New exhibition at David C. Driskell Center: “Posing Beauty in African American Culture”

Curated by Deborah Willis of New York University, “Posing Beauty in African American Culture” is on display in the Driskell Center until Saturday, April 27, 2019 . (Iman Hassen/The Black Explosion)

Curated by Deborah Willis of New York University, “Posing Beauty in African American Culture” is on display in the Driskell Center until Saturday, April 27, 2019. (Iman Hassen/The Black Explosion)

A barbershop in Washington, D.C. in 1941, a pregnant woman in New York in 1966 and a portrait of Michelle Obama in 2006 are just some of the pieces included in the new exhibition at the David C. Driskell Center. 90 photographs and videos of African-American culture, bodies and beauty are on display at the Driskell Center as part of the traveling exhibition called “Posing Beauty in African American Culture.”

The exhibition, curated by Deborah Willis, chair of the department of photography at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, first opened at UMD on Thursday, January 31, 2019. It explores the relationships between representations of African-American bodies, beauty and art throughout history in three thematic sections: “Constructing a Pose”, “Body and Image” and “Modeling Beauty and Beauty Contests”.

In 2008, Willis began the research for this exhibition when she noticed the scarcity of images capturing Black beauty. She wanted to highlight and recover images from different time periods that conveyed the timelessness of the Black body. By going through old photographs in newspapers and pieces from art galleries, Willis was able to highlight previously marginalized art both from the past and present.

“Photographic images supported the ideals of visualizing new images and perspectives about the image of the Black woman and man,” Willis said.

Dorit Yaron, deputy director at the Driskell Center, helped bring the traveling exhibit here to UMD. Last semester, Yaron curated a show at the Driskell Center, and this semester, the Driskell Center wanted an exhibition that was curated by someone outside of the university community. They reached out to Willis and started working with her about a year and a half ago, Yaron said.

“One of the problems there has been with the way we study American art is that the contributions of African-American artists have not been included in the narrative,” Yaron said.

“Posing Beauty” includes works by 51 artists. “The photographers and [their] photographs in this exhibition on beauty refer to my belief that there are multiple readings of beauty and is nuanced in this project,” Willis said. “There is no single model for framing a discussion on Black beauty.”

One of the artists included in the exhibition is Lewis Watts, a professor emeritus at the University of California Santa Cruz’s art department. Watts’ piece Beauty on West 142nd Street, Harlem shows a woman standing in the middle of a street in Harlem wearing a long, white ball gown as she smiles into the camera. Watts notes that the reflections cast from the windows form star-shaped lights on the street.

Watts’ photography  Beauty on West 142nd Street, Harlem . (Iman Hassen/The Black Explosion)

Watts’ photography Beauty on West 142nd Street, Harlem. (Iman Hassen/The Black Explosion)

“I think that media, advertising and fine arts doesn’t always acknowledge the power and beauty of the African-American experience,” Watts said. “I have always tried to capture the essence of those qualities while not spending very much time thinking about the stereotypes.”

Other artists in the exhibition include Anthony Barboza, Jessica Ingram, Robert Sengstacke and Lola Flash.

When I asked Willis what she hoped this exhibition portrayed about African-American beauty, she said she hopes that viewers would explore “the photographers’ fascination with Black joy, pleasure, and beauty.

She wants people to see her project as a vision of Toni Morrison’s words: “Beauty was not simply something to behold; it was something one could do.”