How Photography and Jazz Merged to Forge the “Black Is Beautiful” Movement

Kwame Brathwaite’s photographs fused the two mediums to push the boundaries of beauty, transforming how we define Blackness.

Kwame Brathwaite. Sikolo Brathwaite wearing a headpiece designed by Carolee Prince. AJASS, Harlem, 1968. (Courtesy of the artist and Philip Martin Gallery, Los Angeles)

LOS ANGELES — Black is beautiful.

It’s a catalyzing phrase that radically instilled pride among African Americans and redefined beauty standards around the world. The iconic slogan is also the title of Kwame Brathwaite’s first major museum exhibition at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles.

Black is Beautiful: The Photography of Kwame Brathwaiteexplores the origins of the phrase through the visual imagery he created to promote natural beauty and the cultural flashpoints he captured on film that sparked the Black is Beautiful movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

Kwame Brathwaite. Black Is Beautiful poster, circa 1970. Designed by Bob Gumbs. (Courtesy of the artist and Philip Martin Gallery, Los Angeles)

Brathwaite’s work, which is rooted in jazz and photography, fuses the two mediums into a powerful tool used to shape and promote social change. Among the 40+ images on display, his work not only preserves seminal musical moments, but it also pushed the boundaries of beauty that would transform how we define Blackness for generations to come.

The musician Max Roach once said that “Jazz music is collective creativity,” and within the Skirball’s exhibition, that collaborative spirit is captured in Brathwaite’s candid black and white photographs of jazz legends of the 1950s and 1960s. Music provided common ground for activists to collectively engage with creatives to promote Black empowerment and economic independence.

A follower of the Black nationalist ideology of Marcus Garvey, Kwame Brathwaite’s love of jazz and his ardent support of Pan-Africanism inspired his foray into photography. The artist and his brother Elombe Brath, along with a group of young, like-minded jazz aficionados, formed a social club called the African Jazz-Art Society (AJAS). Members of the AJAS included artists, writers, and designers who collectively promoted small jazz shows in the Bronx featuring musicians who were culled from headlining acts that performed downtown. These smaller, more intimate sessions became wildly popular, and through their heavy promotion and networking, the AJAS cultivated strong relationships with musicians who Brathwaite began to photograph in the late 1950s. Among the many photos of jazz legends displayed in the exhibition, images of singer and actress Abbey Lincoln stand out, not only for her striking beauty but because of her hair.

Abbey Lincoln singing at an AJASS event, Harlem, circa 1964. From Kwame Brathwaite: Black Is Beautiful (courtesy of Aperture, 2019)

In the 1950s, Lincoln was a cabaret singer whose cameo in a 1955 Jayne Mansfield film propelled her into the spotlight — in the film, Lincoln wore an iconic red dress originally worn by Marilyn Monroe in the movie Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. By the late ’50s, Hollywood’s desire to mold Lincoln into a sexy starlet was at odds with the singer’s own desire to embrace her natural beauty. During a time when studios ascribed to Eurocentric aesthetics, Lincoln’s choice to wear a short Afro ran counter to the straight-haired, fair-skinned, prototypical femme fatale. In Black is Beautiful, Brathwaite’s photos of the singer capture Lincoln’s pivot from acting to jazz and her embrace of her natural, coily hair. The singer eventually married drummer and collaborator Max Roach, and in a symbolic shedding of her former image, Lincoln burned the Marilyn Monroe dress in an incinerator, a gesture that’s also a powerful indictment on the pervasiveness of narrow beauty standards.

Original AJASS Members, left to right: Bob Gumbs, Frank Adu, Elombe Brath (seated), Kwame Brathwaite, Ernest Baxter, and Chris Hall. AJASS, Harlem, circa 1962. (photo by Colony Little)

Another series of images depart from Brathwaite’s documentary style jazz photography and ventures into street photography, which captured the pivotal moments that shaped the Black is Beautiful movement. In the exhibition, a 1963 photograph of a storefront protest at Wigs Parisian in Harlem encapsulates two important tenets of the AJAS: economic independence and Black empowerment, which became Continue reading…

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