DETROIT – This fall, the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), in collaboration with Aperture traveling exhibitions, presents Black Is Beautiful: The Photography of Kwame Brathwaite, featuring more than 40 black-and-white and color works by Brathwaite, an influential activist, photographer and co-founder of the African Jazz-Arts Society and Studios (AJASS). The show opened October 8 and continues through January 16, 2022.
Black Is Beautiful: The Photography of Kwame Brathwaite features studio portraits and behind-the-scenes images of Harlem’s artistic community during the 1960s, including Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln. This show is an exploration of Brathwaite’s life and work, on display for the first time at the DIA. This exhibition is free with museum admission, which is always free for residents of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties.
Inspired by the writings of activist and Black Nationalist Marcus Garvey, Brathwaite, along with his brother, Elombe Brath, founded the AJASS, a collective of artists, playwrights, designers, and dancers. Black Is Beautiful includes photographs featuring members of AJASS, as well as jazz musicians who the group promoted, in addition to photographs taken on the streets of Harlem, New York, and portraits of AJASS members wearing African-inspired clothing and natural hair styles. AJASS would later organize Black fashion shows and found the Grandassa models, a Black modeling troupe.
In the early 1960s, the Black is Beautiful movement gained popularity as a response to the lack of Black beauty standards in U.S. and Western culture. In 1962, AJASS organized and debuted Naturally ‘62, a fashion show dedicated to challenging Western predominantly white beauty standards which featured the Grandessa Models — the subject of much of the show’s contents — a modeling agency for Black women. Due to its popularity in Harlem, the fashion show was taken on the road to other cities in the U.S., including Detroit, where in 1963, Detroit nightclub Mr. Kelley’s Lounge, hosted Naturally 63.
Nancy Barr, the DIA’s James Pearson Duffy Curator of Photography and Department Head, worked with Aperture to bring the exhibition to Detroit. She notes, “through these remarkable photographs, Brathwaite brings to life the stories and history of Black culture in America when creative individuals used music, art and fashion as catalysts for activism.” Brathwaite’s love of jazz inspired YouTube and Spotify playlists curated by Barr for the DIA. Links to these and other online offerings, including educator resources, will be available on the museum’s website and social media channels.
The exhibition has three sections that highlight Brathwaite’s photographic interests from the late 1950s through 1970. Part one features portraits of Brathwaite and members of AJASS, and follows the photographer’s work made at Harlem jazz clubs and festivals in New York City. In another section of the exhibition, dubbed Think Black, Buy Black, Brathwaite celebrates this Garvey-inspired movement with photographs of people and places where Black economic independence, political consciousness and self-representation can be seen.
His portraits of friends and AJASS members in African-inspired dress and with African art, as well as photographs of shops and storefronts where Black-owned businesses were active, are included. The Grandassa Models are a large part of the exhibition, and are the focus of its third section that features studio fashion portraits, promotional poster designs and album cover art with photographs of Grandassa models by Brathwaite, as well as original African-inspired jewelry and clothing and images taken at the Naturally shows.
Visit the website of the Detroit Institute of Arts and see its dedicated page for Black is Beautiful: The Photography of Kwame Brathwaite.