April 23, 2019

Black Is Beautiful: The Photography of Kwame Brathwaite @ Skirball, Los Angeles - MoAD, San Francisco - Columbia Museum of Art

Black Is Beautiful: The Photography of Kwame Brathwaite
Skirball Cultural Center, Los Angeles
Through September 1, 2019
Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco
December 4, 2019 – March 1, 2020
Columbia Museum of Art, Columbia, South Carolina
June 26 – September 6, 2020

The Skirball Cultural Center presents Black Is Beautiful: The Photography of Kwame Brathwaite, the first exhibition to focus on this key—and until now under-recognized—figure of the second Harlem Renaissance. Through more than forty iconic images, Black Is Beautiful illuminates how in the late 1950s and 1960s, Kwame Brathwaite (b. 1938) used his art to popularize “Black Is Beautiful,” now considered one of the most influential cultural movements of that era. Organized by Aperture Foundation, the exhibition makes its national debut at the Skirball.

Inspired by the writings of famed activist and black nationalist Marcus Garvey, Kwame Brathwaite harnessed the power of art, music, and fashion to effect social change. Along with his brother Elombe Brath (1936–2014), he founded two organizations that were instrumental in realizing his vision: the African Jazz-Art Society & Studios (AJASS), a collective of artists, playwrights, designers, and dancers, in 1956; and Grandassa Models, a modeling group for black women, in 1962. Kwame Brathwaite organized fashion shows showcasing clothes designed by the models themselves, created stunning portraits of jazz luminaries, and captured behind-the-scenes photographs of the black arts community, including Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln, and Miles Davis.

During an era when segregation prevailed across the United States, Kwame Brathwaite’s body of work is remarkable for challenging mainstream beauty standards that excluded people of color. His photographs of African American women and men with natural hair and clothes that reclaimed and honored their African roots instilled a sense of pride throughout the community. In addition to Kwame Brathwaite’s photographs, the exhibition displays several garments worn during the fashion shows, as well as a selection of ephemeral materials.

Kwame Brathwaite’s son, Kwame S. Brathwaite—who co-curated the exhibition with Aperture Foundation’s Michael Famighetti and Skirball managing curator Bethany Montagano—remarked, “My father preserved the legacy of the ‘Black Is Beautiful’ movement, which is not merely a slogan, but a template for the way that art and activism can propel us toward equity and inclusion.”

“Black Is Beautiful demonstrates how Kwame Brathwaite’s photographs disrupted cultural norms and helped to broaden our definition of what is beautiful and who gets to decide,” added Montagano. “In keeping with the Skirball’s mission to affirm the dignity of every cultural identity, we are honored to highlight an artist whose body of work and guiding principles call upon us to work toward a more just and inclusive society.”

Born in Brooklyn in 1938 and raised in the Bronx, New York, Kwame Brathwaite spent most of his adult life in and around New York City. In the late 1950s,Kwame Brathwaite and his brother Elombe Brath became active in the African Nationalist Pioneer Movement led by Carlos Cooks. At the same time, the brothers regularly produced and promoted concerts and art shows at venues such as Club 845 in the Bronx and Small’s Paradise in Harlem, while Brathwaite photographed the events.

Throughout the 1960s, Kwame Brathwaite contributed photography to leading black publications such as the Amsterdam News, City Sun, and Daily Challenge. By the 1970s, Kwame Brathwaite was a leading concert photographer, helping to shape the images of major celebrities, including Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley, James Brown, and Muhammad Ali. Kwame Brathwaite wrote about and photographed such landmark events as the Motown Revue at the Apollo in 1963, WattStax 1972, the Jackson 5’s first trip to Africa in 1974, and the Festival in Zaire in 1974.

Today Kwame Brathwaite resides in New York City and is represented by Philip Martin Gallery in Culver City, California. He is married to Sikolo Brathwaite, a former Grandassa model whom he met through their work together. She continues to advocate for the empowerment of black women today. Their son, Kwame S. Brathwaite, is currently the director of the Kwame Brathwaite Archive in Pasadena, California.

Following the Skirball presentation of Black Is Beautiful: The Photography of Kwame Brathwaite, the exhibition will go on national tour, traveling to Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco (December 4, 2019 – March 1, 2020) and the Columbia Museum of Art in South Carolina (June 26 – September 6, 2020), among other venues to be announced.

The exhibition at the Skirball coincides with the publication of the first-ever monograph dedicated to Kwame Brathwaite. Featuring in-depth essays by Tanisha C. Ford and Deborah Willis and more than eighty images, Kwame Brathwaite: Black Is Beautiful (Aperture, May 2019) offer a long overdue exploration of Kwame Brathwaite’s life and work.

Kwame Brathwaite: Black Is Beautifu, Aperture, 2019
Kwame Brathwaite: Black Is Beautiful, Aperture, 2019
Photographs and introduction by Kwame Brathwaite
Essays by Tanisha C. Ford and Deborah Willis
8 ½ x 10 ½ in. / 21.6 x 27 cm
144 pages, 91 black-and-white and four-color images
Hardcover with jacket / 978-1-59711-443-1 / May 2019

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