Seeing Beauty in Difference Project is Semi Finalist in National Challenge

How It Came to Be and Where It Is Going

Juliette Harris

Taylor Matthews, Hampton University forensic chemistry major and participant in HU Hair Art Project, Fall 2012IRAAA+’s Seeing Beauty in Difference project is a semi-finalist for a 2013 national challenge sponsored by EmcArt’s Artsfwd initiative to promote next best practices for art organizations.  IRAAA’s challenge is engaging artists, art historians and other visual arts professionals – people who have mastered the art of seeing – in interactive exchanges with the general public throughout Africa and the African Diaspora about developing an empowering, balanced, aesthetic philosophy for black people, particularly, women.

It’s complex challenge because of the broad range of physical appearance of people who identify as African or as having African ancestry.  African-descended people are not a monolith.  However, in the 21st century global village, black girls and young women around the world look to the same renowned models – African American female entertainers and Michelle Obama – for aesthetic cues.  Such high-profile black women spend extraordinary time, energy and money to achieve and maintain their polished glam and have an array of stylists and other assistants always at the ready.

In response to the black feminine aesthetic tyranny that has spontaneously arisen and aggregated from mass communications, Seeing Beauty in Difference intends use global communications in ways that contribute to the formulation of  a more equitable black feminine aesthetic. The “different” beauty that the project will encourage people to see is beauty that deviates from a monolithic, aesthetic norm. It’s possible to do this while maintaining an appreciation of familiar forms of beauty.

The project goal is to engage visual arts professionals in a global exchange with the rest of us to collectively formulate a pluralistic aesthetic for black women based on the broad diversity of their appearance and to provide support for women and girls to incorporate the philosophy into their lives.

Rae Wynn-Grant & Obadele Davis, just married.

It’s extremely difficult to parce and decide questions of black feminine aesthetics.  The calculus of exponential and logarithm equations is usually less mind-bending.

Zainab Mustapha & Morgan Tapp, Hampton University, May 2013A description of the Seeing Beauty in Difference project referred to a tendency among black women to dislike the African character of their features.  That’s the quick take.  Look deeper and you see, for example, that it’s not that black women tend to dislike the coiling pattern of their hair – it’s okay on black men and baby girls.  It’s just that many find it difficult to style in its natural state.  And women who like to “do” hair believe that straightened hair can be styled more versatilely and creatively than coiled hair in its drawn up state.  Simplistic discussions of black feminine aesthetic issues easily can devolve to imply they suffer some self-hatred and that's plain wrong.


Look even deeper and you find that any hair style that accentuates the African aspect of their facial structure and features is, at least, sublimally — be it short and natural or long, straight and pulled severely back from the face – is generally less appealing to black women than styles that minimize the African character of their features. 

And how to include significantly less African looking women in the conversation?  One of our black woman friends with naturally long, straight hair says she felt that she didn’t “belong” when her buds launched into discussions of their  “issues.”

Rae and mom Toni before the weddingAnd on and on….. every aesthetic aspect of  African American femininity has complex layers and sub-layers of perception and meaning.

How to we begin to untangle this complex knot of favorable and negative feelings that we have about ourselves and others have about us?

The Seeing Difference in Beauty project began in questions that had no easy answers.  It’s dedicated to the proposition that all women are endowed with infinite possibilities to achieve beauty.   And it seeks to counteract the massive, social conditioning — particularly from mass media — that discourages people from seeing black women’s many types of physical attributes as beautiful in their own different ways.

One of the seeds of the project was an observation made by a Ghanaian artist  who teaches art at Hampton University.  Kwabena Ampofo-Anti says that women in Africa, responding to massive Western media influences, “want to look like Beyonce,” and develop beauty strategies to emulate her look. 

Beyonce attracts immense, global admiration because of her enormous sensitivity, grace and talent as well as her fabulous looks.  Seeing Beauty in Difference seeks to bring such high, international visibility and admiration to black women representing the full spectrum of our beauty and contribute to establishing it in the public mind.

We all know how to see familiar forms of beauty.  There’s no way those deeply entrenched pathways in our visual cortex will be unhinged from the concept of beauty in our minds. 

Seeing Beauty in Difference seeks to expand that established concept of beauty through a global interaction.  The challenge?  To develop a collective black feminine aesthetic for the 2lst century that can be adapted to fit the broad spectrum of our physical and cultural diversity.

As part of our interaction, we’ll consider principles of aesthetics and look at various forms of visual art to enrich our visual sensibilities.

Valinda Davis (left), mother of the groom, greets guests

Once Upon A Time….

Once Upon A Time in the queendom of Manteo there was small, but within it vast and enchanted, estate where the full spectrum of black beauty was on display. Or at least that’s how this charming scene in Toni's backyard on Manteo Avenue seemed. 

It's Rae and Oba’s wedding day.  Gamine Rae, the bride, with large doe eyes and delicate features and soon-to-be-French-braided-and-tucked hair.  Her wedding dress of elegant tatters hangs nearby.

Rae’s mom, Toni, sits between Rae’s knees to get her hair styled.

But it’s only one hour to the wedding so why isn’t Rae getting dressed???!!!

