Canadian Art


Posing Beauty in African American Culture: Colour Fields

Art Gallery of Hamilton Jan 16 to May 9 2010
Anthony Barboza  <I>Pat Evans</I>   c. 1970  Courtesy the artist Anthony Barboza Pat Evans c. 1970 Courtesy the artist

Anthony Barboza <I>Pat Evans</I> c. 1970 Courtesy the artist

In his essay “Repetition and Differentiation – Lorna Simpson’s Iconography of the Racial Sublime,” Okwui Enwezor addressed the complicated relationship between the issue of aesthetics/art history and the black body: for if the black body has historically been deemed an abject body, there is no place for the black body within discourses of beauty in art.

If viewed in this vein, Deborah Willis’ latest curatorial venture can be seen as an antidote to the conundrum observed by Enwezor. Featured as part of the Art Gallery of Hamilton’s year-long “Vital Africa” program, “Posing Beauty in African American Culture” is a sprawling exhibition featuring 93 photographic and photo-based works that collectively examine and interrogate notions of beauty and blackness.

In the introduction to the accompanying catalogue, Willis states that her curatorial aim was not to define beauty but to “consider the idea of black beauty in photography—how is it posed, constructed, imagined, reviewed, critiqued and contested in art, the media and everyday culture.” Drawing on works that span a period of more than a century, “Posing Beauty” functions as both an archive and a curatorial intervention. Willis includes numerous historical images of contestants in beauty pageants, churchgoers dressed in their Sunday finest, candid street photographs and celebrity portraits, all of which attest to a reverence for beauty and fashion in diasporic black communities as well as illustrating the ways in which black cultural aesthetics were politicized in the mid- to late 20th century.

Irrespective of Willis’ curatorial impetus, it feels somewhat incongruous to have images of figures such as Li'l Kim and Denzel Washington alongside works by artists such as Renee Cox and Mickalene Thomas. The strength of “Posing Beauty” lies in the works that examine tensions between race and beauty, such as Lyle Ashton HarrisMiss America, a black and white image of a shirtless Harris in whiteface with an American flag draped about his shoulders. Carrie Mae Weems’ double self-portrait I looked and looked to see what so terrified you also resonates in this vein. The work, which depicts Weems sporting a quilted dress while gazing into a hand-held mirror, simultaneously addresses fears of aging and internalized racism. Lauren WoodsThe Teenth of June Pt 1 is the lone video in the exhibit. Honing in on the final, fraught moments of a beauty pageant, the slowed footage reveals the palpable disappointment of the competition’s sole black finalist upon losing; it captures the currency and power of beauty and racial dynamics as played out within the realm of beauty pageantry.

This article was first published online on March 11, 2010.


  • Great New Wave: Sayonara to Superflat

    While the Superflat shockwave continues to resonate, the influence of Murakami has given way to a new generation of Japanese contemporary artists who cast a more overtly critical eye on cultural forms. Six of these are now on view in “Great New Wave: Contemporary Art from Japan.”

  • Kent Monkman

    While a year-long confrontation over land claims simmers ominously two dozen kilometres south in Caledonia, Ontario, an occupation of a different sort is underway at the Art Gallery of Hamilton.



[an error occurred while processing this directive]


  • Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller: Black Birds

    New York critic Joseph R. Wolin heads to the Park Avenue Armory where Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller are creating a buzz (and other sounds) at the US premiere of a dark, nightmarish installation originally created for the 2008 Biennale of Sydney.

  • Grange Prize 2012: Hot Shots

    One of Canada’s largest cash-value art prizes—$65,000 in total with $50,000 going to the winner, $5,000 to three runners-up—announced its finalists this week. Take in their wide-ranging works in this slideshow.

  • Wanda Koop: Into the Woods

    A visit to Wanda Koop’s cabin near Riding Mountain National Park in southern Manitoba proves intriguing for Vancouver critic Robin Laurence. There, Laurence writes, Koop bridges old Grey Owl myths with a new series of paintings on our increasingly digital culture.

  • Brad Tinmouth: Survival Strategies

    The basement of an art gallery may seem an unlikely place to create an emergency shelter. However, Xpace's lower gallery is an ideal setting for Brad Tinmouth's “If Times Get Tough or Even If They Don't,” which evokes a cold-war bunker.

  • Wim Delvoye: Blame it on Paris

    Silk-covered pigs, lattice-cut car tires and a tattooed man are just a few of the works that Belgian artist Wim Delvoye has shuttled into the old, Gothic wing of the Louvre this summer. Jill Glessing reviews, finding a terrific amalgam of high and low.

More Online

Report a problem