New DIA photo exhibition explores photographer's 'Black is Beautiful' influence

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Twiggy was the ultimate "it" model in the 1960s with her short blonde hair, lanky limbs and big blue eyes, but Kwame Brathwaite, a Black photographer and activist, wanted to show the world a different standard of beauty.

Brathwaite and his brother, Elombe Brath, co-founded the Grandassa Models, a group of Black models who were anything but Twiggy. They wore African-inspired clothes and their hair natural. Some wore headpieces. They modeled for an early 1960s fashion show, "Naturally," organized by another organization Brathwaite and Brathe co-founded, the African Jazz Arts Society and Studios, that was so popular it eventually toured on the road to other cities, including Detroit.

Brathwaite's photography, which includes images of the Grandassa Models, is the focus of a large new exhibition opening Friday at the Detroit Institute of Arts. "Black Is Beautiful: The Photography of Kwame Brathwaite" features 42 of Brathwaite's black and white and color photos, some of them large-scale. The exhibition also includes some clothing designed by the Grandassa models and accessories. It runs through Jan. 16.

Kwame Brathwaite's 1968 photo of Sikolo Brathwaite shows her wearing a headpiece designed by Carolee Prince for the African Jazz-Art Society & Studios.

"This is an exhibition that's really unique because it tells a story of a particular time in Black history and Black culture," said Nancy Barr, the DIA's curator of photography.

The phrase, "Black is Beautiful," may be entrenched in American vernacular now but that wasn't the case in the early 1960s. And the Grandassa models and Brathwaite helped changed that.

The Grandassa models were "beautiful Black women who wore their hair natural in a natural style, designed their own clothing, designed their own jewelry, that was all inspired I'd say by '60s fashion and African fashion," said Barr. "They were unique in that they were very much a different beauty type from what we saw in magazines like 'Vogue' or 'Life.'" 

Brathwaite, who is now in his 80s, grew up in the Bronx in New York, the son of Barbados immigrants. A huge jazz fan, he picked up photography in the late '50s after seeing someone photographing a jazz performance. A follower of Black activist Marcus Garvey, Brathwaite's photos also focused on Black economic freedom and liberation, featuring Black-owned businesses.

A self-portrait of Kwame Brathwaite, ca. 1964 in Harlem, is part of the new "Black is Beautiful" exhibition at the DIA.

Barr said Brathwaite was a "remarkable" technician as a photographer — using a medium format camera — who really knew how to light black and brown skin.

"He really just had a sense for capturing a moment and making you feel like you were there," said Barr.

The "Black is Beautiful" exhibit, organized by the Aperture Foundation in New York, is similar to one that was held in California in early 2020. 

Still, many Americans have likely never heard of Brathwaite, said Barr. He was known in New York and Africa — he photographed the Jackson 5 there and spent a lot of time there after the 1970s — but not elsewhere.

"We're in the middle of unearthing lots of histories of artists and photographers who've been marginalized for years," said Barr.

Still, known or not, Brathwaite captured a movement in the 1960s of life and beauty. He didn't coin "Black is Beautiful," but his photos and Grandassa models gained popularity as a response to the lack of Black beauty standards in U.S. and Western culture, according to the DIA.

"I think a lot of people will really be enlightened (seeing the exhibit) about things they take for granted, especially now," said Barr. "A lot of people don't understand how rigid things were back in the '60s with print media and photography and television. We didn't see a lot of people of color out in the mainstream (media). I think it will give them some perspective."

'Black Is Beautiful: The Photography of Kwame Brathwaite'

Oct. 8-Jan. 16 at the Detroit Institute of Arts

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