Toni didn’t like the way the hairdresser styled her hair -- too set.  “I look like Maya Angelou,” she moaned.  Maya’s look is that classic, simple style of deaconesses and other mature black women pillars of the community.  But it’s not how quasi-artsy-chic, quasi-classy/stylish in a quasi-earth-mother way, Toni sees herself. 

 11:25 a.m.  The wedding is at noon.  While guests gather in garden below, Rae, still in sweats, is twisting her mom’s soft grey hair on the third floor.

We open, we learn, Toni reflects.  We put our heads back, we tilt our chins down, energy passes one to another.

Girrrrl, go on and get dressed!, her attendants think but anxiously hold their words. 

Meantime, over at Magnolia House, the scene is serene. Abiodun, the father of the groom, his head adorned with a kofia, bends to the task of securing Oba’s  gold cuff links.  Oba looks on in equanimity, nearly perfect.  This tender task binds them in the midst of momentous change.

 Obadele, the name he was given at birth, means “prince” and Oba easily became the prophecy of his name -- an African prince.  Like many African Americans, Oba comes from a variety of peoples;  in his incarnation,  the African genes decided to congregate in a dominant way.  And he’s always been satisfied with his fine African self. Black men have asserted themselves as all kinds of “fine,” demanded, and to a large extent, have received such recognition.

African women in America similarly stepped out. But sexism and racism tangled in insidious ways to try and trip us up, sometimes succeeding, and we had second thoughts.

The one billion and one (and counting) associations in Western societies linking beauty in black women to a limited quotient of African features spread out around the world.  Now the challenge falls to us to collectively reconstruct an Africanesque femininity as part of affirming an diversity of African diasporan appearance that ranges from African to Caucasian.

Groom's father and sister, Abiodun Oyewole & Aina Oyewole-WilliamsWhat’s been most wounding is that the tangle of biases against Africanesque femininity, not only was inculcated into black men, some ran with it, routinely spurning women who look as African as themselves.

But some sistas could give less than a microdamn about being abandoned by black men. With the flourishing of an aesthetic democracy in the U.S. lesbian community, same sex orientations will continue to be viable means for love and committed relationships in the larger society which is still a long way off from being an aesthetic democracy!

Meanwhile in Manteo

Toni’s hair’s sprouts lively thimbleberries, Rae slips into her dress, and the wedding procession begins.

Walk through a portal into a backyard filled with two hundred heads of 21st century spring. Most weddings are like this. People dress and do their hair. We get a ‘do, get our hair done, get “did.”  In the queendom, a democracy of beauty prevails.  Jessica’s shades-of-brown cloud afro, Dani’s short, straight cap, Sowande’s dark, dense, sculpted micros, women over 50 in natural freedom, Asian women, white women, everybody peaking beauty reflecting this love bomb union under a diva cherry tree.

Musical offerings were by a singer Melodie (true to her name) Davis and violinist, Kersten Stevens.

Melodie‘s assymetrical do is a testament to the wizardry of black hair stylists who straighten and cut hair to sharp, chic precision.  Short n’ sassy evolutions of now-classic styles like Diaham Carroll’s 1967 “Julia” do.  Gotta snip those points by the ears just right.

Violinist  Kersten Steven’s presentation of herself as a creative work of art is a part of her performance.  Pink-magenta (fushia?) touches to a black and white striped dress and lime-colored high heels. Hair that she Kersten Stevens performing at weddingshapes into various sculptural styles is a continual work of art in progress. Hair in sideways twists for the wedding; the next day, large tops knots.  Meet this multi-talented jazz and gospel violist and view her long history of creative style right here.

The cherry tree had been in full flower two weeks below and still courses with life as the bride and groom take their vows beneath it.

The sap is rising, the old folks used to say in early spring.  Estrogen in overdrive to jumpstart the next generation and irrepressible young women expressing themselves as 57 varieties of beautiful on that April 28, 2013 day.

One of them is Doris Dupuy of the lush full features and renegade ‘fro representing 21st century Africanesque attitude.

Wedding guest Doris DupuyVarious kinds of twists on women of all ages… and all manner of locs & fros… and the mellow chords from the traditional soft page boys of the young TCB ladies…. and the funky cornrows of the lite-skin DJ sista.  The bride’s grandmother, Loretta,  or “the Queen” as she is really lovingly known, whose grey/white, former frizz has now grown so soft with age that her Caucasian hair dresser just sweeps it sideways from back to front in a rockin’ style of horizontal waves.  The bride’s father’s partner Suji’s short, naturally straight hair and Suji’s daughter with long, wild curly mane.                

The lovely little flower girl is reminiscent of a young Sasha Obama and the all the little colored girls of the 1950s and early 1960s.  The older women fondly remember wearing their hair “out” for dress up occasions,  nostalgia now dashed with concern about hard pressing little girls’ hair.

Following in the footsteps of the ancestors, Rae and Oba join hands and jump the broom, and for the space of a little eternity, they are free of gravity.  Toni’s friend Hermine prays that the strength of their love for each other and the world will keep them lifted just like this, hands, hearts, wills, and spirits, for the journey ahead.   

