Black Identity: A Hidden Beauty

“Beauty is personal and political; it can be read both aesthetically and within the context of cultural studies.” – Deborah Willis

Susan Taylor by Ken Ramsay, c. 1970s

Proud recipient of MacArthur Genius Award and Guggenheim Fellowship, curator and author of multiple books including Posing Beauty (2009) and Reflections In Black (2000), Deborah Willis is a contemporary African-American artist, photographer, and educator. She is currently Professor of Photography and Chair of the Department of Photography & Imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts of New York University. She has also taught a seminar entitled “Beauty Matters” at Harvard University. Willis has pursued a dual professional career as an art photographer and as one of the nation’s leading historians of African American photography. She has also curated multiple exhibitions promoting African-American culture and heritage.

The choice of representation on the front page of Posing Beauty is striking and very powerful. It depicts a beautiful black woman, Susan Taylor, editor in chief of Essence, a magazine that promotes black female beauty. The title of the book has a dual meaning: the art of posing for the artist by the subject, but also posing the question, of “the trappings of beauty”. Posing Beauty is the very first photographic history of black beauty, with images dating from the 1890s to the present. It’s aim is to change the way we look at African American visual culture, and to “retrace black beauty through the use of photographs”. Willis celebrates the lives of all groups and backgrounds in the black community: “from the famous [artists and activists], to the little barber shop at the corner of the street, or prom night.”

In her introduction, Willis quotes British-born author Ben Arogundade:  “In writing the history of black people did we forget something important? Did we forget about beauty?” This is something that Willis has long reflected on and served as an inspiration for her book.

Posing Beauty does not only cover the visual, tangible aspects of beauty, but also how beauty is “imagined and realized”. She writes of beauty as a tool for empowering black culture, and more specifically she is interested in the “visual expression of that power”. With the turn of the twentieth century, the era of the “New Negro” came with new ideals of beauty. “Clothing, hairstyles, and education were central to fashioning [African Americans’]  beauty” she says. Her book also analyses the “art, social and political movements of the last [century]” that she believes tie into the standard idea of beauty.

In her book, Willis focuses on something beyond the changing beauty standard itself. African American development and social change are reflected and emphasized in the images. “For centuries, representations of the black female body in Western fine arts and popular culture have been centered (when indeed they appear at all) on manmade paradigms of promiscuity, deviance, exoticism, and other racial and sexual mythologies”.  In fact, for example, in the 19th century Sara Baartman, or the “Hottentot Venus”,  a ‘Khoikhoi’ woman was brought to Europe to perform in a freak show due to her large buttocks. She was treated like an animal or a thing, rather than as a human being. The representations of Baartman are likely an exaggeration of what she truly looked like in an effort to tailor her image to fit the Western imagination . Depictions of her show a naked woman with stereotypically large and protruding lips, an excessively sizeable buttocks, extremely large breasts, marks on the face and very short hair. She was depicted as being the antithesis of the Western ideal of beauty.
Now, Posing Beauty is questioning and trying to change this stereotype. Alongside Willis’s other work, The Black Female Body, the viewers can see how public perceptions regarding African Americans have developed over time. Initially, as described above, the body is in general an “epitome of black female sexuality”, whose purpose is to satisfy the European “appetite for exotic others”. Nowadays, the beauty of the body itself is more accepted and appreciated. Cognitive changes on the perception of African (Americans), in Posing Beauty, are shown by Willis in an aesthetic way. 

Edward Curtis, A Desert Queen, 1898
Alex Harsley, Young Men on 42nd Street, 1959
Robert Pruitt, Steeped, 2011

Each photograph in her book is extremely symbolic as it “opens a window into an entire world of African American life” that until now had been “deliberately excluded” by history books, newspapers, and mainstream media.

“[Posing Beauty]’s photographs can be seen as concepts of beauty defined by both the subjects and the photographers, as well as efforts at self-empowerment stemming from the visual legacy of segregation.”  

In order to pursue this project she reflected for a long period of time on what beauty truly was: is it “tangible? […] Idealized and exploited? […] Is black beauty a matter of conditioning? Does beauty matter?”

She then goes on to explain that as she grew up, her parents influenced her notion of beauty. Her mother was a beautician, and young Willis used to hang around her mother’s workplace and meet, see, and hear different women who still took time every week to come to her mother to get their hair done for “Sunday Church” or “Saturday night dates”. Her father was a tailor and she admired his precise work, from the stitches to the end result and the visual memories he had of his clients wearing his clothes.

She describes “Beautiful… [as] an adjective that we often employ to indicate something that we like. In this sense, it seems that what is beautiful is the same as what is good”. This idea of the esteemed orthodox nature of beauty has historically been represented in visual culture as a caucasian male or female – rarely as a black person. She also briefly explores how “identity revolves around beauty [through the] number of portraits [that] show how black men and women used photography to experiment with varied ideas of themselves and…to honour how they see themselves and how they wished to be seen by others”.

On March 14, La Pietra Dialogues will have the honor of hosting  Deborah Willis, who will be sharing her ideas and explaining her work to the audience. In the dialogue students will have the opportunity to learn more about the hidden and unnoticed beauty of Africans and African Americans. All students are highly encouraged to join us!

By Yimin Wang and Nour Marie-Kemi Acogny

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