Kwame Brathwaite: Celebrating Racial Identity and Pride
Marking a moment celebrating racial identity and pride, New York photographer Kwame Brathwaite took his photograph Untitled (Naturally ’68 photo shoot in the Apollo Theater featuring Grandassa models and founding AJASS members Kletus Smith, Frank Adu, Bob Gumbs, Elombe Brath, and Ernest Baxter) in 1968 as part of the “Black Is Beautiful” movement in the United States. The choice of setting was strategic, as the Apollo Theater was the venue for music, as well as annual fashion events.
The posters in the background speak to significant moments in Black history. Representing some of the best in Black American photographic practice at a critical moment in Black and American history, this photograph is an important addition to the collection of the National Gallery of Canada. It provides further representation of contemporary art by Black artists and complements the Gallery’s holdings of works by Dawoud Bey, Ayana Jackson, David Hartt, Léonce Agbodjélou, Sammy Baloji and Frank Bowling.
In 1956, Brathwaite and his brother Elombe Brath founded the African Jazz-Art Society (AJAS), later to become the African Jazz-Art Society and Studios (AJASS), a collective which, in addition to jazz musicians, included playwrights, graphic artists, dancers and fashion designers. The brothers were very involved with the music scene in the Bronx and promoted musicians and concerts at Club 845, booking rising stars that included John Coltrane, Lee Morgan and Philly Joe Jones.
The “Black is Beautiful” movement was inspired by the philosophy of Pan-Africanist Jamaican immigrant Marcus Garvey and began in Harlem in late 1962 as a statement against the imposition of white notions of beauty. A pivotal event at this time was a protest against a wig shop called Wigs Parisian, which had recently opened in Harlem and marketed straight-haired wigs to the Black community. Brathwaite and others wished to create their own fashion criteria, emphasizing what were understood to be more “natural” examples of blackness that highlighted deeper skin tones, full lips and noses, and hair with kinky textures.
Brathwaite and AJASS member Jimmy Abu wanted to reinforce the “Black Is Beautiful” movement through fashion shows, concerts and other public events. They quickly realized, however, that the movement affected Black women differently from men in terms of body and identity and began to recruit young women to model in community-based fashion shows. This casually formed group of women, known as the “Grandassa” Models – after “Grandassaland,” the term for Africa coined by the Harlem activist Carlos A. Cooks – were a major force in creating an American market for African-inspired clothing. The shows were named “Naturally,” after what was understood to be a more “natural” Black physique, and became annual events. The first show was held at Purple Manor on 28 January 1962 and celebrated these ideas: Naturally ’62: The Original African Coiffure and Fashion Extravaganza Designed to Restore Our Racial Pride and Standards. The standards were also directed against certain elements in the Black community, as they contested the whiter notions of blackness that magazines such as Ebony were seen to promote.
The 1968 group photograph is as much a statement about the “Black Is Beautiful” movement as it is a portrait of fifteen individuals. The ten young women from Harlem, all Grandassa Models, dressed in African-influenced outfits, illustrate defiance of Eurocentric models of beauty in favour of an affirmative attitude towards being Black, celebrating the Black body and reconnecting with distant familial African roots. The photograph also depicts five men, including Brathwaite's brother (second from right) and other members of AJASS.
In addition to the books they hold, the posters on the wall constitute a visual chronology of the history of a community striving for empowerment. They feature, among the 31st August Marcus Garvey Day celebration announcements, a poster (top, upper left) advertising the first gathering on 28 January 1962 of “Naturally.” There are also flyers presenting concerts using African musical instruments (Ngoma), African dance and information regarding African politicians of recently decolonized African countries, such as Patrice Lumumba, first prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who was assassinated only months after taking office. Curiously there are no pamphlets promoting the “Buy Black” movement, an economic branch of identity activism, which these groups also supported.
Kwame Brathwaite, who had begun to take photographs in 1956 and honed his skills as a photographer in the fashion industry, succeeds in making in this rich, historically layered group portrait an image that not only has graphic power but an exhilarating sense of animation and presence.
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