Rae and Oba’s profound love, like the healing salt-sea air in which they make their vows, blesses everyone it touches, sinking deep into our hearts to carry with us this day, a gift and an ancient lesson to love and be loved in return.

Like a note played or sung by a pro, the moment extends, Toni thinks after the wedding.  She breathes into it daily as the meadow grows where Melodie sang, slugs and worms take over beneath the platform where the two exchanged vows.

One of Toni’s friends and her mother told her she looked beautiful that day. The beauty is the breathingthe collective whole in love, Toni thinks.  And how do we love ourselves?

Loving Ourselves As We Age

Several years after our periods stop, women enter a liminal space of no longer looking uniformly middle-aged but not looking elderly, either.  A very strange place to be.  Their demeanors vary wildly, depending on whether or not they’re smiling and their frown lines are showing, how much sleep they got the night before, the qualities of the mirrors, the angles of light, their moods, and maybe even the alignment of the stars.  “Matronly” is not an option. Yet, as the women of the queendom watch women entertainers like Goldie Hawn trying to hold it all together in the same way they were 40 years ago, they are glad theirprofessions don’t demand that.

The responsibilities of arranging a wedding for 200 guests in her back yard while meeting consecutive deadlines for her consulting work had weighed heavily on Toni.  But after she and Rae traded places and Toni became the child of her daughter, perched between knees, for TLC, the tensions dispelled.   Toni stepped out into the wedding procession looking replenished and grand.

How Do We All Love Ourselves?

The question was answered in one way, three weeks later when the bride reappeared in Manteo, still glowing from her Montreal honeymoon.  Some of the women of the queendom were were discussing the Seeing in Doris DupuyBeauty project and the “w” word was mentioned with reference to Rae’s hair which was now brushing her breasts.  Yes, the demure, braided style of her wedding day involved hair from a bag.

“… and so Rae, when your mom and I talk about…. er, the “W” word….”  It was hard to say “weave” because of the field day black comedians have had with it. 

Rae shot back: “weave” is perfectly all right.  We could shout it to the high heavens for all she cared. WEAVE, WEAVE, WEEEEEEEAVVVVE!  Whee!

“I've never been sensitive about my hair at all,” Rae explained later, when we conferred about her participation in the project.  

“In my young adulthood have worn braids, afros, pressed natural hair, weaves, twists, you name it.  There are people who say that if you dye your hair, it isn't considered "natural" and even people who say that if you put heat on your hair it isn't "natural" (i.e. in its natural state).  There are so many different viewpoints, but I appreciate being able to have long, straight hair one day (one of my favorite styles is wearing a long side-braid), and kinky hair the next.  In fact, I have an appointment this week at a natural hair salon to take out the weave and get my afro styled so I can wear it this summer.

So I hope my changes can compliment the variety of hairstyles and expressions of blackness that we see in the community."

A cluster of wedding guestsDoris Dupuy’s renegade ‘fro got some of its kick from added hair attached to tiny braids.  Can we mention that, we asked her?

“I don't mind how you describe my hair at all,” Doris replied.   “I love that manufacturers have started to create hair extensions that look closer to the texture of my hair. I fool people everyday. Right now, I have twists and they are so pretty.”

Seconding that emotion, the elders of the queendom are not knocking artifice.  Artifice has always been integral part of beauty.   But they feel that artifice should reflect its semantic root: art and be artfully done. 

So, should this be a two-part principle of our aesthetic philosophy?  Substantial artifice — artificial enhancement — for most girls and women is not essential on an on-going basis. When it's conspicuously employed, all the time, it hinders our journey of discovery towards a fully, self-realized beauty.  And no matter when and how artifice is employed, it should be skillfully, if not all-out artfully, executed?  (This principle of course allows for the exception of people who have disfiguring illnesses, whose unadorned appearance is not acceptable in certain high-stakes situations, and the like.  In such instances, substantial, frequently-used artifice may be necessary for well-being.)

Seeing Beauty in Difference will facilitate the exchange between artists, scholars and other professionals, students and the general public throughout the Africa and the African Diaspora to help sort all this out.    

And so the collective formulation of a flexible, 21st century black feminine aesthetic philosophy begins.....  

Contributions from Visual Artists

The project’s activities will include an art contest to create an image expressing the “Seeing Beauty in Difference” concept.  The winning art work or graphic will be reproduced on one side of a postcard-sized card.   The other side of the card will list the initial principles of the aesthetic manifesto developed in the workshop. The card will prominently show the project's web page URL and list other contact info. In addition to providing information, the card will be a beautiful and intriguing keepsake item. 

The work of all of the contest finalists, as well as the work of the winner, will be posted on the project platform.  Women and girls will critique the aesthetic manifesto developed by artists and others on the workshop panel, add their own comments as appendices to the manifesto, and vote on a collective statement reflecting a distillation of the group's views. 

Girls and women throughout the African Diaspora also will be invited to extend the “Seeing Beauty in Difference” challenge through their own lives and by sharing their experiences with other girls and women.

Also, see IRAAA+ article, Seeing Difference in Beauty via the Obama Women's Travel through Africa.