Posing Beauty and More
at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
Four African American- and African-themed exhibitions currently on view at the VMFA plus generous representation of African American artists in the museum’s American art permanent collection exhibitions plus the museum’s other holdings representing cultures from around the world, plus elegant installation design, plus the museum’s striking, new McGlothlin wing expanding gallery space by 50%, comprise good reason to visit to Richmond just to view art. The place is packed with treasures of all kinds so come early, wear comfortable shoes, prepare to spend the day, and break for a meal and eye rest. And, if you visit on a Thursday, after viewing the art, drop by the Museum’s Jazz cafe to groove to live music.
Boldly announcing the Posing Beauty exhibition, a banner with a blown-up photograph of a bald-headed, black woman stretches across the Museum’s front exterior, adding high-charged, visual voltage to one block of Richmond’s stately Boulevard. The hugeness of the banner is a reminder that the hair and head has been a site hugely freighted with meaning on the black female body. (The exterior view of the building shown here is the main entrance side, not the Boulevard side.)
Among all southern institutions, the southern art museum, has been the most open to providing a space for disruptive views and that openness continues with the gigantic banner facing the Boulevard. The black woman’s baldness and bared body are a provocative tabula rasa for whatever associations passers-by want to inscribe upon her smooth, dark surfaces: primal, distasteful, disconcerting, spunky, avant garde, alluring, exquisite.…
The woman on the banner went bald in the early 1970s to make a “black is beautiful” statement and spent subsequent years wearing “store-bought” hair in long extensions. She’s former Essence magazine editor Susan Taylor who embodies a wide range of positions in the politics of hair and identity among black women.
The show’s organizer, Deborah Willis, says Taylor’s bald pose was an act of redefining beauty to a “new identity that defies the desire for long hair or a large ‘halo’ Afro.”
The desire for long hair — every little black girl’s fantasy. The Posing Beauty book and the Identity Shifts exhibit include photos of brown-skinned girls in 1920s beauty salons with long, flowing, pressed hair — portraits which proclaimed, "You don't have to be a light-skinned Negro woman to have long hair!" Conversely, the projects also document how the interface of black women’s shorter, thick, malleable hair and the tools of modern hairdressing, contributed to propelling the evolution of coiffure among American women in general, from the late 19th century Gibson Girl style, through the bobbed hair of the 1920s (black chorus girls in the 1923 Broadway musical “Shuffle Along” helped popularize the bob), the marcelled waves of the '30s, the pompadour of the '40s, the bouffant of the early to mid-‘60s and the subsequent cornrows, extensions and weaves.
In addition to a history of black hair, the project can be “read” from a number of perspectives, including a subjected people’s struggle to construct self-affirming personas, the social psychology of physical difference, and the sexual politics of feminine appearance.
The child of a beautician and tailor (both self-employed), photo historian Deborah Willis has been observing and contemplating how beauty becomes empowering for a long time. Like the photographers she selected for the Posing Beauty exhibition and book project, Willis wants us to think “more critically about the notion of beauty and to think about the consequences (emphasis added) we make about that beauty.”
The consequences of those choices include life and death ones. Beauty is a trick of nature to ensure the propagation of species. When black people adapt idealized, Eurocentric notions of beauty, black women’s proximity to these notions influence their likelihood to find the love, respect, life partners, security and even potential good health and longevity that other women enjoy. Various types of African American women, as Deb Willis shows, are successful in posing their unique beauty against racially-biased notions of beauty — but this projection requires encouragement and support for its cultivation, beginning early in a girl's life.
The Posing Beauty exhibition and companion book are divided into three themes: Constructing a Pose; Body and Image; Modeling Beauty and Beauty Contests.
Deb Willis' introduction to the book shows how poses were constructed and contests were held to affirm black people's self-image during periods when their image was demeaned or erased in American popular culture.
Prior to the mid-1950s, when inexpensive, easy-to-use cameras put photography in the hands of average people, the photography studio was a “theatre of desire” says Willis quoting historian Alan Tractenburg — a place where black people could manufacture pleasing personas. This self-reflecting and self-affirming process was in such demand that Harlem photographers took to the street, as shown in Russell Lee’s Street Photographer and Jacob Lawrence’s painting, Photographer (not a part of the exhibition).
