Kwame Brathwaite’s exhibition at Reynolda resurrects a moment in American historical time that continues to resonate 60 years later — an era of emerging Black consciousness and aesthetics, when “Black is Beautiful” became a cultural rallying cry.
Ubiquitous at the time, the iconic phrase defined a cultural movement that endured through the 1970s. It serves as an apt title for the show, which brings more than 40 of Brathwaite’s photographs together with posters, fashions, record albums and other artifacts illustrated by or otherwise related to his work and the larger movement.
Brathwaite (b. 1938) was still in his teens when he helped found the African Jazz-Art Society and Studios, a multi-arts group focused on Black culture and Black identify. In 1962, he and five of the group’s other co-founders wore matching black suits to pose for a photograph installed near the entrance to the exhibition.
Brathwaite is the sole subject of a photo on the opposite wall. Made in 1964, it’s a self-portrait in close-up, with the photographer’s attentive, youthful-looking face alongside a camera aimed at the viewer.
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The show’s earliest photographs are informal, black-and-white shots of jazz musicians from the late 1950s. Most were made at the Randall’s Island Jazz Festival, including onstage views of performances and scenes of Black musicians gathered at these concerts held annually during the late 1950s and early 1960s. (Randall’s Island is in the East River alongside New York’s Harlem, where Brathwaite’s practice was centered.)
Jazz aficionados will especially appreciate these invaluable documents and the glimpses they provide of pioneering musicians including Miles Davis, Horace Silver, Blue Mitchell, Paul Chambers and Max Roach. An informal portrait of Roach at his drum set is a highlight.
Roach and his wife, vocalist Abbey Lincoln, were leading cultural figures in Harlem during this era, both active in the civil rights movement. They appear in several of Brathwaite’s photos.
Among the show’s most striking images is a color portrait of Lincoln made in 1962, in which she wears a pale blue turban and a mischievous smile. It shares a wall with four large-format studio portraits emphasizing the beauty of young, Black women, including Brathwaite’s wife Sikolo. These subjects were “Grandassa Models,” representing the modeling agency Brathwaite co-founded to promote the natural beauty of Black women.
The agency’s name was derived from “Grandassaland,” an alternate designation for the African continent, coined by Carlos Cooks (1913-1966). A Black nationalist who was prominent in Harlem, Cooks appears in several of Brathwaite’s photos.
Also on exhibit are examples of the African-inspired clothing worn by the Grandassa models — displayed on three mannequins — as well as related advertisements, record-album covers and candid street shots of agency models featured in Harlem’s parades celebrating Marcus Garvey’s birthday anniversary.
In addition to his commercial work — the modeling shots and album cover photos — Brathwaite documented the Garvey parades and other aspects of Harlem street life in a series of black-and-white photographs. Grounding the exhibition in its place and time, these include several images of neighborhood storefronts — the African Market, the Fly Shop and a white-owned wig shop.
Black protesters marching and carrying signs in the latter image decried the shop’s application of white beauty standards to Black women. It was an era when many Black Americans quit straightening their hair in favor of natural “Afro” hairstyles.
One prominent example was soul singer James Brown, whose 1968 hit “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)” became an anthem of the Black power movement. Brown doesn’t appear in any of Brathwaite’s exhibited photographs, but his importance is evidenced in two images.
In one of them, a crowd of enthusiastic-looking Black fans gathered to greet Brown in what appears to be an airport waiting room, where several brandish welcoming signs with the singer’s name on them.
Highlighting Brown’s multi-generational appeal is a photo in which a small boy admires a sign announcing an upcoming show by the singer at Harlem’s Apollo Theater.
Speaking of Black music, it’s such an important theme in the show that it would have been appropriate to include a soundtrack playing in the gallery — a selection of Brown’s hits, and recordings by Roach, Lincoln and other jazz artists Brathwaite photographed during his exemplary, fortuitously timed career.