New photography exhibit at DIA puts Black photographers' work in focus

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Tyler Mitchell, an Atlanta native, was just 23 when the young photographer got the chance of a lifetime: to shoot Beyoncé for the cover of Vogue in 2018.

Mitchell became the first Black photographer to shoot Vogue's cover. And now that very magazine cover and other images by Mitchell and 14 other rising Black photographers from all over the globe are on display at a vibrant new exhibition that opened Friday at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

The exhibition, "The New Black Vanguard: Photography between Art and Fashion," features more than 100 colorful and evocative new images, exploring not just fashion and art but gender roles, sexuality, even hair. The show is curated by Antwaun Sargent, a Chicago-based writer and critic. A portion of the exhibition showcases images by six Detroit photographers.

"Antwaun talks about this exhibition establishing new narratives in the Black experience," said Nancy Barr, the DIA's curator of photography. "He feels this group of photographers specifically is sort of an informal movement of new photography and Black creators, looking at the Black figure. That's really important."

"The New Black Vanguard: Photography between Art and Fashion," which opens Friday at the DIA, features more than 100 images by Black photographers from around the world.

The exhibition is organized by the Aperature Foundation. Barr said when you look at fashion, the photographers are working and collaborating with models and stylists. 

"Some of the photographers do the whole thing themselves," she said. "Some are DIY-ing it. Some of them have created their own magazines just to get their work out there, create these new narratives and create a whole new world of print media that is more focused on the Black experience. And that is a universal experience."

"The New Black Vanguard" opens at the same time as another new exhibit, this one focusing on a Detroit painter and longtime art educator and mentor whose career has spanned six decades.

"Shirley Woodson: Shield of the Nile Reflections" features 11 paintings from Woodson's "Shield of the Nile" series. It explores the restorative, spiritual and cultural importance of the Nile River as a metaphor for Africa.

Artist Shirley Woodson poses during an interview, Thursday, October 7, 2021, at her art studio in Detroit.

Even at 85, the show is the latest high point for Woodson. She was named a Kresge Eminent Artist earlier this year and 2021 Michiganian by The Detroit News. 

Her Niles series uses repeating imagery in several paintings: horses, shields, and, of course, water. Bold brushstrokes depict activity both above and below the water. In several, women stand in the forefront and men are only in the background.

"You get both a topical view of the water and an X-ray view," she said. "You're getting multiple views."

Valerie Mercer, the curator and department head of the DIA’s Center for African American Art, said the Nile is where many African-Americans trace their ancestors so there's a connection to it for many, "even if you've never been there."

Woodson's "Flight with Mirror," an acrylic on canvas, is featured in her exhibition, "Shirley Woodson: Shield of the Nile."

"So there's a kind of mythology around it — the Nile as an ancient body of water," said Mercer. "It has beneficial, very positive effects on us. The effects are spiritual, emotional. It's making the connection with our heritage."

Mercer said the paintings also are a reflection of Woodson.

"She is someone who has a strong identity as a woman, as a Black woman," said Mercer.

Many of the people in Woodson's paintings don't have facial features so the viewer "can become part of the work using (their) own imagination," said Woodson in "Gumbo Ya Ya: Anthology of Contemporary African-American Women Artists."

"The New Black Vanguard: Photography between Art and Fashion" runs through April 17." Shirley Woodson: Shield of the Nile Reflections" runs through June 12.