‘Black is Beautiful’ Exhibit Opens at Blanton Museum of Art

Published on June 25, 2021

blanton museum of art black woman in beaded headpiece

Two new exhibits are coming to the Blanton Museum of Art on June 27th — Black Is Beautiful: The Photography of Kwame Brathwaite and Suzanne Bocanegra: Valley. Featuring the work of activist and photographer Kwame Brathwaite, Black is Beautiful will explore the fascinating time of the second Harlem Renaissance during the 1950s and 60s.

The exhibit will be the first ever solely dedicated to showcasing Brathwaite’s work, and will highlight the ways in which he was a key figure of the artistic revolution happening in Harlem and the Bronx at the time. Having used his work to popularize the slogan “Black is Beautiful,” and drive social change, the photographer’s messages are still incredibly topical and relevant today.

New Exhibit at Blanton Museum of Art Offers a Window into History

Claire Howard, an organizer of the exhibit and the Blanton assistant curator of modern and contemporary art, says the exhibit will provide viewers a glimpse into a fascinating time in the country’s history.

“Brathwaite’s photography offers a window into a particular time and place that makes this exhibition historically rich, but his message and activism resonate today,” she says. “I’m excited to connect the exhibition to University of Texas faculty expertise and our local creative community to underscore the continued relevance of Brathwaite’s ideas.”

image of black woman dancing in Blanton Museum of Art
Kwame Brathwaite, Grandassa Model onstage, Apollo Theater, Harlem, ca. 1968; from Kwame Brathwaite: Black Is Beautiful (Aperture, 2019) | Courtesy the artist and Philip Martin Gallery, Los Angeles.

‘Black Is Beautiful’ Exhibit Showcases Brathwaite’s Career

The exhibit features over 40 photographs shot by Brathwaite, as well as artifacts like jewelry, clothing, album covers and vintage posters. It traces the artist’s lineage from the time he and his brother Elombe Brath founded a collective of artists called the African Jazz Arts Society and Studios (AJASS), to documenting the stories of the Black leaders who fought to challenge the status quo.

Brathwaite began his career as a concert photographer at the AJASS shows, where he shot musical greats like Max Roach and Miles Davis. Imagery from the vibrant music and arts gatherings of the time is showcased prominently in the exhibit, illustrating the photographer’s involvement in the cultural changes that were taking place.

Brathwaite Challenged Beauty Norms of the Era

The photographer and his brother also founded the Grandassa Models, a collective of Black women in the area who embraced their natural hairstyles and African ancestry, opposing the beauty norms of the era. Captivating images of the models shot in studios, galleries and real-world settings are featured strongly in the exhibit.

Visitors will also be able to read the first-ever monograph written about Brathwaite’s life and work, featuring over 80 images and essays by other artists. The exhibit was organized by the not-for-profit group, Aperture, as well as Brathwaite’s son, Kwame S. Brathwaite.

image of black man filming in Blanton Museum of Art
Kwame Brathwaite, Self-portrait, African Jazz-Art Society & Studios (AJASS), Harlem, ca. 1964; from Kwame Brathwaite: Black Is Beautiful (Aperture, 2019) | Courtesy the artist and Philip Martin Gallery, Los Angeles.

Blanton Museum of Art Hosting Events to Discuss Exhibit

Also offered in tandem with the exhibit, the Blanton Museum of Art is holding two separate events: Black Is Beautiful in the Instagram Age, a virtual conversation featuring local photographers discussing activism and social media, taking place on July 13th.

A UT Faculty Panel that includes Brathwaite’s son will discuss contextualizing Black Is Beautiful on September 7th. More details will be announced soon on the Blanton Museum of Art website.

‘Valley’ Exhibit Explores Judy Garland’s Life Story

Valley, the other exhibit hitting the gallery on June 27th, takes the form of a video installation that features eight women re-enacting Judy Garland’s wardrobe test for the 1967 cult film Valley of the Dolls. The exhibit offers a new take on the actor’s life story, highlighting the exploitation of women in Hollywood culture.

Garland was fired from the set of the film just days into filming. She took the costumes with her and wore them until her death in 1969. The wardrobe test is the only footage of Garland from the film that survives. “In it, she seems fragile as she poses awkwardly in a series of outfits. Despite having grown up a star, she appears self-conscious and unsure of herself in front of the camera,” the exhibit description reads.

Blanton director Simone Wicha says both exhibits fuse art and activism together in a compelling way: “Although Brathwaite’s and Bocanegra’s works are quite different in format and content, both point to important questions about empowerment in contemporary visual culture. We hope these exhibitions and related public programs resonate with our community, expanding perspectives and inspiring thoughtful dialogue.”

Both exhibits will be on display until September 19th, 2021.

a group of black models in the 60s at blanton museum of art
Kwame Brathwaite, Photo shoot at a public school for one of the AJASS-associated modeling groups that emulated the Grandassa Models and began to embrace natural hairstyles. Harlem, ca. 1966; from Kwame Brathwaite: Black Is Beautiful (Aperture, 2019) | Courtesy the artist and Philip Martin Gallery, Los Angeles.

More Fun Things to Do in Austin

Looking for more fun things to do in Austin? If you’re keen to see Vincent Van Gogh’s artwork like you’ve never seen it before, Beyond Van Gogh opens on June 25th and provides an immersive experience into the world of the legendary painter.

If you want to watch soccer and get a dose of culture at the same time, Austin FC has commissioned a set of rotating murals to be showcased during their home matches, all in support of local artists

Music lovers can attend a free outdoor concert series in Austin every Thursday until September 9th. And film buffs should check out the summer classic film series at The Paramount Theatre. 

Lead Image: Kwame Brathwaite, Sikolo Brathwaite wearing a headpiece designed by Carolee Prince, African Jazz-Art Society & Studios (AJASS), Harlem, ca. 1968; from Kwame Brathwaite: Black Is Beautiful (Aperture, 2019). Courtesy the artist and Philip Martin Gallery, Los Angeles.  

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The Author
Mackenzie Patterson is a Toronto-based writer and journalist. She enjoys long walks, iced coffee on tap, and discovering all the latest and greatest health and wellness trends.