“Black Is Beautiful: The Photography of Kwame Brathwaite” will be on view at Reynolda House Museum of American Art February 5-May 8, 2022. “Black Is Beautiful” is the first major exhibition to focus on this central figure of the second Harlem Renaissance whose art popularized the “Black Is Beautiful” cultural movement that began in the 1960s in the United States.
I reviewed Kwame Brathwaite “Black is Beautiful” at Forbes.com in the summer of 2020 when the show was in South Carolina.
Through more than forty iconic photographs of Black men and women with natural hair and clothes that reclaimed their African roots, “Black Is Beautiful” reflects how Brathwaite—inspired by the writings of famed activist and black nationalist Marcus Garvey—used his art to effect social change in the late 1950s and 1960s.
“It was a time when people were protesting injustices related to race, class and human rights around the globe,” Brathwaite said. I focused on perfecting my craft so that I could use my gift to inspire thought, relay ideas and tell stories of our struggle, our work, our liberation.”
Along with his brother Elombe Brath (1936–2014), Brathwaite—known as the “keeper of the images”—co-founded two organizations that were instrumental in realizing his vision: the African Jazz-Art Society and Studios (AJASS), a collective of artists, playwrights, designers, and dancers, in 1956; and Grandassa Models, a creative collective of Black women, in 1962. Brathwaite also helped organize fashion shows showcasing clothes designed by the models themselves, created stunning portraits of jazz luminaries, and captured behind-the-scenes photographs of the Black arts community, including Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln and Miles Davis.
During an era when segregation prevailed across the United States, Brathwaite’s body of work is remarkable for challenging mainstream beauty standards that excluded people of color and addressing how white conceptions of beauty and body image affected Black women.
“At Reynolda, we strive to offer inclusive and meaningful experiences that celebrate and connect every voice,” Allison Perkins, executive director, Reynolda House, said. “To that end, we are incredibly grateful for the opportunity to showcase the work of a photographer and social force who empowered an important global movement in Black history.”
The eight-venue national tour, organized by Aperture, of “Black Is Beautiful” was launched in 2019 to critical acclaim. After Reynolda, it will continue on to the New York Historical Society followed by the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Reynolda House is the only venue for the exhibition in North Carolina.
In addition to Brathwaite’s photographs, the exhibition will display garments worn during fashion shows, as well as a selection of ephemeral materials. Jazz music of the era will also play in the Gallery.
Tickets to the exhibition are available on www.reynolda.org/beautiful.
About the Artist
Born in Brooklyn in 1938 and raised in the Bronx, New York, Brathwaite spent most of his adult life in and around New York. In the late 1950s, Brathwaite and his brother Elombe Brath became active in the African Nationalist Pioneer Movement led by Carlos Cooks. At the same time, the brothers regularly produced and promoted concerts and art shows at venues such as Club 845 in the Bronx and Small’s Paradise in Harlem, while Brathwaite photographed the events.
Throughout the 1960s, Brathwaite contributed photography to leading Black publications such as the Amsterdam News, City Sun and Daily Challenge. By the 1970s, Brathwaite was a leading concert photographer, helping to shape the images of major celebrities, including Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley, James Brown and Muhammad Ali. Brathwaite wrote about and photographed such landmark events as the Motown Revue at the Apollo in 1963, WattStax 1972, the Jackson 5’s first trip to Africa in 1974 and the Festival in Zaire in 1974.
Today Brathwaite resides in New York and is represented by Philip Martin Gallery in Culver City, California. He is married to Sikolo Brathwaite, a former Grandassa model whom he met through their work together. She continues to advocate for the empowerment of Black women today. Their son, Kwame S. Brathwaite, is currently the director of the Kwame Brathwaite Archive in Pasadena, California.