Willis’ intro to the Posing Beauty book counters a negative view held by privileged black people about beauty pageants and beauty spreads in print media. Desiring black-themed magazines that strictly focused on news, public affairs and culture like Life, Look, Time and Newsweek, well-informed African Americans disdained black-owned magazines such as Ebony and Jet for emphasizing beauty and fashion content. Many black women also came to regard parades of beauty as sexist. Willis, however, shows how such beauty displays were politicized, self-empowering, public acts. Citing newspaper photo spreads such as the Chicago Appeal's 1891 "Who is the Most Beautiful Afro-American Woman" and the 1914 New York Age's "The Chosen Fifteen Most Beautiful Women of the Negro Race in the United States,” Willis says these displays were used to counter negative stereotyping of blacks (as asexual mammies, shuffling coons etc.) and also enabled black people to establish aesthetic criteria for themselves. “Possibly for the first time, the black press encouraged their black readers to discuss the fundamentals of what constituted black beauty,” Willis explains.
One reader wrote: "Please enter these photographs in the Beauty Contests, because I feel as if the Flower City should be recognized in your grand and noble attempt to show to the world that we, as a race, have some of the most beauty women the sun has ever shown upon."
However the upshot of this well-intended effort was that lighter-skinned women often wound up being selected as the ideal type of Negro beauty. Moreover, as Willis, acknowledges, the line between women being posed as pulchritudinous and as sexual prey would increasingly become thin and blurred. Maintaining that she does not seek to define beauty, Willis says the photographs in Posing Beauty “refer to multiple, nuanced readings of beauty, and demonstrate that there is no single model for beauty.”
Black people’s emulation and adaption of, and resistance to, Caucasian-oriented models of beauty from the late 19th century to the present can be seen in the approximately 90 photographs and the large photo installation of Jet magazine centerfolds by Hank Willis Thomas and video of a contemporary, multi-racial, beauty contest in slow motion in the Posing Beauty exhibition and in the additional, numerous photos in the companion book.
Although most of the photographers represented are black, the project demonstrates how white photographers such as Edward Curtis, F. Holland Day and Eve Arnold also have posed black subjects in empowering ways.
One of the oldest photos in the show, A Desert Queen, is by Edward Curtis (1868-1952), an ethnographic photographer whose primary subject was the American Indian. In 1899, when he shot Desert Queen, Curtis was based in Seattle, Washington and his model was an African American woman projected to be a queen of the Kalahari or Sahara desert. In an era of proliferating mammy and pickaninny imagery in mass public print media, posing as The Desert Queen probably was a liberating, sensual experience for this black woman who exposes a large portion of her right breast to the camera. Because of the thickness and sculptural malleability of their hair, many black women of this era were successfully emulating the molded Gibson Girl hair style but Clark’s subject, perhaps because she was living in a remote part of the country, was going in a different direction. The fuzzy lock peeking from her head cloth could have been easily tucked in; because it was not, it appears to be a further provocation.
The self-portrait photo of Edward Curtis is not in the exhibit or book and is shown here because, Curtis’s rakish appearance is a good illustration of what Willis calls “constructing” a pose.
F. Holland Day (1864-1933) was the first American to present photography as a form of fine art. His photo of a black, nude young man, seated on a leopard skin appeared in he October 1897 issue of Camera Notes. The photo was one in his Nubian series projecting the young man as a handsome, nubile African surrounded by African props. The ‘exotic-fication’ of the African American figure became a common theme in photography and advertising for commodities aimed at the African American market such as “Nile Queen” beauty products in the 1920s.
As a budding teen in the early 1960s in Philadelphia, Deb Willis was tutored in beauty by older teens and young adults, who were developing new language to fit a new aesthetic. “Beautiful” and “handsome” were too limited and bounded to fit their aesthetic sensibility so they took words like “fine,” “clean,” "fly," “bad” (a.k.a “baaaad"), “tough” and gave them new twists.
“Fine” expanded from meaning high quality consumer goods to connote two kinds of attractiveness. One kind of “fine” — as Posing Beauty shows — is the relatively average-looking man or women who is physically attractive as a result of successfully projecting the self in that way. The other kind of “fine” is the conventionally attractive man or woman who projects endowed good looks with distinctive panache.
