Black Is Beautiful: The Photography of Kwame Brathwaite

by Zoé Samudzi

When one reads or repeats “Black is beautiful,” it is not a position for bargaining and negotiation. It was James Brown’s funky “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud),” Boris Gardiner’s soulful affirmation that “Every Nigger is a Star,” Nina Simone’s lamentations on “I Wish I Knew How it Feels to Be Free,” and Gil Scott-Heron’s rebuttal to the Last Poets’ “When The Revolution Comes” in “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” The beauty of the movement was in its globality: in the resonance of Black beauty across time and diasporic space from the francophone idea of Négritude in the 1930s to Steve Biko’s popularization of “Black is beautiful” in the 1970s to Kwame Brathwaite’s Harlem.

The exhibition “Black is Beautiful” is equal parts time capsule and archive. It is a glimpse into a world of jazz and a political renaissance, creative maneuverings towards self-determinations on local and diasporic levels. Brathwaite’s work is the embodiment of poetics: an articulation and a making real of rarely considered social possibility. It was a leaning into the unassimilable beauty of Negro noses and dark skin and nappy Afro hair; it was an undeniable embrace of the phenotype more prevalent across the motherland than in Black media of the time, inspired by the fact that Brathwaite self-defined as “African” at a time when so many others had not yet embraced this origin as a part of their politicized identities.

Let us consider Brathwaite’s work as an archiving — an aesthetic preservation of a movement, of many moments in time, and of a set of political aspirations. What is its significance in the present? His son, Kwame S. Brathwaite, is the director of the Kwame Brathwaite Archive and co-curator of the exhibition which draws from his father’s unimaginably vast body of work, which will fittingly be held at San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora. In a phone conversation, he described to me the diversity of images not yet seen including his father’s documentation of Muhammad Ali’s training, the Jackson Five’s visit to the African continent, and the documentation of the inaugural Namibian independence celebration in 1990. He feared that his father’s work, like so many other Black artists of a certain age, might fall into oblivion and so he has been committed to sharing his vast archive with the public for the past few years.

Sikolo Brathwaite wearing a headpiece designed by Carolee Prince, AJASS, Harlem, ca. 1968

The Grandassa models — named for Grandassaland, Garveyite Carlos Cooks’ name for the African continent — were the embodiment of the movement’s ideals of beauty. What makes this image iconic? A stillness, a regality, an assertiveness, an aestheticization of dark skin, the masterfully made headpiece (by the very same artist who designed pieces for Nina Simone), and the model’s palpable refusal to believe anything other than the ultimate truth that “Black is beautiful.”

Fittingly, just as this show is born out of a filial love and dedication, there is a crucial element of intergenerationality: a preservation of critical cultural memory in what might be described as a belated widespread appreciation for Brathwaite’s work. Just as Brathwaite’s career was marked by a significant challenge to aesthetic and political convention, the embrace of his work in this political moment is particularly striking.

Marcus Garvey Day Parade, Harlem ca. 1967

Kwame Brathwaite’s artist collective, the African Jazz-Art Society, was inspired by the ideas of Marcus Garvey and his advocacy to return to African continental cus-toms and practices. In 1970, Amilcar Cabral gave his speech "National Liberation and Culture"; in his speech he said that "culture is simultaneously the fruit of a people's history and a determinant of history." There are many grammars of and for imaginings of freedom; Brathwaite's was a relationship to art inextricably linked to a collective sensibility and relationship to beauty, an art for the people’s sake.

Kwame was approached by Rihanna so she could use images of the Grandassa Models as part of the visual rollout for the May launch of her luxury brand, Fenty. One of the images used, — captioned “Kwame Brathwaite. archive.” — is a truncated photograph of three models posing in front of a giant “Buy Black” sign at a 1966 Marcus Garvey Day event. The intimated messaging is crystal clear: there is a throughline between the Pan-African politics of economic autonomy and community support and Rihanna making history as the first Black woman to run a luxury fashion house.

Man smoking in a ballroom, Harlem, ca. 1962

If Black is cool, nothing is cooler than jazz. Nothing is cooler and more imaginative than the community-making, improvisational, foot-tapping, hip-swinging, head-bobbing, sometimes smooth sexy and sometimes big band-y, boundless, polyphonic multiplicity of jazz. Absolutely nothing.

With Brathwaite’s relatively newfound acknowledgement by the mainstream art world (the very same to belatedly honor other greats like Betye Saar, Robert Colescott, Barbara Chase-Riboud, and Faith Ringgold), the tensions of generational reinterpretations emerge. “Black is beautiful” does not necessarily mean the same thing at the end of the post-Obama 2010s (when the movement cry has evolved from “Black Power” to “Black Lives Matter”) as it did in the 1960s and 1970s; and economic self-determination is more likely to refer to Black capitalist ideals than the invocation of alternative economies.

 Kwame Brathwaite’s work presents to us with a beautiful challenge: one that simultaneously compels us to remember these photographed moments and movements and to forge creative futures in embrace of his legacy. As we marvel over what seems like an impossible care in capturing Black people on camera, we cannot divorce his photographs’ aesthetic quality from the politics they sought to immortalize and convey. His Pan-African sensibilities and his aestheticization of blackness — an image-making that illustrated the visual perfection of Afro-descendant people whether in black and white or vibrant color — and his decades long investment in capturing his people for his people.

Through March 1
Black is Beautiful: The Photography of Kwame Bratwaite
The Museum of the African Diaspora