Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the Present
At The Newark Museum
By Anna Yanofsky
Beauty is not the first thing that comes to mind when considering the African American experience since the end of the 19th century. Talk to an American about the black experience since the 1800s, and a host of images related to black oppression (think depictions of slaves, segregation, race riots, and crime-ridden ghettos) are more likely to run through their heads than anything with even a touch of prettiness. In contrast to all of those layers of perpetuated images seen again and again in history books and the media, a snapshot of gorgeous, smiling black women posed on an Atlantic City Beach circa 1960 is almost shocking.
In planning a visit to see Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the Present via The Newark Museum’s website, a stunning black and white photograph greets you as a part of the featured exhibit’s web presence. The photo of four beautiful women glowing in the sunshine on a beach, dressed in fashionable swimsuits with their hair in loose waves is by John Mosely and is representative of a number of the more charming images comprising the exhibit. Curated by Deborah Willis, the show is a physical display based on the thick, 2009 book of photographs she compiled of the same name. The exhibit was first staged in the galleries of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts where Willis serves as the chair of the photography department. Since its debut in 2009, the exhibit has traveled, but the Newark Museum may be its most fitting home yet.
According to the exhibit’s introductory wall text, the photographic and video works on display have been brought together with the goal of leading viewers to examine the perpetuated images of African and African Americans in the media and art. With its record ethnic diversity, poverty struggles, and reputation as a hotbed of racial tensions since the riots of 1967, Newark is an excellent place for ruminations on the representation of black culture and black beauty that span the contexts of race, class, and gender. At over 100 years old, the museum itself has survived Newark’s many incarnations and has posited itself as a “museum of service” acting “in the public trust…to educate, inspire, and transform individuals.” Its mission statement includes a quote from founding Director John Cotton Dana which serves as its guiding principle: “A good museum attracts, entertains, arouses curiosity, leads to questioning—and thus promotes learning.” The photographs lining the walls for Posing Beauty are attractive, entertaining, and curious enough to draw visitors in and lead them to question the images they are seeing. However, that questioning may not be getting to quite the level that the curator intended, and therefore may be falling short of the museum’s goal to promote learning.
Posing Beauty introduces itself as being organized into three distinct sections: Constructing a Pose, Body and Image, and Modeling Beauty and Beauty Contests. The sections themselves are not in chronological order, and the lead through the galleries is gentle but clear. The objects are installed at eye level in varying sizes, but mostly large format. The photographs are either framed neatly or printed onto rigid surfaces. There is nothing distracting or complex about the organization or design of the show. The galleries are painted a clean white, and the framed photos are hung in neat lines or balanced groups that give the effect of esteem and elegance. The arrangement is simple, but full of pride for these works that are mostly virgin to museum walls. The wrap-around lines of framed photographs do their part to lead the viewer through the space. However, this subtle leading, and the aforementioned wall text, serve as the only guidance from the curator that the visitor will receive.
All of the labels in the Posing Beauty show are object labels. There are no didactic labels to be found. The section titles stenciled on the wall are the only guideposts for interpretation once you get past the main wall text, which many visitors passed without reading. In a way this speaks to the perceived power of the photos on view. The old adage says they are supposedly worth 1,000 words, right? So the instinct to let them speak for themselves is understandable—especially in a show that asks the viewer to evaluate the poses they see as texts. However, by not providing any interpretive or illuminating labels, one is left to glean what they can from the photograph, its title, its credited creator, year of creation, and materials. But, is that enough to enlighten the average viewer?
The photographs in the exhibit certainly have a lot to say on their own. Photographs of the known (Denzel Washington, James Brown, Michelle Obama) and the unknown (a diner waitress, a posing group of prom-goers, a pregnant woman kneeling in the grass) show a variety of poses, portrait types, and contexts, and show all types of beauty. Every posture, from defiant to demure is on display; every type of beauty is present. It is all there to be examined, but without some interpretive signposts the examination doesn’t go far enough. Too many questions arose from visitors around the room that had no immediate answers, and should have. Some of the works lost their teachable moments without some explication from a trained eye.
The only non-photographic work on display, Lauren Woods’s The Teenth of June is a strong video piece with smart layers of meaning. The title of the video is a reference to the lesser known but still observed holiday Juneteeth, which marks the 18th and 19th of June, 1865, the days the Emancipation Proclamation was announced in Texas setting the last of the slaves free. The piece is a slow-motion replay of the tense few minutes leading up to the crowning of the first black Miss Texas, the only black woman on the stage. The connections to the little known holiday, the pageant taking place in Texas, and the fact that the woman pictured is the first black Miss Texas are all absent from the presentation. In some ways the piece is still effective, showing the exaggerated masquerade of feminine beauty across race lines. The beauty queens’ stiff, extra-wide smiles unsettled many of the viewers in the gallery. Some college age boys imitated the effusive and dramatic reactions of the ladies as they heard their fate in the pageant, and others laughed as the dubbed-in sci-fi soundtrack made everything even more dramatic. The piece absolutely made an impact about artificial beauty, but without the illuminating details, it lost some of its possible commentary on race. It is not certain whether the expressions of disdainful shock on the fellow contestants’ faces registered with viewers as clearly as they could have had the finer details of the work been brought to the surface.
In some cases, the visitors themselves were more helpful in gaining understanding into the work than the exhibition itself. One woman, who had attended one of the exhibit’s educational lectures, explained a photographic installation piece by Hank Williams Thomas to her boyfriend. She had learned in the lecture that the piece used both black and white photography and color photography to show the difference in the sexualizing of the images as they became color. This detail added a level of depth to the piece that was not on its surface, and would have been great to have pointed out by a trained professional through a didactic label.
Also in need of professional elucidation, was why certain images were shown in their respective sections. Perhaps the organizing subsections of the overall exhibit were too close in definition, but many of the photos could have existed in any one of the sections. It wasn’t always entirely clear why an image of a well-dressed woman was in the Modeling Beauty and Beauty Contests section rather than the Constructing a Pose section. Or, why a modeling shot in Body and Images hung in that grouping rather than the Modeling Beauty section. Many of the photographs could have been shuffled through any of the sections, unless of course there was some detail about them that wedded them to where they were. Some indication from the organizers as to why certain photographs were within their respective sections would have been appreciated.
In spite of the lack of didactic labels, the exhibition was strong. The objects were beautiful and powerful in composition and subject matter. Willis reconstituted the reductive narrative of black history by showing it in all of its beauty. The very first photograph on display served to set the tone of the entire exhibit. A self-portrait of artist Carrie Mae Weems shows her glancing in a hand mirror, dressed in traditional African clothing with her hand raised to her hair. The title of the portrait is, I looked and looked and failed to see what terrified you, 2006. Weems looks to be searching for signs of the identity superimposed on her by the media. Where in this beautiful woman does the stereotype live? Weems can’t find it, and with her extensive collection of culled images, Willis helps you see past it. Taking a second look at the portrait upon exiting through the entrance (the only other exit was through a gallery dedicated to planets) the aptness of its place of honor became clear. Posing Beauty gave viewers so many places to look for stereotypes and find beauty in all of its multifaceted complexity instead.
Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the Present at The Newark Museum, Feb 2- April 28 2011.