The modified semantics of "fine" (unisex modifier), "clean" (masculine modifier) and the like reflected egalitarian concepts that enabled ordinary people to achieve the dream of beauty; it was a process that had been going on for some time but which now had names
Such are the dreams and desires, emulative acts and defiant push backs in constructing African American beauty that are chronicled from the late 19th century to the 21st century in Posing Beauty. The varieties of beauty presented in the show and book are overwhelming — a man in red suit, red tie and red hat; cheap wigs, fake flowers, shiny polyester fabric, phony marble balustrades; every kind of “natural” beauty including large, industrial strength Afro puffs; political activist Stokely Carmichael, out of his sharecropper overalls and dap(per) for days, “octoroon” ladies in fancy dress and deep dark beauties who are reminders that they are “black and gorgeous” not “black but gorgeous” (the “but” having been the default usage in popular expression for a long time), rapper Lil Kim with the blondest weave money can buy, Barack Obama before the hardest job in the world creased his face, and much more.
The project also includes the staged imagery of artist/photographers Lorna Simpson, Renee Cox, Carla Williams, Carrie Mae Weems and Lauren Kelly whose Pickin’ (shown below) provoked a back lash in 2009 when it was reproduced on the cover of Publisher’s Weekly for a cover story called “Afro’ Picks: New books and trends in African-American publishing.” Some people thought the image/text combo had the effect of trivializing black writers.
Another cover photo provoking a firestorm this year illustrates, as historian Barbara Summers points out, that “beauty is a power.” Summer is quoted by Deborah Willis in her intro to Posing Beauty. “And the struggle to have the entire range of black beauty recognized and respected in a serious one,” Summers says.
Beauty as a power of the “first kind of fine” — egalitarian “fine” — has continued to hold true for African American men but commercial- and pop cultural-mediated standards of beauty are challenging African American women’s broadly individualized projections of that kind of “fine.” Instead the power of black feminine beauty is becoming confined to more narrow and homogenized range in the popular culture, prompting the editors of People magazine, who called her look “fresh," to name African beauty Lupita N’yongo “most beautiful” in April 2014 and to put her photo on the cover of its “50 Most Beautiful” issue.
The “Most Beautiful” declaration and cover photo provoked outraged reactions from both black and white men including this final comment in the thread:
I am a Black man and I think Lupita is Ugly. The majority of these individuals behind these magazine companies are white and they purposely push her as beauty when they know she is not. These are the same people that made precious famous. They are laughing behind the scenes. Most black women look nothing like this. I honestly think that most whites have an inferior complex to blacks or they would not push this agenda. She has only acted in one movie and all of a sudden she is this big star! I have never seen Kelly Rowland or Gabrielle Union here. Why? Because they are actually pretty.
The outrage over the People cover photo stems from the writers' lack of visual sophistication and shows why the discussion of black beauty, such as that provided by Posing Beauty, must broadly continue.
On April 27 Willis spoke about her projects at a public program at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. The Museum’s coordinating curator for the exhibition, Sarah Eckhardt, noted that in the Posing Beauty book and exhibition, Willis does not provide visual examples of negative imagery. “In her talk, however, she gave many more examples of the negative imagery of African Americans in the 19th century, as a way of framing the positive images she includes in the book and exhibition,” says Eckhardt. “Also, she included a lot of material from her latest book in the lecture, 'Envisioning
Sarah Eckhardt, VMFA’s assistant curator of modern and contemporary art, also organized the companion exhibition to Posing Beauty, Identity Shifts: Works from the VMFA. Of the relation between the two shows, Eckhardt says, “Posing Beauty provided a fantastic opportunity to frame a number of works in our own collection and to emphasize our ongoing commitment to increasing our representation of works by African American artists.”
Since the Museum’s founding in 1936, the VMFA has actively collected work by African American artists. Identity Shifts presents works by black artists that use representation of the human figure or some aspect of the body (including hair) to explore the construction of personal and cultural identity.
The 35 paintings, sculptures and photos on view in Identity Shifts include works by Robert Pruitt (Steeped), Murry Depillars (From the Mississippi Delta), Kehinde Wiley (his elaborate departure from his usual black male portraiture in The Two Sisters), Nick Cave (Sound Suit), Sonya Clark) Black Hair Flag, Hank Willis Thomas in collaboration with Sanford Biggers (Zero Hour), Trenton Doyle Hancock, and a thoughtful, hoo-doo-like positioning of Alison Saar’s Snake Man with Renee Stout’s Erzulie Dreams.
