October 18, 2011
Imagine seeing a picture of yourself on the wall of a museum. A massive portrait of you--flaws and all-- lit up and on display for the world to see. Looking up there at yourself might bring on feelings of pride, delight, insecurity, or narcissism. You may wonder what everyone else was thinking as they looked up at that image of you, captured there forever for examination.
Even though none of the photos on the walls of the Posing Beauty in African American Culture exhibit at USC’s Fisher Museum of Art were of me, I still felt all of these things. The photos spanned different time periods and styles. Some were captivating, making you wonder about all the moments in the subject’s life that came before that photo. Others were just, shall we say…unique. Like Batete Ross Smith’s “Prom Night: Here Come The Girls” series that looked like it was taken from Media Take Out’s “ghetto proms”. But viewing the museum’s collection of photos of African American cultural icons like Lena Horne, Ray Charles, Stokely Carmichael, Denzel Washington, Billie Holiday--and everyday people whose names I don’t know--was somehow like looking at pictures of myself, my family, and my own personal history.
Leonard Freed, 1963, Harlem Fashion Show, Harlem
I thought about my mother’s style when I looked at Leonard Freed’s pictures of fly fashionistas in the 1963 Harlem fashion show. I thought about my grandmother’s wisdom when I looked at the commanding portrait of Carrie Mae Seems entitled “I looked and looked to see what so terrified you.” I thought about my own love of music when looking at pictures of Michael Jackson and Lil’ Kim. And those prom photos? Definitely reminiscent of my cousins.
This exhibit offers a rare opportunity for people to come and observe the vast, contradictory and lush beauty of African American culture. After my experience there I understood the curator Deborah Willis’ statement, “it is important to appreciate the duality of this topic: beauty is personal and political; it can be read both aesthetically and within the context of cultural studies. My goal is not to produce a sociological study, but one that focuses on the aesthetics of the photographers and the posing of their subjects within black culture.” Thus Willis has created an exhibit where there is no judgment hung on the walls of the museum; just the vibrant, honest truth about the culture of African American beauty.
Ken Ramsay, c. 1970s, Susan Taylor As Model
Lyle Aston Harris’s haunting photo “Miss America” (1987-88) depicts a naked black woman, her face painted white, eyes tightly shut, with an American flag draped across her shoulders. This struck me as a true political commentary on what it means to be considered beautiful in America. The photo is hung near another photo taken on the street during the 2008 presidential election. It depicts a man with an extremely elaborate hair cut with Barack Obama’s face etched into his fade, complete with Barack’s smile lines and teeth. Although the second photo may seem silly to some, when put into the cultural context of what the 2008 election meant to African Americans, it speaks volumes about how much love and respect we had and beauty we saw in our newly elected black president.
The Posing Beauty exhibit runs now until December 3rd at the Fisher Museum of Art. No matter your race, I recommend checking this out and seeing if you find a bit of yourself reflected back from the extremely honest representations on the walls.
For more info on this exhibit visit: USC Fisher Museum of Art
Read the NY Times review of Posing Beauty in African American Culture here!