’s attention.

On the political side of Brathwaite’s life, in the late 1950s, Marcus Garvey’s top line “back to Africa” message was being actively transformed and adapted into one of black empowerment, where people could embrace change by making mindful everyday choices. Harlem activist Carlos Cook’s “Think Black” and “Buy Black” slogans were rooted in a renewed sense of black economic independence – where black people spent locally with black shop owners and therefore kept their dollars in their own communities – and Brathwaite made photographs of local businesses who supported this movement. These ideas then evolved further into a keener awareness of how black people were presenting themselves, in terms of fashion and style.

The return to women wearing their hair naturally (instead of straightening or processing it so it looked more European) became a particular point of pride. Brathwaite co-founded Grandassa Models in 1962 to capture the the beauty and spirit of black women, and in many ways, their natural hair, their colorful West African-inspired fashions, their range of skin colors (from light to dark), and their natural curves were a direct response to the pale, waif-like fashion models like Twiggy of the mod 1960s. In 1962, AJAS began putting on an annual fashion show called “Naturally” that featured the Grandassa Models, further supporting the sense of feminine identity and cooperative empowerment that was growing in the black community.

The natural hair issue became a local political flash point when Wigs Parisian opened up a shop on 125th Street in Harlem in 1963. Cook’s African Nationalist Pioneer Movement (ANPM) staged a protest against the straight-haired wigs for sale, with black women with natural hair carrying signs and parading in front of the entrance to the shop. Brathwaite documented the scene, and soon, AJAS was promoting its own slogan “Black is Beautiful” on its meeting posters, actively attempting to promote, reframe, and perhaps reclaim the principles of proud black beauty.

Brathwaite’s 1960s photographs of the Grandassa Models – in the studio, at events and shows, and elsewhere – are the ones that need to be bluntly reinserted into the history books that have overlooked them. Not only do they provide a critical historical record of this self-defined alternate vision of beauty, the pictures exude pride, confidence, elegance, and contagious joy – these are smiles and poses that lit up a room with their energy. The refined style of Brathwaite’s studio images in color particularly stands out. Set again flat colored backdrops, his close-up head shots often feature not only natural hair but elaborate headpieces and jewelry, leading to strikingly memorable compositions. Some of Brathwaite’s photographs of women went on to become album covers for Blue Note records (reconnecting to his love for jazz) or were reused as magazine covers both at home and abroad.

My one criticism of this photobook is its dull design. The posters and flyers promoting AJAS and the Grandassa Models events are bursting with the confident cool of the 1960s, and Brathwaite coined what is one of the most powerfully recognizable catchphrases of black empowerment ever, so how is it that the front cover of the book doesn’t feature either any catchy style or those indelible words? The photograph that has been featured is itself gorgeous, but it is mystifying why such an amazing opportunity to take some design risk – not to mention to celebrate the particular design aesthetic of the Black is Beautiful movement – was passed by.

Hopefully, this survey of Brathwaite’s photography will lead to others, as the scholars digging through his archives at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (where the materials are located) get their arms around everything that is there – elusive references to still-lost images of John Coltrane practicing in his kitchen and other celebrity pictures from the 1970s lie tantalizingly open, assuming the photographs can be located. There is also a fascinating revamp of 1960s fashion photography to be done, remixing Brathwaite into the narrative we already know, so perhaps this is the first of many books, rather than the one and only.

What’s most exciting is that the groundswell around the rediscovery of Brathwaite’s work has already begun. Rihanna recently announced that her new Fenty fashion line was inspired by Brathwaite’s pictures, and given the positive, self-assured stance of the models, we can assume more influences and connections will follow as more people see the photographs. As a hybrid artist/promoter/activist, Brathwaite helped support and shape a whole new cultural identity for black women, and this photobook allows us to follow along as that poised definition of beauty came together.

Collector’s POV: Kwame Brathwaite is represented by Philip Martin Gallery in Los Angeles (here). An exhibit of his work is currently on view (April 11 – September 1, 2019) at the Skirball Cultural Center (here). Brathwaite’s prints have little secondary market history, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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JTF (just the facts): Co-published by Fw:Books (here) and Light Work (here). Softcover, staplebound reversed gatefold, 384 pages, with about 300 color and black and white photographs. In an edition of 800 copies. Includes ... Read on.

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