Shotgun Review

From Los Angeles: Posing Beauty in African American Culture

By crystal am nelson September 19, 2011

Posing Beauty in African American Culture, curator Deborah Willis’s latest exhibition, features eighty-four photographs carefully culled from the 2009 publication of the same name. Although Willis offers no guiding definition of beauty here, the exhibition purportedly interrogates how black beauty is imagined, constructed, and represented in popular culture through a variety of printed matter from studio portraits to reportage and historical documents.

Willis’s selection of images indicates that desire may be mistaken for beauty. From Edward Curtis’s A Desert Queen (1898) to John Mosely’s Atlantic City, Four Women (c. 1960), the photographs express the desires of both the photographers and the subjects to see and be seen, to indelibly mark their presence as witness or participant. For example, in Atlantic City, Four Women, the women pose in slinky bathing suits on a beach. Contemporary audiences rarely see such images because Jim Crow laws prohibited blacks from swimming on public beaches. However, as seen in the photograph, these women created their own recreational spaces. With broad smiles, they look directly at the camera, commanding attention and exclaiming their presence in a contested space.

Other images suggest a desire not only to get closer to frightening and confounding stereotypes about blackness but also to demystify and abate those same stereotypes, as in Stephen Shames’s 1970 photograph of a shirtless Huey P. Newton in his Berkeley home. Newton epitomized the enigmatic, fearsome Other, especially when depicted wearing Black Panther regalia. Dressed in only white jeans and holding a Bob Dylan record, Newton here is transformed from a threat to just another man.

Newton and the other subjects are attractive, but it is difficult to identify a specific articulation of black beauty. The terms

Ken Ramsay. Susan Taylor, as Model, c. 1970s; silver gelatin print. Courtesy of the USC Fisher Museum of Art, Los Angeles.

“black” and “beauty” are elusive and continuously debated in society; beauty is subjective while the range of skin tones and hair textures makes blackness an extreme variable. Posing Beauty may not get one closer to defining black beauty, but the exhibition successfully proves the diversity and fluidity of blackness. It also reveals lost histories of black Americans living “behind the veil,” such as the women in Mosely’s image1. This disclosure of rich, vibrant lives, despite sociopolitical challenges, is arguably more valuable than considerations of beauty.



Posing Beauty in African American Culture is on view at USC Fisher Museum of Art, in Los Angeles, through December 3, 2011.




1. W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, New York: Bantam Company, 1989.

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