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 Harris’ Miss 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 Woods’ The 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.