Photography on view in Identity Shifts includes extraordinary, close-up shots of the faces of Fanie Lou Hamer and Grace Jones shrouded in darkness.
Several of the works in this exhibition were loaned by influential Richmond collectors Bill and Pamela Royall, who like the Rubells, have developed a strong acumen for their acquistion of contemporary African American art. Among African American Richmond collectors and are VMFA patrons are Dr. and Mrs. Lindley T. Smith who donated the Iona Rozeal Brown painting to the museum.
Because there is so much to see in these two galleries, alone, viewers may miss associations such as how the James Vanderzee self-portrait in Identity Shifts is an example of self-posed beauty and decorum by the long-time Harlem photographer and a reminder that his shot of the couple in racoon coats and shiny roadster became a famous icon of not only of contructing the pose but of American style in general between the Wars.
Back on the main level of the museum, visitors may wish to rest in the light, airy atrium area before proceeding on their museum tour. The grey slate floors, chubby orange chairs, broad expanse of glass, and sculptural lines and elevations of architect Rick Mather’s design provide another kind of exhilerating, museum experience.
The Museum’s impressive collections of modern and contemporary art have been systematically developed since the mid-1960s with substantial funds and donations of art from Museum patrons who are major philanthropists.
The canon is well-represented in the VMFA American collection by artists such as Marsden Hartley, Thomas Hart Benton and Edward Hopper and African American artists including William Edward Bannister, Henry O. Tanner (Moonlight Marine), Beauford Delaney (two of the artist’s most well-known works from his American period, Greene Street and Marian Anderson), Aaron Douglas (Prodigal Son), Richmond Barthe, Jacob Lawrence (Catfish Row) and Elizabeth Catlett (Mother and Child).
Of related interest are African- and African American-themed works by Ben Shahn and Robert Gwalthmey. IRAAA readers familiar with 19th-century sculptor Edmonia Lewis will recognize the influence in her Cleopatra of William Wetmore Story's Cleopatra on view at the VMFA. In the 21st century collection, you'll also be interested to note works by a broad range of artists of color including Barkley Hendricks, Kehinde Wiley, Kara Walker, Julie Meheretu and Lalla Essaydi.
You'll also enjoy collection highlights that range from a lavish bedroom from a New York Gilded Age mansion to Ryan McGinness' site-specific, mural commission, a lively melange of motifs, icons and design elements from diverse works in the VMFA collection, Art History Is Not Linear (VMFA). Some of these motifs will come into pronounced view as you view the ancient art of the Americas exhibit.
Continuing on the tour, you’ll find the Signs of Protest: Photographs from the Civil Rights in the 3rd floor photography exhibition space. Signs such as the “I Am A Man” placards worn by the sanitation workers when Martin Luther King came to Memphis and was slain, comprise the powerfully graphic iconography of the Movement. Most the images are in bold, black and white, some accentuating the grittiness of confrontation on the southern protest site.
In contrast to the black and white, protest action scenes and signage is the glowing red neon “Colored Entrance” sign and, standing in quiet dignity beneath it, a well-dressed African American woman and child in a photograph taken by Gordon Parks in Mobile, Alabama in 1956 as part of a series for Life Magazine. The woman’s slip strap slipping down from her shoulder indicates that she may not have been posed. In any event, the master photographer’s shot is startlingly beautiful in its sad commentary.
States of Change in Africa in the Evans Court, outside the African Galleries is a display of two recent acquisitions for the African collection. Barber signs have become a familiar form of African graphic folk art. The one from Ghana acquired by the VMFA, painted in the colors of the nation’s flag and including a flag among the sample hair cuts, exudes patriotism while appropriating African American styles.
Linking human and environmental exploitation, Sammy Baloji’s “Memoire" series superimposes cut-out black and white images of African men taken during the Belgin Congo’s brutal colonial period and superimposes them on color photos of the stark, devoid of plant life, terrains of the mining industry in the country today. On view is a more benign image from the series, Baloji’s Untitled 21 (2006).
African art curator Richard Woodward’s acquisition of this work of contemporary “fine art” by Baloji is a reminder the most of the objects in the the Museum’s African collection are items made for routine practical use or ceremonial use, not “art” made for gallery display. When viewed as “art,” these utilitarian and ritual objects too easily become “curiosities” in the eyes of the uninformed viewer.
VMFA’s collection of African “art,” regarded as one of the most comprehensive in the United States, represents 100 cultures throughout the continent from the first millennium BC to the present. IRAAA readers visiting the collection with young people can use the experience as a way to teach them about the cultures represented by the objects — for example, how masks facilitated community harmony and empowering contact with ancestors and fortified the courage of hunters.
An informed viewing of the African “art” collection is a good way to jumpstart conversations that address the under-representation of African Americans in STEM fields. Most people in traditional African communities were makers. African design and making skills in carving, woodworking, basket masking, cloth weaving, building construction and metallurgy, to the extent allowed, carried over into the skills in carpentry, blacksmithing, masonry, building construction and other trades that black people plied in 17th, 18th and 19th century America — to the extent allowed, because, to prevent their competition with white males, black men generally were not permitted to do skilled work and as the nation became industrialized, black men were denied apprenticeships and membership in trade guilds and unions. In the 20th century African Americans, themselves, in narrowing definitions of high level achievement to a few white collar professions increased their severance of from craft traditions. This point can link the “making” ability of average African people to the resourceful work of "hand, head and heart," in the words of Hampton Institute founder Samuel Armstrong, that provides a strong basis for the development of STEM skills and has spurred American innovation.
Another notable aspect of the African collection exhibition is its striking installation design. The reinstallation of works from the African collection was completed in 2011 and begins with an item from ancient Egypt in acknowledgement that the ancient art of the continent can be considered as a whole and includes ancient Nubian art which is linked to Old Kingdom Egyptian art.
A next step on the VMFA tour could be the museum’s extensive ancient art collection which spans Egyptian, Near Eastern, Aegean, Greek, Etruscan, Roman and Byzantine cultures.
Moving on to the VMFA exhibition of ancient Asian art: in addition to its own deep significance, this collection is resonant for African American viewers not in the least because of the long association between many black artists and Eastern philosophies and practices, not to mention the Buddha's coiled hair style — okay I just did — we call them Nubian knots.
And on to the various galleries surveying superbly-selected masterworks of Western art and design. Questions or concerns? The cheeful attendents at the well-staffed visitors services counter will be pleased to assist you.
A thorough tour of the VMFA would take all day, would be exhaustive and not allow close viewing, so most people will want to plan to return a second day and/or make future visits.
The museum is open 365 days a year; admission to all of the permanent exhibitions is free. Tickets are required for the Posing Beauty and Identity Shifts shows (($10; $8 seniors 65+, adults groups 10+, students with ID and youth ages 17.) Additional information is here.
Posing Beauty in African American Culture and Identity Shifts, April 26 - July 27, 2014; Signs of Protest: Photographs from the Civil Rights Era, Jan. 1 - September 7, 2014; States of Change in Africa, April 26-July 2, 2014, in the Evans Court, outside the African Galleries. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond.
— Juliette Harris
Of Related Interest
To extend the making/designing/building-STEM teaching opportunity afforded by viewing the VMFA African collection, you can visit Richmond’s Jackson Ward section, an easy, quick drive from the Museum.
African Americans designed and constructed a number of the buildings in Jackson Ward including the house at 304 West Leigh Street in the 1850s, the Ebenezer Baptist Church in 1858 at 214 West Leigh Street, the original portion of the 1884 Sixth Mount Zion Church at 14 W Duval St, and what is now the Maggie Walker House, 110 1/2 E. Leigh Street, in 1888, now a National Historic Site. The Leigh Street Armory, 122 West Leigh Street, designed by Richmond city architect Wilfred Cutshaw, was built in 1895 by African American contractor Armstead Walker.
Jackson Ward was a center of African American banking, insurance and other business, fraternal organizations, and newspaper, medical, mortuary and law offices.
The Leigh Street Armory is being renovated to serve as the new home of the Richmond Black History Museum.
Two photographs of women in Hampton VA taken in 1905 by the Boston-based F. Holland Day and reproduced in the Posing Beauty book were a revelation to this Hampton-based writer.
Did F. Holland Day know Leigh Minor or Frances Benjamin Johnston, photographers who were associated with Hampton Institute? Anyone with information about Day's Hampton photo shoot, or his possible contact with someone associated with Hampton Institute, may reply to this query to this email address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Leigh Minor operated a photo in New York in 1905 during an interval in his work at Hampton Institute.